Liberating Women, Liberating Afrin
One year ago this month, thousands of women, men and children took to the streets of Afrin, Syria, for International Women’s Day. Marching with the bright green flags of Kongra Star — Northeast Syria’s confederation of women’s civil society organizations — and photographs of women fighters who had fallen defending the region, they condemned the Turkish bombs falling just kilometres away from the city centre.
For weeks, the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) had besieged Afrin Canton, one of three autonomous cantons under Northeast Syria’s decentralized political system. The Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was delivering on his promise to forcibly remove the area’s Kurdish population with the help of allies in Free Syrian Army militias linked to al-Qaeda and ISIS. Hundreds of civilians had been killed, as schools, hospitals, farms, and residential neighbourhoods were bombed. No state actor involved in Syria’s war had intervened, with many making a duplicitous call for “restraint on both sides.”
Ten days later, Afrin would fall to the invading forces. The same streets where women had marched in celebration of freedom and resistance were overrun with militiamen, marking their victory with slogans used by ISIS, celebratory gunfire, and looting of civilian property. Thousands of terrified civilians fled the chaos.
In the year that has followed, occupying forces have committed blatant war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afrin. The vast majority of the city’s pre-war population has been driven out, and hundreds of thousands of settlers have been moved in, changing the demography of Syria’s oldest Kurdish region. Hundreds of people have been abducted by militias, while local informants help the abductors with finding select targets with wealthy families in order to extract exorbitant ransoms. Religious sites belonging to Yezidis and Alevis, as well as Kurdish cultural symbols, have been destroyed in a systematic campaign to impose Turkish and Islamic identity on the region. For civilians who wish to return, the options are scarce: the majority of the city’s homes have been illegally occupied; 60% of the city’s economic infrastructure has been destroyed; and individuals with even the most tenuous of ties to the former administration face the possibility of arrest, torture, and even murder.
The invasion and occupation of Afrin has proven many things: an act of aggression, a campaign of ethnic cleansing, and a failure of institutions that claim to defend human rights in conflict. But it is also a war against women’s self-determination and self-organization. This important battle within a battle must be understood and addressed in all efforts at analyzing the situation, demonstrating solidarity, and conceptualizing future accountability and justice for Afrin’s former inhabitants.
Once, a Feminist Safe Haven
Afrin had long been an epicentre of Northeast Syria’s “women’s revolution:” the political and social system developed in Northeast Syria that based the liberation of society on the liberation of women. Women in all of Northeast Syria are guaranteed equal participation in all governing bodies, from neighbourhood assemblies to top leadership positions. Autonomous women’s organizations also exist — both for issues that uniquely affect women and for broader concerns such as media and diplomacy.
As one of the first areas to free itself from Syrian state control in 2012, Afrin developed such autonomous and democratic structures early on in the conflict and enshrined gender equality in both law and practice. The feminist political model that was put into practice there has been replicated successfully in dozens of other cities and towns — to the point where, in parts of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor where ISIS once bought and sold women like property, every local assembly now has a woman co-chair. In fact, the highest-ranking official in Afrin’s autonomous administration prior to the war was a woman, and some of Northeast Syria’s most prominent women political figures — including Ilham Ahmed, the Co-Chair of the Syrian Democratic Council — grew up in this region.
What is more, the famed Women’s Defense Units (YPJ), perhaps the most visible aspect of the women’s participation in the politics and administration of region, were founded in Afrin in 2013. YPJ fighter Arîn Mirkan, who famously sacrificed her own life to destroy an ISIS position in Kobane, was from Afrin. Mirkan’s own mother was one of the hundreds of thousands of civilians forcibly displaced by occupying forces — and who promises to one day return.
But the freedom, organization, and capability for self-defence that Afrin’s women had achieved was something that neither the Turkish state nor the FSA could accept, because building society in Northeast Syria is carried out based on a model that Abdullah Ocalan describes as “killing the dominant man.” That is, destroying the “one-sided domination, inequality and intolerance…fascism, dictatorship and despotism” of men over women. Both Turkey and the FSA embody such despotism. They fight for the domination of Turkish and Arab nationalism over Northeast Syria’s multiethnic pluralism — and for the subordination of women to men.
A Regional War on Women
In Turkey, the Kurdish women’s movement has been repressed for decades, for having committed the twin ‘crimes’ of challenging male and state violence. And where Turkish-backed forces control territory in Syria, women have been forced out of public life under the threat of violence and death. Last November, when a member of an FSA militia in Azaz murdered his own sister on camera and faced no punishment, Turkish officials merely stated that they “advise” the FSA on norms of human rights.
The idea that women could fight for their own existence, determine their own place in society, and shape the future of their homelands, poses an existential threat to this dictatorial worldview. In targeting Afrin, a symbol and example of that freedom, Turkey and FSA sought to punish all women who challenge fascism and patriarchy — in Syria and Turkey alike. They have made that intent evident in the conduct of their war and occupation.
In January of 2018, members of an occupying militia mutilated the body of Barin Kobane, a YPJ fighter who had fallen in battle. The militiamen even filmed themselves stepping on her corpse while cheering each other on. Their act demonstrates the occupying forces’ view of women who take up arms to defend their homes and their freedom: not as enemy combatants or even as ‘terrorists’, as the Turkish state likes to the Kurds who resists its colonial policies, but as objects and property whose ‘capture’ and humiliation, even in death, is to be celebrated. By filming and sharing what they had done, they also sent a threatening message to every woman in Afrin that she may meet the same fate.
Despite all this, and even though international law prohibits inhuman and degrading treatment of the dead, the perpetrators of this crime were never identified, much less put on trial. And horrific as it was, this crime was not altogether unpredictable, when the politics and identity of its perpetrators are taken into account. The Turkish state — itself known for humiliating treatment of captured and killed women fighters — recruited some thousands of former members of ISIS for the war on Afrin, when many of these men had likely participated in the institutionalized enslavement of Yezidi women and girls, which is a practice promoted systematically in areas under former ISIS control.
A Year Later...
Enforcing systematic violence against women continues today, a year after the official military campaign ended. Women have been forced to wear strict Islamic dress, regardless of their own religious background or beliefs. Those who do not comply with the occupation-imposed dress codes are threatened, with militia members even waiting outside schools to harass noncompliant young women. Turkish military personnel even participate in human trafficking — a crime only revealed in a dispute between an FSA faction and local Turkish authorities. Indeed, up to 40 Turkish personnel were recalled from Syria when news of the trafficking ring was made public, suggesting widespread complicity. The pattern of hostage-taking and enforced disappearances seen in Afrin cannot be understood outside of this important context.
Such atrocities show that the only role that the Turkish state seems to allow for women in Afrin is as the mothers and caretakers of the next generation of proxy fighters — as Turkey does not intend for Afrin to be a place where a civilian population can live sustainably in peace. The transfer of rebel fighters and their families from other Turkish-occupied areas, the militarization of public spaces and civil institutions, and the destruction of economic infrastructure and agricultural land suggest that it will, instead, serve as a base for future military operations.
Women in such a society are reduced to their role in the domestic space, where they maintain and pass on the patriarchal system that inspires future wars. In the meantime, any resistance to this system is criminalized by the occupying authorities. The denial of women’s freedom in occupied Afrin is, therefore, an integral part of Turkey’s future war plans — plans that now threaten the rest of liberated Northeast Syria.
How to liberate Afrin, Here and Now
In the face of such a threat, a response to the invasion and occupation of Afrin that acknowledges the attacks on women’s liberation and self-organization is necessary.
First, feminists and the left must express solidarity with Afrin’s legitimate armed resistance. This is not a radical demand, but a basic one. No form of justice will be possible until the Turkish occupation of Syria is ended, displaced Afrin residents have returned home, and the democratic and the equal society – that Afrin’s women built – has been restored.
Second, as the military defeat of ISIS nears, the Syrian Democratic Forces have claimed that they will focus their efforts on liberating Afrin, suggesting that they will strengthen the armed resistance against Afrin’s occupiers. This development must be met with increased support, in conjunction with campaigns for an end to Western arms sales and military support to Turkey.
Elsewhere, the mainstream media and human rights organizations must be challenged to enhance their coverage of the situation in Afrin. Institutions that document every violation committed by other actors in the conflict have fallen silent on human rights abuses in Afrin — and especially, regarding the instances of gender-based violence described here. Organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have produced far fewer reports on Afrin than they did on the conflicts in Ghouta or Idlib, which took place at the around same time. In 2018, just 15 reports on the Human Rights Watch’s website mentioned Afrin, while 28 mentioned Ghouta and 31 mentioned Idlib. Painfully, media outlets have also taken Turkish state sources at their word, refusing to challenge the framing of the occupation of Afrin as a ‘counter-terrorism operation’. This campaign of silence and fabrication of news takes place despite the foreign and regional media’s knowledge of the violent suppression of critical journalists and anti-war voices in Turkey. These institutions and news outlets have a responsibility to document and report on atrocities that have taken place so that, in the future, perpetrators can be held accountable. They must not be allowed to avoid this obligation.
Importantly, all calls for justice, truth, and accountability must include the demands of Afrin’s women. Research has shown that crimes committed against women are dismissed when atrocities such as genocide and ethnic cleansing are prosecuted, and that women are often left out of post-conflict negotiations. The women of Afrin have organized themselves so that they will not be forgotten, creating global solidarity campaigns to draw attention to the occupation, the situation of the displaced people, and the ongoing struggle for liberation. That is, they are not passive victims, but active participants in both civil and armed resistance. And as the primary targets of the invasion, they have the most insight into what forms justice must take, so their demands must be amplified accordingly. Therefore, feminists and leftist activists should participate in media and awareness campaigns organized by Women Rise Up For Afrin, in order to advance this perspectives on the issue and echo the voice of the women of Afrin and Rojava.
Finally, the women of the world should take the lead in staging these demands and calling for justice. The invasion and occupation of Afrin demonstrates that the international state system ‘support’ for a revolutionary movement is, at best, conditional. This reactionary opportunism must therefore be met with uncompromising people’s solidarity. The women of Northeast Syria are organizing and fighting for a world where crimes against women, such as those committed in Afrin, and the patriarchal worldview that enables them, become a thing of the past. Women everywhere must join them.