Written by: Anna Davies
Anna Davies is currently in Rojava, where she is working on different medical and psychological projects in collaboration with the Kurdish Institute.
This conversation took place between a woman from the UK who is living and working in Rojava, and 6 members of Kongreya Star: Hevals Welide, Evin, and Medeya from the administration of Kongreya Star, and Hevals Qadria, Mekiye, and Ruken from the committee of diplomacy. The conversation took place in Qamishlo, Cizire Canton in June 2016.
How and why did Kongreya Star start up?
Yekîtiya Star (YS) started its work on 15th January 2005. It was developed because of a need for the women of Rojava to have a structure in which to organise themselves. Then about 3 or 4 months ago, because of the developments that had taken place, we changed the name from Yekîtiya Star to Kongreya Star (KS) so that it is broader and embraces all of the women.
To understand the historical background of how women can form an organisation like this you have to see it within the general background of the struggle of the Kurdish people. Women took a strong role in this, including the women of Rojava who formed a large part of it.
So in 2005, with this historical background, women of Rojava saw the need and the possibility to build up an organisation, in which they could organise themselves for freedom and struggle together. So one of the main purposes of YS/KS is for women to continue to be a powerful force. A broad scope of work has been done organisationally for education, for events, and women took a very active role in all parts of this work. These were the fundamental principles for YS in 2005.
Why the name YS? Yekîtiya means union, Star comes from a goddess, the goddess of beauty and love. So why do we call ourselves Yekîtiya or Kongreya Star? It means that women can be true to their own selves, to their own core. Because the system of domination, the system of patriarchy, has taken women away from what they are. And this goddess is like the core. Therefore the name comes from that idea.
In the beginning YS was small with only 60 women involved, but slowly it developed into a broad organisation with lots of activities. Before the revolution lots of work was developed but at that time the women were facing various difficulties. One, which is a difficulty that is still here, is that caused by the influence of patriarchy, which there is a need to fight against. Another is that the regime was making difficulties for the women who were organising themselves; putting women in prison or under investigation, which was a way of blocking their action.
And how have men reacted to all of this?
You can see quite well in the revolution of Rojava that when these topics come up – that women should develop themselves and that women should take an active role – men say “women are 50 percent of society, we agree, of course you are right”. They say this, but they are only saying it; on the inside, they don’t accept it. And you can see it quite well, in the revolution of Rojava, that women have played a very active role. Women started to work, and men can see that women do their work well, maybe even better than men. Furthermore, women are more focused on society than men are, so that they play a better and more active role for society. Men see this, and they become angry, and do not accept it. So maybe men want to show themselves in a very democratic way, which they do when they talk, but you can see that in practice they have difficulties in being as democratic as they say they are.
YS/KS is an organisation which changes itself, and transforms itself according to the needs. Through its work it might see that the way to organise itself needs to be changed, and at the congresses those changes can be made. It is always in a system of reflection and changes as an organisation. So now YS has had 6 congresses; at the beginning the aim of YS was to build up an organisation which could fight against the harsh realities in society between men and women, against the reality that women have been seen as property for thousands of years, and to change these attitudes and also to build up a society based on freedom, based on politics. Politics to us means the involvement of everybody in organising his or her life and an ethical society, and in this way to build up a society without violence and without dominance. Those were the main objectives of YS when it was founded: that women could be in possession of power, not in the sense of domination but of will, and that women could make decisions together, could participate in decision making processes and in politics. In this way they can find their own power and participate in all parts of life and in doing this reach their own goals.
Initially YS was organised so that there was an assembly at the level of the whole of Rojava. Then at the 5th conference we saw that there was a need to organise in a more democratic way, so then in all towns assemblies were set up, and it was also recognised there was also a need to take work from the communes to the assemblies. Prior to this there were of course people from YS who were chosen to be involved in the assembly, but it wasn’t as democratic as it is now. So the organisation starts from the communes, then feeds in to the assemblies and the canton; those changes were made in the 5th congress. By the 6th congress YS had a confederal system, trying to involve everybody – not only Kurdish women but Arabic women, Assyrian women, Armenian women, everybody from all ethnicities and all religions can participate in YS, and that was when we changed the name to reflect this inclusiveness.
Ah, so it’s about not ‘unity’ as if they are all the same, but everyone having their own autonomy within their own groups?
And how many of the women are involved in that, and how do you get people involved? Are most people involved in the communes, or in KS at commune level in some way? Or is there a lot of work to do to get more involvement at that level?
We will tell you a little bit about the communes. As we said, KS and indeed the wider society has been built up from the communes to the assemblies. You have the mixed communes and the women’s communes. The way KS tries to organise the society is that the women organise themselves in the communes, from this level, which can be a street, a village or a neighbourhood, and then the neighbourhoods go to the assemblies in the town, that way they organise their lives by themselves. The discussions about organising in communes started in 2007 before the revolution; these perspectives came from the leader Abdullah Ocalan, who wrote that communes can be an alternative for a democratic society. So in 2007 there were discussions about how to organise society; is it possible to organise people in communes? But at that time it was difficult; it didn’t seem possible to put it into practice for lots of reasons. One reason was that at that time the regime was so strong that people involved in organising were frequently arrested, so to have an organisation at this level was difficult. At the same time the patriarchal system and the attitudes towards women were so strong that it was difficult to develop the system. More work had to be done to make a system where everyone could feel able to be involved.
So how do we get women involved? We go to all the houses and meet and discuss with the women. The communes are also quite important as a means, where the women come together. The situation of the revolution is an extraordinary one, it makes it more necessary for people to be organised, and the people themselves are seeing this need. But this doesn’t mean that the work is done. Still there is a need for work to really make the communes as active as they should be, as well as for discussions within the communes. So yes, we organise ourselves in the communes but what is our goal, what is the way we have to work, what are our rights? So lots of work has been done, but still not everybody is part of the communes. Some communes are quite big, but in some places there are still people that don’t know about us. Or because of campaigns to make us look bad, they don’t want to be close to us. Or they come to the communes for material help but don’t want to be involved in the system. Those attitudes are still present, but as long as the communes are strong people will keep getting involved.
In each of the communes there are five committees. One is the committee for self-defence; how can we defend ourselves from all forms of violence, not only from the violence of IS but other aggressors, and self-defence education as well of course, as consciousness-raising. Another committee focuses on how to build up a collective economy. Another is responsible for how we can solve problems when they arise. Another is for education; education is quite an important part, and finally the committee for health. We started to develop the communes in 2014 but then we stopped for a little while and left them as they were because the mixed communes were also being set up, and because of the offensive – we did not want to interfere too much so we stopped, and then from 2015 we again became more active in building up the communes.
What’s the relationship between KS and other organisations like Tev-Dem and the PYD?
In all of the work of Tev-Dem, the rule is: when there is leadership, there is a co-leadership. From the level of communes, to assemblies and everywhere they work, there is a co-leadership. This means that the woman that is representing Tev-Dem at the level of communes is automatically the leader of the women’s commune as well. And that way she can bring the information from the commune. So for example at neighbourhood level there is a mixed commune and a women’s commune. The woman who is the leader of the commune of Tev-Dem, she is also the leader of the mixed commune for the neighbourhood. She can bring the information from the mixed commune into the women’s commune and she can also bring issues from the women’s commune to the assembly if they are not directly related to women’s issues. Women solve their own issues themselves, but things that are more general she can bring to the mixed meetings, and that way there is a direct flow of information at all levels.
PYD is a political party and like any political party it has its place in the political committee of KS. We told you that there are 5 committees at the level of the communes; besides that there are other committees at the level of town and canton. One of them is the political committee. And PYD as a party has a place in this committee. And because the PYD has accepted the system, women who are part of the PYD are immediately part of KS. There are discussions going on with other political parties; these other parties are now part of the political committee, but there needs to be more discussion with them to get to the point that their members are also immediately members of KS.
My friends in Europe have been inspired by the role of women in political life in Rojava, but I wondered what you thought about how much this translates into changes to people’s lives at home and in their families?
There is a change, there is definitely a real change, but you can’t say that it is a 100% change or that everything is finished or there isn’t a struggle any more. The struggle continues, and will continue, and there is still a need to continue the work, especially the work to change people’s mentality, because the history of patriarchy is a very long and strong history. Therefore the struggle continues. There is a long history of struggle, a history of 40 years of struggle that has been inherited. Before the revolution, because of this 40 years of struggle, things had already been achieved for women. But after the revolution, changes that were even more fundamental took place. One of the basic changes is that before the revolution women were working, but at the same time having their own family, their own reality, more on their minds. But after the revolution our work became more important. Even though we were part of the movement before, we saw that our mentality changed, that the society became more important for us, not only our own house, our own family, but society came more into focus.
Heval Qadria: In the time that I have been working I have seen a big difference in my own family. I have been working here for a few years, but at first when I was at work I was doing my work but my mind was with my children, my mind was with my family. But now when I am here I do my work and I know that there is no problem, my husband and my children know they can do without me. They know their work and there is a system inside the family, so I am relaxed and I can do my work, but it took time to be able to be relaxed. So changes happen, but they take time of course.
Heval Welide: There are a lot of fundamental changes but the history of patriarchy is so strong from thousands of years, that there are still problems arising, problems in people’s mentality. Take my family as an example; very often it is quite democratic, I am the leader of the Canton, I can go and not be at home for days, but when something happens in the family it falls back to me to deal with it. So even though there are changes, there needs to be a longer struggle to fulfil those changes.
Many thanks to Kongreya Star for their time and to Heval Ruken for her excellent interpretation. All of the hevals contributed to the general discussion, I have only included specific names when they described their personal situations.
***No copyright, free to reproduce and publish.***