Manbidj, April 2018 – May is coming soon, and gray clouds are gathering over the dusty arteries of Manbidj, which have regained their animation since the liberation of the city in August 2016 by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
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On one of the main boulevards of the city, only a discreet sign in Arabic, Kurdish, Turkmen and Circassian shows this is the local Women’s Assembly, the entry to which is protected by blocks of concrete and guarded by armed men of the security forces.
“The beginnings were difficult, it was necessary to take into account the traces left by the previous organizations,” explains Mahera in Arabic, a determined thirty-year-old, surrounded by a dozen of other women of all ages and origins. “When the city was liberated, the SDFs gained a positive image in the eyes of people. The comrades then went around the city door to door, and offered the actors of each community to gather and take part in the management of the city. Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Circassians, we are one and we have the same hope for democracy and freedom. The SDF convinced us that we needed to come together. We realized that the system was democratic, that there was no discrimination. Now we really believe in this system. “
After the liberation of Manbidj, the SDF faced the challenge of bringing people together around the political project of the Northern Syrian Democratic Federation (FDNS)1“Constitution of Rojava” the inhabitants of this ethnic and linguistic mosaic, composed of about 70% of Arabs, 20% of Kurds, 5% of Turkmen and a small number of Circassians, divided for decades by the tribal and conservative policies encouraged by the Syrian regime and exacerbated during the three years under the control of the EI, of which Manbidj was one of the strongholds.
“It’s very difficult to change things here. Working on it is exciting, it’s a real challenge.”, says Nergiz Ismayil, with sparkling eyes. She is the dynamic head of the Women’s Academy of Manbidj since its opening, one year and three months earlier. In the areas controlled by the autonomous administration of the FDNS, represented here by the Civil Council of Manbidj, the Academies are places of political training. Those dedicated to women have a more important role, as Nergiz explains:
“The first principle of self-defense for women is education. We organize different activities, courses, discussions on women, children, family but also history for example. Previously women were kept in the dark. They were educated to accept the patriarchal mentality. The violence women suffer, they reproduce it towards their children, towards the people in their homes. It is this mentality that must be changed. Women must rebuild their own identity, emancipation is not to be like men, for they themselves are not liberated. We must emancipate both women and men. “
A discret building on the outskirts of Manbidj hosts the Academy for the time being. Not everyone agrees that women can have a place to meet. “There has been no official complaint, the men that it bothers do not dare to publicize it. A number of them pretend to accept the new system, even participating in the administration, but continue to beat their wives at home. There is a fundamental problem with mentalities. Women have been seen as objects, and the men who see them thus do not want to accept that they are their equal. If physical violence no longer appears in daylight like during ISIS’ day, verbal and psychological violence is always present. But we understand these men, and that the problem comes from their education. We do not seek to belittle them, we also want to educate them and participate in their confidence-building.”
After this preamble, Nergiz invites us in. The Women’s Academy is normally a place of non-mixity. But she has an idea in the back of her head. She says, smiling “For some of these women, being in the same room with a man, a stranger, is also a big change. To ask them questions, to show that we are interested in them is important, it makes them valuable. This is also a way to begin the revolution. Bringing Arab, Turkmen, Circassian women into the Academy has been difficult, as here patriarchy and domestic violence are so much rooted in the culture. A man who does not beat his wife is considered weak. We talk a lot with the women in each group. And we are not trying to impose our views frontally. If a woman tells us that men are superior to the women, we do not contradict her, but we invite her to our activities, hoping that she will come to see things differently by herself – and this is often the case.”
Inside, twenty women of all ages are sitting on the benches of a small classroom, lit by the diffused light of curtained windows. In front of them, standing behind a table near a board covered with Arabic sentences, a young women from the youth movement is teaching a class. On the wall, there are photos of female martyrs from Manbidj who fell in the fight against ISIS, and posters with important figures of the women’s movement, from different origins. In the center, the face of Abdullah Öcalan. “There can be no freedom without women’s freedom,” said the PKK leader who made the liberation of women a pillar of his political theory of the Democratic Nation. Later, the women’s movement developed the concept of Jineoloji, literally “women’s science”, to detail the theory and principles.
We take a seat. Nergiz explains to the audience the reasons for my presence. A dialogue of over an hour begins. In turn, the women who wish to intervene get up and speak. If at first they are few, as time passes, almost all of them will participate, spontaneously. Each time, Nergiz adds some elements about their life.
Thawra, whose name means “revolution” in Arabic, is between 20 and 30 years old, and is the first one to speak. The young woman studied theology and lived under the occupation of ISIS.
“Before, I knew nothing about women, I did not know myself. I was considered an object. I could not express myself in public. I had studied, but here I realized how ignorant I was, I did not know how to play a role in society. We did not realize that we were human beings, and not machines to make babies. Here, I began to realize that I was an asset to society. Here women from different horizons come together and talk with each other, learn from each other. I really enjoyed these courses, and now I would like them to take place in other places, including rural areas.”
Zemzem, 24, adds “I come from a village. I had been taught that villagers were ignorant, and that only urban people were educated.” A woman in her fifties completes : ” Before I thought that educated women and illiterate women could not be together. But I saw that it was possible. Now I realize that women from different backgrounds can work together.”
“What I want to emphasize,” says Suzanne, in her twenties, “is that I studied in the old state system, but it was very conservative. And it was not possible to question the teachers.”
A woman in her 40s came with one of her daughters. “With what I learned here, I now want to educate my children better.”
Fatma, 17, is co-chair of the commune2 of her village, and works on the issue of gender-based violence. A bit intimidated, she testifies. “Before I came, I did not know much about women. I heard about the academy and heval Nergiz and decided to meet her. When I came, and saw all these women from different backgrounds together, I was breath-taking. It is very difficult to participate in these classes. When you do, you are under social pressure. I had an advantage, my father knew the movement, so it was easier. When the SDF liberated us in 2016, he began to study their ideology, he was admiring them. When I came here, I brought four other women with me. Since then, the village considers me a witch. When I became co-president of the commune, I thought of committing suicide because of social pressure. I even received death threats from the mercenaries who work with the Turkish army. But I want to show girls of my age that it’s possible to get there.”
Photo 05 : Fatma
In the Manbidj region, tribal influence is higher in rural areas than in urban centers. Training at the Academy takes 20 days, the last day being devoted to a quick military training. Once completed, most women plan to share what they have learned about themselves. Like Shadia: “I am a teacher and I work in archives. Once completed the training, I intend to pass it on to the women who work with me. I learned three things here: ethics, morals; the spirit of comradeship; humility.”
These women are not ready to give up the freedoms they have struggled to obtain. “What I understood here is that women have real power. We have been oppressed by the system, but now we can change things.” says a woman in her thirties. But it’s a difficult and daily struggle. Malek is co-chair of a commune: “I come from a very conservative village, it’s a revolution for me to be here. but it’s very hard. My husband beats me every day, he punches me in the face, because I work in a commune, and I participate in the revolution. I want you to know it. This revolution is difficult.”
In cases of domestic violence, women can find support at the women’s house (Mala Jîn), an organizational space to fight domestic and marital violence and defend women’s rights.
Shilan, the manager, explains, “Our job here is to solve women’s problems. They are mainly family-oriented and marital. For example, before, men could have up to four women, which is a source of conflict. Another subject of conflict is child custody. For children under 15 it goes to the mother, and the older ones go to the father. Finally, there is domestic violence. If a woman comes and says that she has been abused, we look for evidence, with a medical examination if necessary, and bring the case to justice. We intervene a maximum of three times in one case. If at the end of the third time nothing changes, we send the file to the court. We then support the woman during the legal proceedings. At first we had up to 150 cases a month. But this is gradually decreasing, this month we only had 80. We want to lead more projects, open more houses in addition to the existing three but we need financial support from outside.”
If necessary, the women’s home can count on the help of the Asayish women’s branch, the internal security forces. Asayish women perform the same tasks as their male counterparts, but they also work more specifically on women’s issues. We meet Fatwa, Hanane, Fadia and Rym at the Asayish headquarters. All are between twenty and thirty, one is Kurdish, the other Arab. Their commander, a woman in her fourties, who has the strong features of female fighters who spent years in the mountains in the PKK guerrillas. Called elsewhere by her duty, she lets us speak alone with young women.
“We had to deal with a lot of marital problems, couples were arguing mostly about children. Once we were on patrol when a woman came out in front of us crying, she wanted her children that the father had taken.” says Rym.
Fatwa, firm voice and staring straight ahead, continues : “If a woman has marital problems, and if she wants to divorce, we have two solutions. Either we send them to the court where a judge will take care of their case, or we send them to the women’s house, which will organize the procedure between the court and the Asayish. A few days ago we had the case of one of my Asayish comrade who wanted to divorce. She was at home when her husband came to take their children. He wanted to hit her. She managed to contact me saying that she could not go out because her husband wanted to hit her. We quickly intervened. When we brought them here, he started to deny everything, saying that he just wanted them all together. But his wife said that he was lying, that he was beating her and wanted to force her to give up our ranks. We were back to the old traditions where the woman must stay at home, only taking care of children. But our comrade had already found her place on the ground and in the society, so she left her husband and in addition she kept her children.”
Fadia is in the traffic police. She hesitates to speak, then says: “At first people looked at us strangely. Asayish women have made other women want to follow them, there are women who have been there since the liberation of our region, I have been there for 10 months. But every day our number increases. The way people look at us has changed, especially from the clans. They started sending their daughters to join us, it became like a pride for them. “
Hanane adds, “Today women play a very important role in society. After suffering for many years, we can finally achieve our goal. She goes on telling a story she has lived directly. “We lived in the village and it was forbidden for a woman to join an organization, even more so an armed force. I had a friend who wanted to join us, but her family was against it. They locked her at home. I learned about it. So, we intervened, and she is with us today. She also reconciled with her family.”
The young women have enlisted for a variety of reasons, in addition to having a source of income.
“The suffering we experienced when ISIS controlled our city changed me a lot.” Fatwa says, looking gloomy. “It’s unbearable to see a woman stoned to death, and I saw it with my own eyes. All this hardened my heart against ISIS, against their injustice. When they took control of Manbidj, they started taking the girls. They tried to get them enrolled in order to reach their interests, and for those who did not accept, they forced them. For example, a man in his 60s could marry a 13 or 14 year old girl. If he was killed, the girl was left alone, she had no future. All this encouraged us to join the armed forces. )”
Fadia adds, “My mother was a prisoner of ISIS and when we went to see her, they would tell us, ” and what about we put you in here with her? ” And we could not say anything, they did not respect anyone, they told the parents, “Do not let your daughters go out and get dressed with jeans and T-shirts!” When I saw the Asayish women at checkpoints in their uniforms it made me want to join them. In my opinion, women can work in all fields, be it politics, the army or the press.”
For Hanane, “joining the Asayish, I think it’s an accomplishment for women. Previously it was men who decided, they were the only ones to work in society. But here with our work we prove that women can do as men and even better. If we are here today it is because we love our country.”
Rym adds “For a long time women have suffered injustice, they only had to take care of children, they could not give their opinion, and to fight this injustice I am here.”
To make their emancipation possible, the women’s movement sets up in all territories controlled by the FDSN non-mixed structures dedicated to them, parallel to the mixed structures of society, and which meet the demands of women in various fields. In addition to Asayish, Academy or Women’s House, the Women’s Assembly coordinates all projects of these structures. In Manbidj, it opened in March 2017. “The purpose of the Women’s Assembly is to look after the needs of women. To know them, we will knock on the doors of houses.” Hevi says. “This past year one of the biggest problems for women has been economic.”
Nadia is in her fifties, she is Turkmen. We communicate in Turkish without translator. She sums up what the different women in the room said before. “After ISIS, we did not know what a woman was. When there was ISIS, women did not exist. The woman was crushed, submissive. The woman was seen as a reproductive tool. But after the arrival of democracy, all women have shown their existence. But here we are all the same. There are no Kurds or Turkmen, or Arabs. We work together, we debate together, we all face the same problems. One may have problems with her husband, with her family, but now she asserts her personality, she shows that she exists. Today women know their rights unlike before.”
Twenty women of different ages lead the assembly, divided into four committees: economy, education, social work … “The communes are in the process of being set up, there is a need for women to take the positions of co-presidents. We want to get to the same point as in the canton of Cizirê. It is necessary both to meet the needs of women, but also to work on the organization. The Women’s Assembly operates independently but its work contributes to the establishment of the system. For example, the education committee is preparing to visit the refugees of Efrîn to offer women to participate in educational activities, on the jineologi”. explains Hevî.
Fatma: “It’s been 20 months since komin was created, and I’m working here. I want to help people, especially women here. People have been living under the Assad regime, then the terrorists. We have all seen the difference. The system in Manbidj is still very tribal. For the moment, what counts in the communes is who can do the work.”
The comittee in charge of economy has its own premises. She is responsible for finding sources of employment for women so that they can support themselves without depending on their husbands or families. The two main sectors of activity in Manbidj are agriculture and commerce.
Women work a lot in the first field but are poorly paid. on the contrary, their presence is scarce in the second. “Even if they study business, they end up as teachers”. Ihtissar says. The commission opened a small restaurant run by women who decided to pool their salaries to finance it. She plans to start a textile factory. Volunteers to work there are not lacking, unlike funding. The women’s movement relies on cooperative projects to develop women’s economic activity. Due to lack of resources, in Manbidj these projects have not yet been developed, unlike the other regions of Cizirê and Kobanê.
Manbidj is an interesting example of the expansion of the Kurdish movement’s political project to all communities in northern Syria. Obviously, this change does not go smoothly. Tribes are not always happy to lose their influence nor about the social changes brought about by the self-government, especially the emancipation of women. In January and March 2018, demonstrations were organized by tribes around Manbidj, some demanding the return of the Syrian regime of which they were sometimes auxiliaries before the war. Others have links with pro-Turkish jihadists groups, whose front lines are only 20km away. Several times a week, security forces are under attack. If the shadow of Turkey hovers behind these attempts of destabilization, some also point out the involvement of the regime. Turkey still threatens to attack Manbidj. For the moment, the coalition led by France and the US, allied with the SDF, has reinforced its military presence to dissuade their disruptive NATO’s partner from putting its threats into effect and reassure the local forces about the durability of Mabidj’s Civil Council. But its long-term support is still unknown.
Facing these threats, the Manbidj autonomous administration tries to be as inclusive as possible. On the walls, portraits of Abu Layla, the charismatic founder of the Military Council of Manbidj, mortally wounded in fights around the city in June 2016, are widely present, while those of Abdullah Öcalan, largely present in other areas, are here much more discreet – even if we could see photoshopped versions presenting it in traditional Arab dress, gift of the women of a tribe to the Women’s Academy.
Cadros from the Kurdish movement present here come from the region and speak arabic fluently. If for the moment they are still occupying key positions, mainly at the regional level, they are becoming more and more discreet, or have even disappeared from the base scale, where the responsibilities have been entrusted to previously trained local people. This is a step towards a more democratic functioning that can only be fully extended in the long term and in a more peaceful context. The administration is trying to move quickly in its attempts to integrate everyone in order to become more rooted in the population. It will be able to count on the support of women who have been convinced by its political project and who are not about to give up hard-won freedoms.
“Now I know what I want.” says Nadia. “What are my rights and my desires. My relationship to the world. Before, it was “you do the housework, you make food, you make children”. Before, I too was at home, taking care of my children, my husband, I cooked. After the arrival of democracy it has changed. Now I know that I have a purpose.”