Rosa Gilbert speaks to Kurdish women in Rojava about their support for the Yes campaign in Ireland and their own struggle for liberation
As Ireland prepares tomorrow for its referendum on the constitutional amendment prohibiting free, safe, legal abortion, women and health workers in Rojava have expressed their solidarity with Irish women’s right to choose. With the exception of the Vatican state and Malta, Ireland has the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe and exceeds Saudi Arabia and Qatar in its restrictions on women’s rights to basic reproductive health. Since Syria has similar restrictions to Ireland, I interviewed a number of activists, revolutionaries and health care workers in Rojava, the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Syria, where abortion is now accessible thanks to the revolution.
Barbara Anna is a Kurdish woman from the Turkish communist party TKP/ML who joined the Kobane resistance in 2014 and has also been active in civil work in Rojava. She explained how for many Kurdish women, the situation in Ireland came to the fore during mobilisations for abortion rights in Turkey a few years ago, which was supplemented by information from Irish volunteers in the International Freedom Battalion, a socialist internationalist unit of the YPG. Barbara explained that the situation in Ireland caught the attention of Middle Eastern women because it contradicts the liberal image of Europe and the EU, a contradiction visible too in the European allies in the Middle East whose poor women’s rights records are too often hidden behind a liberal façade.
Whilst in Turkey abortion is legal, it is becoming eroded under the AKP government whose current President and then-Prime Minister Erdogan proclaimed in 2012 that abortion is a crime. Against this hostility, there was a huge mobilisation inside Turkey and North Kurdistan which TKP-ML took part in, forcing the state to retreat from proposals to ban abortion even in cases of rape. Like in Ireland where women are forced to travel, abortion is accessible only to those who can afford it in what Barbara describes as a “deliberately misogynistic” move which has rendered it extremely difficult to access through the public health sector, making the only options a private clinic or backstreet abortion. Barbara said this illustrated “how capitalism thrives off misogyny and patriarchy.”
Women’s liberation in Rojava
Officially in Syria, women’s reproductive rights are similar to those in Ireland – abortion is only legally permitted when it is necessary to save a woman’s life. Since the growth of autonomous governance including over healthcare in the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS/Rojava), abortion has been made accessible for all women. Beritan, a French volunteer in the YPJ, explained how in a conservative culture in which premarital sex was still very taboo, there remains a gap between the feminist ideology of the YPJ and the reality of daily life. Dr Nasan Adhmed, a women’s doctor in Kobane, described the impact of this development of abortion rights in Rojava, stating that if a woman’s life is under threat from her husband or family for seeking abortion, the medics ensure she is protected in coordination with the Asayîsh Jin, the dedicated women’s police force. They also ensure as a priority that no moral judgment is passed when they assess the situation, since culturally it can still be difficult to look for help during a crisis pregnancy.
Both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland hold their anti-abortion laws long after most European nation states dropped theirs and have also been comparatively late in decriminalising homosexuality (1993 and 1982 respectively) with the Republic also banning divorce until it was repealed by referendum in 1996. This has much to do with the huge role of the Catholic church in Irish culture and society, which itself is deeply connected to British colonialism in Ireland which attempted to impose ecclesiastical uniformity. Barbara Anna reflected more broadly on how limits to women’s bodily autonomy relates to the imposition of capitalism and imperialism. She compared the situations in the Middle East where women’s economic activity and sexual freedom is heavily restricted to the situation in the neoliberal capitalist centre, where women’s sexual freedom comes at the expense of constant objectification and commodification: “The situations look different at first glance in but in all cases the women’s body is under oppression.”
For Barbara, the actions of ISIS in Shengal in 2014, when they kidnapped thousands of Yazidi women to sell into sex slavery, were not unlike the incarceration and enslavement of Irish women in the Magdalene laundries, and compared it too with the shocking levels of sex trafficking in Turkey and Europe – they are all symptomatic of patriarchal oppression, where women’s agency over their own bodies are stripped away. Whilst the media was happy to focus on the trauma of ISIS sexual violence, reinforcing a narrative of women as “weak victims”, it refused to show the international political ramifications, the fact that the US-backed KRG peshmerga abandoned the Yazidis and that the PKK – listed by the USA and EU as a terrorist organisation – were fundamental in rescuing the Yazidis. According to Barbara, this was not just in order to placate Turkey who have carried out a decades-long war against the PKK and consider them a terrorist organisation, but because the media ignores women empowering and arming themselves as revolutionaries to fight against religious patriarchy and fascism – the Yazidi Women’s Units formed in 2015 and went on to help liberate Raqqa and fight in defence of Afrin, where many Yazidis sought refuge from ISIS sexual violence.
Discussing setbacks faced in the struggle for women’s rights and bodily autonomy, Cîhan Yusef, the female head of the Kobane health committee, pointed to the problem of the lack of women in health services in Rojava. The Syrian Ba’athist government denied full citizenship rights to Kurds in northern Syria for decades, meaning low levels of Kurdish women employed in health and barely any female doctors – Yusef explained how vital it was to have Kurdish women trained so they can spread knowledge to other women, particularly older women, in the neighbourhoods and villages. Courses are taught in both Arabic and Kurdish, ensuring multi-ethnic participation in all aspects of life, one of the foundations of the Rojava revolution.
There is a focus on decentralising and localising healthcare in line with the region’s autonomy from Damascus, and this has been reflected in the creation of community health centres. The French YPJ volunteer Beritan criticised the underdevelopment of the area under Ba’athism as a reason for the lack of women’s medical knowledge and practice – there is now growing awareness, she said, but it is hard to change. She emphasised the link between the health centres and the Asayîsh Jin and the commune’s justice committee in helping to deal with male physical violence against women as well as controlling and possessive behaviour.
One of the major problems for the health system relates to the international community’s position on Rojava which essentially bolsters Turkey’s embargo. It means that international NGOs refuse to recognise the healthcare system and whilst they will give limited short-term aid, it cannot help them deal with structural issues. Dr Adhmed who earns in a day what he could earn in an hour in Europe explained how the huge numbers of doctors who fled during ISIS’ siege of Kobane have not returned. The Kurdish Red Crescent has been vital in bringing in international aid, particularly since the huge refugee crisis caused by Turkey’s invasion of Afrin.
Despite the odds stacked against them, the revolution in Rojava has enabled huge advances in women’s liberation as it battles against a conservative, religious, feudal culture. It provides great hope for women’s liberation movements around the world. But the Kurdish women are watching Ireland carefully too.
Barbara Anna explained carefully how patriarchal oppression in Turkey had been limited by the resistance of women. She said how the women of Kurdistan were “hoping for a Yes [vote] on Friday which will not just benefit Irish women but all women… The capitalist states are unified against women’s liberation. Women internationally need to unite, not just to fight the capitalist state but also the patriarchal hegemony. Until all women are liberated the physical bodies and collective identity of women will remain oppressed. If the women across the world take part and support this struggle in Rojava and other revolutions today our rights will increase everywhere. Patriarchal power will yield no rights without a fight – so we say: fight!”