By Sinam Sherkany Mohamad

The women’s movement of North and East Syria is an example to the world

This past weekend, women across North and East Syria celebrated International Women’s Day. Every city held marches and public gatherings. Every institution in our government and defense forces participated. In areas where ISIS ruled just a few years ago, women danced in the streets and celebrated liberation.

It was not so long ago that this day was met quite differently in our country. One year, we tried to hold a public event in the Kurdish neighborhoods in Aleppo. Syrian police — all men — came out in force to stop our peaceful gathering. We stayed in the streets for hours. Many participants were detained for refusing to leave.

Our experience was reflective of our society at that time. Before the war, women in Syria were second-class citizens. A man had the right to marry more than one woman, to divorce his wife without her knowledge, or to prevent her from working outside the home. When women were murdered in cold blood for the sake of so-called “honor,” their killers walked free. Brutality and discrimination were enshrined in law and tradition, while speaking out against them was considered a cause for shame.

Kurdish women faced the double oppression of state and male violence. Women’s organizations affiliated with the government ignored us, denying our language, culture, and identity. We organized in secret to evade security forces, while working within our own communities to prove that our rights as women were an indispensable part of our people’s fight for freedom.

This was not something unusual for us. Throughout the history of the Kurdish struggle, women have been leaders in all areas of society, politics, and life. We know that we cannot depend on any man or any state to protect us. We resist because we have no other choice.  

When the uprising began, we knew that all Syrian women would soon face the same situation. Women are always the first victims of war. And for all their differences, the regime and opposition were united in their hatred of women’s liberation. They knew that autocracy and fundamentalism cannot survive when women are empowered and free, and were equally brutal in denying us our rights in service of their power. Resistance, once again, was the only option.

In North and East Syria, that resistance took the form of a new society. Where one-man rule had dictated the lives of millions, we built popular assemblies where all Syrians participated in their own government together. Where the state had denied ourancient diversity, we celebrated it, recognizing the religions, languages, and cultures that have coexisted on this land for centuries. Where women were once silenced and confined to their homes, we created a women’s army that freed our region from ISIS.

Our refusal to bow down to dictatorship and sexism brought us enemies on all sides. Yet we remained committed to bringing the advances of our revolution to as many women as possible.

In every place that the SDF liberated, rebuilding society meant building women’s organizations. Today, every town in Northeast Syria has women’s economic cooperatives and cultural organizations, women serving in every governing institution, and women-only assemblies that can overrule mixed-gender assemblies on issues relating to women’s rights. All leadership positions are held by a male and female co-chair — no man will lead alone again. Women who face domestic violence and other threats in their families and communities can go to women’s houses, where other women will work to resolve their problems and provide them with a safe environment.

I have seen these changes take effect in person. I was Co-Chair of the People’s Assembly of Northeast Syria when we adopted our landmark Women’s Laws, which ensured social, political, and economic equality, and made it clear that we would never again let men destroy women’s lives in the name of custom and tradition. I have worked alongside countless women from all of Northeast Syria’s communities who have devoted their lives to building a better future in our country. I cannot imagine that many societies in world history have seen a transformation on this scale in such a short period of time.

Unfortunately, the world has shown little interest in supporting our goal. Many Western democracies who pride themselves on the rights and status of their women have supported the militias that inflict terror on the women of occupied Afrin, Ras al-Ain, and Tel Abyad. The groups included in internationally recognized negotiations on the future of our country marginalize and exclude women in the areas they rule. And while international media sensationalizes the women who came to destroy Syria as members of ISIS, it ignores the countless women working tirelessly to return to normal lives in the aftermath of the group’s brutal rule.

I am certain that one day, women all across Syria, the Middle East, and the world will have the freedom to celebrate their achievements like the women of our region do today. It will not happen without continued resistance and solidarity between women everywhere. But in North and East Syria, we have shown that women can build peace and transform society against all odds. With this example, everything is possible.