Excerpt from the Preface to A Road Unforeseen
In 1995, the year of the UN Conference on Women in Beijing, I became founding President of a transnational free speech network of feminist writers called Women’s WORLD (Women’s World Organization for Rights, Literature and Development), which drafted a manifesto for Beijing called The Power of the Word: Culture, Censorship and Voice.
We began by describing a world crisis, symptoms of which included the accelerating destruction of the environment; vast movements of population fleeing war and famine; the growing dominance of transnational corporations accountable to nobody but their shareholders; the triumph of free market policies that were impoverishing people all over the world; and the rise of various forms of religious fundamentalism as political movements targeting women and ethnic minorities. “The increasing internationalization and collusion of these movements,” we said, “raises the possibility of a worldwide reactionary movement similar to fascism in the 1920s and 30s.”
Strategically, we could see only one source of hope: an alliance between feminists and other progressive social movements. “All our movements face the same oppressive forces: a New World Order that props up modern dictatorships, and a reactionary traditionalism that represents the worst form of patriarchal control. We have a common vision of a future in which extremes of wealth and poverty will vanish; in which human rights, sustainable livelihoods, universal literacy, and cultural diversity will become the norm; and in which decisions will be made and social conflicts resolved by negotiation, rather than force or domination.”
But were our brothers on the left willing to commit to such feminist principles?
“Again and again,” we said, “women have fought beside men in movements for social change, only to see them set up new ruling elites that left gender and family hierarchies intact, continued to practice the power politics of dominance and submission, and resolved social and personal conflicts through violence or repression.”
“Today, women, particularly women of the South,” we went on, “make up the vast majority of the poor and politically disenfranchised people of the world, the true ‘prisoners of starvation’ and ‘wretched of the earth.’ Thus, any movement for real transformation must make the demands of women central. And, because so many of the chains that bind women are located in the realm of tradition rather than pure politics or economics, a thorough transformation must involve struggles over culture.”
We had no idea that, while we were writing these words, Abdullah Ocalan and Kurdish women activists were wrestling with similar questions and beginning to build a movement that would eventually be able to test its ideas about women’s liberation in practice, using southeastern Turkey and northern Syria as a social laboratory. We can all learn from their experiments. For, with all our freedoms, Western feminists have seldom had the opportunity to test our ideas on a large scale and gain experience in strategic thinking….
So what makes the Kurdish women’s movement different? Considering that it evolved as part of the PKK, which began as a classic Marxist-Leninist party, how did its members avoid being stopped in their tracks and go on to form militias and become forty per cent of leadership on all levels? Have human beings finally been able to create a political culture that is not split down the middle by gender? And how does that work with being constantly at war? Why were the leftwing militias of Rojava, despite their lack of sophisticated equipment and before they had any air support, the only ground forces able to stand against Daesh? Does their military success have something to do with their ability to draw on the strength of women? Or with their commitment to bottom-up democracy?
This book is an attempt to address these questions. Like a gyroscope, it revolves on two axes. One axis is the collision of three visions of social organization, all reflections of larger global paradigms but particularly intense in Kurdistan: the Islamism of Daesh, the “capitalist modernity” (Ocalan’s phrase) of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, and the new kind of leftwing, non-state, democratic formation developing in the liberated cantons of Syria. The other axis is the role of women in these paradigms.
Ocalan’s dream is that human domination, slavery, and empire will be undone in Kurdistan, by a people he sees as having been so oppressed they had almost lost any sense of their own worth. In his words, “Kurdistan is the place where humanity itself fades away in its most solid form. It is humankind’s oldest cradle. A magnificent victory for humanity may be gained in the place where it has been most ‘deformed’. Such magnificence will be in proportion to the debasement.”
In other words, by disdaining the “ring of power” that we call the state—power that, like Tolkien’s ring, is of no use to people who want to build an egalitarian rather than one based on dominance and submission— he believes that the Kurds will become able to defeat Daesh and al Qaeda, the most vicious enemies of freedom. They will then go on to bring democracy to Syria and Turkey, converting their brothers and sisters who still worship at the shrines of power and consumerism to more humane values. It’s a tall order, as their history will show, but they have already done the impossible just by continuing to exist.