The Promise of the Women of Kobane
Originally published on Huffington Post
A few years back, a cartoon was doing its rounds on social media. It shows a White woman in a skimpy bikini and a Muslim woman in a full burka, each thinking that the other is oppressed. Both are right.
Or, both are wrong.
Why is this? This a false ultra-simplistic binary that we should avoid like the plague. Today, liberal hedonistic permissiveness and primitivist religious adherence are two sides of the same coin. One privileges material freedoms without commitment and the other privileges commitments without material freedom – and the ideology of the global order is fine with both. The alternative is to find radical freedom through commitment, in commitment for a genuine emancipatory project. And that is something neither the liberal hedonists nor the religiously motivated can offer.
But this is precisely what the women in Kobane are struggling to bring to fruition. French philosopher Alain Badiou says that according to him, “something is universal if it is something that is beyond established differences.” And if there is anything that is to be learnt from the struggle of the women in Kobane, it is that it consciously strives to transcend all established differences and particularist fetishes.
Rejecting both a nihilistic capitalist modernity and primitive religious and sectarian thought, the fighters of the Kurdish YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) are building a radical democracy that aims to shatter long held gender prejudices, promote an equal division of work in private and public spheres, with an emphasis on local self-governance and the building of an economic system that is based neither on the exploitation of human labor nor on the pilferage of natural resources.
The Western media’s general coverage of these revolutionary women has been miserable to say the least. Either there is ignorance, or a bizarre exoticization – something on the lines of “Here are beautiful Kurdish angels fighting ISIS devils.” A Kurdish feminist academic rightly denounces such views as “they cheapen a legitimate struggle by projecting their bizarre orientalist fantasies on it – and oversimplify the reasons motivating Kurdish women to join the fight.” The Kurdish women are not just involved in a fight against Islamism – they are also fighting for something more. And that is the real beauty – the beauty of their politics – that eludes liberal Western eyes.
What is this politics? This is the politics of Democratic Confederalism as espoused by the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. A novel experiment for the Kurdish regions which, as a system of governance, will rely more on collective consensus of the peoples involved and voluntary participation of individuals. Rejecting the traditional state-centrism, Democratic Confederalism is meant to be “flexible, multi-cultural, anti-monopolistic, and consensus-oriented” where “Ecology and feminism are central pillars.”
Ocalan is light years ahead of several postcolonial academics in his courage to note that “Islam’s perception of sexism has produced far more negative results than Western civilisation in terms of the profound enslavement of women and male dominance.” He also rejects capitalist modernity as “a system based on the denial of love”, whose unrestrained individualism corrupts society, turning individuals into automatons. And it is a society that is corrupted neither by feudalist bigotries nor the brutalities of the industrial capitalist state that Ocalan imagines.
It is this politics that the women of YPG are putting into practice in Kobane. And it is this politics that is being ignored in the West. It is quite ironic that for all their claims to be opposed to Islamofascism, many Western governments still consider PKK and its affiliates – the organizations waging the most resolute and principled war against Islamism – as terrorists. One is compelled to think that the West – conservatives, liberals and mainstream leftists alike – are more frightened of what the PKK is fighting for than what it is fighting against.
A sensible thing for sensible leftists to do would be to reject the vulgar exoticizing that the Western media indulges in, and try to probe the theoretical and practical implications of the Kurdish struggle for the global feminist movement. Also, the Left in the West should push for a delisting of the PKK from the “terror list” and also urge the Western governments to secure the release of the PKK leader Ocalan who has been languishing in solitary confinement in a Turkish prison for over 15 years now. Most importantly, we must appreciate the women of the YPJ for the beauty of their politics and the promise it holds.
The promise of the revolutionary women of Kobane is poignant. It is a promise that democracy, radical freedom and social justice are not meaningless terms, but are lived realities. It is a promise of a society where equality is a practice, and not a word on paper. It is a promise that generations of progressive women activists have been fighting for across the world. The Kurdish women of Kobane are fighting for this promise and they are extending their hand of universalism, a universalism that is desperately needed in these times. Let us reciprocate with the solidarity that they deserve.