Category Archives: Press and Reviews

Janet Biehl review in ROAR

Published in ROAR Magazine, August 15, 2016

“Any movement for real transformation must make the demands of women central,” argues Meredith Tax in her superb book on the Kurdish women’s struggle

Second Wave feminism, once it erupted in the late 1960s, called out misogyny where it came into view. Breathtakingly, it insisted on recognizing human rights for all women everywhere. But today many Western feminists hesitate to speak in such bold terms. Wrestling with the legacy of imperialism, they decline to pass judgment on the sexist behavior of local men in postcolonial societies. As a result, the moral compass on human rights for women has weakened.

This retreat occurs even in the face of the brutally misogynistic Islamic State group (ISIS). To be sure, ISIS tortures and beheads people regardless of gender; it has slaughtered and abducted thousands of civilians, male and female; it has committed systematic genocide against Yazidis, both men and women.

But the salafi-jihadists of the would-be caliphate reserve especially cruel treatment for women, subjecting them to organized rape and systematic sexual slavery, including young girls. Their standard operating procedure is to buy and sell females, gang-rape them, and enslave them. A year or so ago, the liberal feminist Phyllis Chesler called out Western feminists for their silence in the face of ISIS’ murderous misogyny.

The socialist Meredith Tax, who like Chesler has origins in the Second Wave, has been speaking out on behalf women’s human rights internationally for decades. She has worked unwaveringly to bring attention to honor killings, coerced and childhood marriage, domestic violence, and rape, as well female genital mutilation.

Since 1995 she has headed Women’s WORLD, a global free speech network of feminist writers that opposes the silencing of women’s voices. In her previous book, The Double Bind (2013), she criticized both right-wing fundamentalism and the Western leftists who soft-pedaled and relativized its abuses.


With her combined expertise on fundamentalism, feminism, and human rights, Tax was not one to hold back when ISIS overran Mount Sinjar and tried to drive out the non-Islamic Yazidis who have lived there peacefully for millennia. In her new book, A Road Unforeseen, she shows what it means to view aspects of the Middle East through these basic prisms.

Fundamentalist movements, she explains, operationally look backward to an allegedly more benign past and identify women as “the symbol and carriers of a ‘pure’ national, ethnic, or religious identity.” To ensure that purity, male control over their behavior becomes imperative, and once such movements go to war with their neighbors, “rape is the weapon by which they demonstrate their victory over ‘the other,’ by defiling ‘his’ women and making them give birth to enemy aliens.”

In a detailed discussion of the rise of Islamic State, Tax highlights a Daesh manifesto that insists on essential differences between the sexes: “If roles are mixed and positions overlap, humanity is thrown into a state of flux and instability. The base of society is shaken, its foundations crumble and its walls collapse.” Women must therefore be confined the domestic sphere.

So women who have lived under Daesh rule, Tax explains, “were unable to move freely; they could not go outside without a male relative; their education was strictly limited; they had to wear three veils over their faces and would be lashed if their eyes could be seen; and they could be stoned to death if they were accused of adultery.”

This was the system Daesh had in mind for the Yazidi women, not to mention the mass murder of the men and the brainwashing of boys. Fleeing this terror, thousands of Yazidis were stranded on Sinjar Mountain in August 2014. The forces who came to their rescue represented the antithesis of Daesh: the gender-equal units of the PKK (internationally stigmatized by governments that pander to the persecutor of the Turkish Kurds: the Turkish state) and of the YPG/YPJ, of the liberated cantons of northern Syria known as Rojava.

In these forces, men and women fight together to powerful effect, such that, “without heavy weapons or air cover, [they] cut a path of roughly 100 kilometers through the mountains to Cizire canton, battling Daesh all the way. On August 10 they got the last of the Yazidis out and were able to report that they had brought an estimate 100,000 refugees to safety.”


The forces that carried out this spectacular rescue mostly emerged from the Kurdish freedom movement, whose history Tax recounts by drawing on a wide array of English-language sources and synthesizing them, lacing her narrative with illuminating insights and surprising details. In twentieth-century Turkey the “implacable Kemalism” that for generations harshly suppressed Kurdish strivings for identity and culture led to the founding of the PKK in 1978.

Tax takes us to its training grounds for armed struggle in the Bekaa Valley, then into its war with the Turkish state starting in 1984. She traces the PKK’s history through its congresses, explaining its ideological training, the role of criticism and self-criticism. Overtones of Paolo Freire’s “critical pedagogy,” or participatory education, enter into the discussion. Her tale is cautionary as well as supportive, laying out the organization’s troubled past, complete with splits and concerns for individuality and “the high value put on self-abnegation.”

The early 1990s saw the rise political parties focusing on Kurdish issues and a momentous uprising that began in Nusaybin. Tax details the roles of two notable women, the parliamentarian Leyla Zana and the revolutionary Sakine Cansiz, both of whom served protracted periods of time in Turkish prisons. Meanwhile Turkey’s “deep state” trained forces at the CIA’s notorious School of the Americas, who then went on to raze thousands of Kurdish villages and bomb the Qandil Mountains, where the PKK are based.

“Such a strategy requires complete ruthlessness towards civilians,” Tax points out, which the Turkish state was willing to exercise to “stamp out every sign of resistance.” Yet it failed to achieve this patently impossible goal. “By this time,” she writes, “the futility of seeking a purely military solution to a political problem should have been evident to the Turkish government.”

Twenty-five dismal years later the futility is evident to everyone paying attention, except the Turkish state itself. Indeed, to read Tax’s history of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict is to experience a repeating loop that changes only in nightmarishness. The 1990s razing of villages in the southeast recurs today in the destruction of Kurdish cities. In the 1990s the Turkish state stripped members a pro-Kurdish party (HEP) of their parliamentary immunity, much as in the spring of 2016 it stripped members of the current pro-Kurdish party, the HDP, of their immunity. Repeated calls for peace and ceasefires from the Kurdish side, then as now, go ignored.


In the illuminating chapter “Kurdish Women Rising,” Tax addresses the way the women’s revolution in Rojava has “put women’s liberation so squarely at the center of its revolutionary project.” She brings to the table decades of experience in the international women’s movement as well as the left. Often in Western women’s peace movements, she notes, feminist critiques of war and militarism cast women as intrinsically peace-loving and nonviolent and harmonious compared to men. Gloria Steinem voiced a common theme when she praised women’s “special ability to make connections between people” over masculine tendencies to display aggression.

Such thinking is alien to the women of the PKK and of the YPG/YPJ. As one female Iraqi Kurdish activist responds: “Exactly who are [women] supposed to be making peace with? With ISIS?” Kurdish women fight back. PKK women created their first women’s organization in 1987. By 1993 one-third of new PKK recruits were women, Tax tells us; by 1997, 5,000 women were fighting in the PKK’s separate women’s militias and 11,000 more were in mixed units.

Tax analyzes the female guerrillas of the PKK in the light of those in mixed units in other post-World War II liberation struggles: women fought in the ranks of armed movements in China, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Nepal, in Angola and Eritrea and Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe; and in Cuba, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Chiapas. But in these struggles, she notes, the deployment of women was usually a matter of numbers: “many national liberation struggles sought to enlist women in combat mainly because they needed more soldiers.”

By contrast, the PKK built its autonomous women’s army “not to increase the number of fighters but to actually strengthen women cadre and change the consciousness of both sexes.” Moreover, in those other struggles women fighters “rarely achieved leadership roles or led male troops.” But in the PKK, even in the 1990s, “some mixed units had women commanders as well.”

Nor, in other liberation struggles, did participation in guerrilla forces have ramifications beyond the military: “the empowerment of women has so seldom been a priority for movements engaged in armed struggle.” The Sandinistas in Nicaragua, for example, pursued women-friendly policies “principally because they fulfilled some wider goal or goals, whether these were social welfare, development, social equality, or political mobilization in defense of the revolution.”

Post-revolutionary male leaders, Tax notes, “have seldom wanted to change their own behavior or share the sources of real power.” The Maoists of China propagated the slogan that “women hold up half the sky,” but revolutions grounded in Marxism, notes Tax, “have — at best — seen women as support troops for the working class, not as a submerged and dominated majority whose liberation is fundamental to everyone else’s.”

In the Kurdish movement, by contrast, the battle for women’s rights and autonomy is essential to the struggle — and serves as the basis for reorganizing gender relations in the society as a whole. In the PKK the formation of women’s units functioned as “a first step in forming autonomous women’s organizations that would parallel all the other structures of the PKK.” In 1995 the PKK formally resolved: “In all sectors of the economy, all social institutions, and even in the realm of culture, organizations will be created and modeled after this army.” The PKK’s uniqueness, says Tax, “lay in seeing the transformation of gender relations not as a sidebar to nationalist revolution but as the central task that would determine the success or failure of the whole endeavor.”


There is another way in which the Kurdish movement is unusual among international women’s movements: it makes celibacy mandatory. Sexual relationships are forbidden to guerrillas and to PKK leadership, initially to enable the recruitment of women from families concerned about “honor.”

Women’s movements elsewhere, while critiquing power relations within marriage, have sought to re-create intimate relations and childrearing along more liberatory lines: free love; redefined family units; communitarian solutions. But marriage is still the way many people seek intimacy and companionship and that societies “ensure sexual access and unpaid reproductive labor.”

Other women’s movements place central emphasis on reproductive freedom, on women being able to decide for themselves whether to bear children, and when, and how many. It’s possible to view mandatory desexualization, she pauses to observe, as a new restriction on women. To which the PKK would respond that in its ranks individual fulfillment comes not through personal relationships but by giving oneself to the struggle. Militants dedicated to resistance, indeed, undergo a re-creation of personality, attempting to eradicate intolerance, domination, and aggression. For the sake of Kurdish freedom, they choose to live with personal sacrifice, not just celibacy but separation from family and former friends, and renunciation of alcohol and tobacco.

Such sacrifices are considered necessary, Tax explains, “in order to become new men and free women — fully-developed human beings who had left behind all traces of feudal and tribal personality and had thus becoming capable of transforming Kurdistan.”

Tax recounts the PKK’s paradigm shift during the 1990s and early 2000s, rejecting the goal of a separate Kurdish nation-state in favor of democratic confederalism, a program for bottom-up democracy, gender equality, ecology, and cooperative economy.

She leads us into northern Syria and the implementation of democratic confederalism in a series of councils and assemblies, where leadership is dual and the gender quorum for all meetings. Curiously, she explores the role of TEV-DEM and the PYD, placing accusations of human rights violations in the context of anti-Rojava agendas. The broad affirmation of human rights in the Social Contract of January 2014 seems a crowning achievement, one we can hope will one day be extended to all of Syria.

Her book covers much else besides: the tribal politics of Iraqi Kurdistan, from the emergence of the KDP under the elder Barzani to the stressed nepotism and corruption of the KRG today. Another chapter is devoted to Turkey, where the increasingly authoritarian AKP government is moving ever closer to its own brand of fundamentalism that, once again, aims to confine women to the domestic sphere. Meanwhile the pro-Kurdish HDP party calls for the emancipation of women and democratic autonomy in Turkey along the lines of Rojava.

Tax’s book is a welcome addition to the growing literature in English on the Kurds and will be mined for its perspectives and insights for years to come. “Any movement for real transformation,” she insists, “must make the demands of women central.” This superb book will be an essential resource for this question in the years to come.

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Publishers Weekly review

Publishers Weekly, August 12, 2016
In this study, Tax (Double Bind) describes Rojava, an autonomous region in Syria, in the greater context of Kurdish struggles throughout the region. In 2014, in the city of Kobane in Rojava, Kurdish militias, including all-female units, drove back the advance of the Islamic State with little help from outside forces. As Tax shows, Rojava is remarkable not just for the large number of women in the military, but for the fact that “people make decisions through local councils and women hold 40 percent of all leadership positions.” Much of her work focuses on neighboring Turkey, where Kurds make up 20 percent of the population but are repressed and attacked by governmental forces. The governments of the U.S. and E.U. have done little in response, nominally because the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and its leader-in-exile, Abdullah Öcalan, are considered terrorists. Öcalan’s changing philosophy and the influence of female leaders such as Leyla Zana, a prominent Kurdish activist, have given rise to the concept of “democratic autonomy” now being lived out in Rojava. In a coda, Tax concludes that it remains to be seen how the Rojava experiment in “radical local control… based on democracy, equal citizenship for all, feminism, and ecology” will fare against global capitalism on one hand and “Islamist theocracy” on the other. This is an important look at an unfolding situation little understood in the West. (Aug.)

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Bea Campbell review in openDemocracy 5050: “Who are they, these revolutionary Rojava women?”

BEATRIX CAMPBELL 12 July 2016 opendemocracy 5050

Berivan, Commander in the PKK. Photo:

Imagine a life amidst war, another war, and recovery from decades of war, where humans decide that all public positions are shared between women and men, and where, in fact, everything is shared.

It’s not a bleak but beautiful fantasy dreamed up by Ursula le Guin, it is here and now on the border between Syria and Turkey. It is Rojava.

Compare and contrast with a rich, lush, green and pleasant land that has just voted – whether it fully knows it or not – to abandon equality and human rights and sharing anything with anyone. It is here and now and it is England.

Across the Atlantic, in New York, a stalwart seeker after equality and human rights, the feminist writer-activist Meredith Tax, noticed morsels of news about that faraway enclave called Rojava and became excited: could it be? Could it be true that amidst the wreckage of the Middle East something beautiful was being crafted?

Two years ago when Daesh attacked Syria’s northern city, Kobane, Tax began to see ‘pictures of smiling rifle-toting girls in uniform defending the city.’ Who were these Kurdish girls?’ she wondered.

The same question animated writer Rahila Gupta to write a six-part series on her journey:  Witnessing the Revolution in Rojava on openDemocracy (her story will also feature in the book we are co-writing, Why Doesn’t Patriarchy Die?). Here in Rojava, she thought, a revolution was being made in our own inhospitable times.

How could these women resist the waves of masked jihadis razing towns, fields and cities, wreaking terror? How could they do what no one else, not Iraq’s army, not the Kurds’ fabled Peshmerga, nor Western bombs, had managed to achieve?

But they did. However, no sooner had these photogenic heroines appeared than they became invisible. They didn’t disappear, of course, but to western eyes they were out of sight and out of mind.

The Obama administration described the Daesh warriors as ‘an imminent threat to every interest we have’ and yet hesitated – with every interest it had – to become the friend of its enemy’s enemy.

Something about the Rojava confounded and discombobulated the international players, whose hands and footprints already littered the ruined landscape.

Rojava thrilled Meredith Tax, who set about finding out about these women and their mission.

‘I decided it was my responsibility to tell my friends about Rojava,’ Then she wrote an article for Dissent magazine, then she wrote this book, A Road Unforeseen: Women Fight the Islamic State (Bellevue Literary Press, August 2016).

It is the outcome of her swift, intense and forensic inquiry. Her narrative is also informed by the wisdom accumulated during her radical own history: she was a member of one of the founding Women’s Liberation groups of the late 1960s, Bread and Roses – a name branded on the consciousness of activists in the Seventies.

She belongs to a generation of activists and intellectuals who made and were made by the black civil rights, feminist and anti-war movements in the US, that confidently quarried revolutionary theory and practise for inspiration. Between then and now this generation has lived with the rise and fall of revolutionary experiments – it knows all about failure. And so she brings the habit ‘optimism of the will and pessimism of the intellect’ to her inquiry.

The journey takes her deep to the history of Middle East and the fate of Kurds, sliced up between the post-imperialist divisions of the region, and the interminable repressions of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Accommodations were made, tribalisms refreshed, massacres perpetrated, villages evacuated.

Crucial was the US and Saudi sponsorship of jihadis across the region and the resistance of Turkey, Iraq and Syria to any possibility of Kurd autonomy. Kurds were confronted by jihad on one flank, state repression on the other.

During the 1980s, Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq pursued a scorched earth policy against the Kurds – thousands of villages were razed and refugees poured across the borders into Turkey and Iran. Turkey would not tolerate Kurd autonomy. The US didn’t want a fragmented Iraq – though that’s what the invasion in 2003 delivered.

After enduring astounding violence, they were only to discover during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 that the Bush administration in Washington did not want to reach out to save them.

Tax traces the conjunctures when Kurdish struggles for survival reach out to modern theories of revolution or ancient practises of tribal hierarchy, all the time navigating alliances, seeking spaces of respite where they think afresh.

Ironically, it is in the grotesque aftermath of the Iraq invasion that Kurds, in a sense, re-discover themselves.

In oil-rich Iraq, Kurdistan is established, malls are built, billions pour in, fortunes are made and squandered, and hope of a new dawn for women dashed.

By contrast, the Kurd guerrilla movements based in Syria and Turkey re-think their relationship to their social base.

Women are central to that process, both because their activism is grounded in everyday life, in civil society, in relatives’ movements on behalf of prisoners and lost loved ones, and also because gender becomes a decisive term in the intellectual quest to modernise theory in the wake of so many failed revolutions.

It would not have emerged in the sequestered and hierarchical guerrilla movements themselves – these highly disciplined fighters were governed by profoundly authoritarian and centralised leadership.

But gender equality drives the new thinking of their leader Abdullah Ocalan, whilst imprisoned by Turkey (with the support of the CIA). Incarceration – the fate of so many guerrillas – creates the context, time and space, to read and think.

Indeed, Tax’s story is punctuated by conjunctures that make the Kurd guerrillas re-think and re-group.

In prison Ocalan reads and reads – Marxism, anarchism and feminism – and discovers the axis between patriarchy, property and the nation state.

Meredith Tax explains how Ocalan in the 1990s brings that critique to the specific experience of stateless Kurds’ experience of tribalism, imperialism and capitalism.

The commitment to sharing men power with women, and to a political strategy founded upon equality and environmental sustainability, is, to a degree, imposed on the men and enthusiastically embraced by women who had, by then, developed intimate solidarities in the guerrilla militias, in prison and in organising communities’ besieged survival.

Harassed, raided, tortured on all sides, they manage to build something formidable – so poor, but so strong.

It was they, above all, who engineered the liberation of the Yazidis from Daesh warriors.

Now they are improvising a new model of living in an enclave that is not an ethnic state but a confederation of half a dozen ethnicities, organising co-operative economy in an egalitarian borderland called Rojava.

Meredith Tax wonders whether they can survive. But she is inspired. And reading her book, you will be, too.

A Road Unforeseen: Women fight the Islamic State will be published by Bellevue Literary Press in August 2016

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Wendy Smith profile in Publishers Weekly: “The Good Fight”

By Wendy Smith

Publishers Weekly, July 1, 2016

From her days in the anti–Vietnam War movement to her role in founding PEN’s Women Writers Committee and beyond, Meredith Tax has written, organized, and battled to make women’s rights central to any effort for social justice. Now 73, the veteran activist and author still dissents from orthodoxy wherever she finds it. She deplores the rise in the U.S. of what she calls “corporate feminism,” narrowly focused on opportunities for middle-class white women. In 2010, when her friend Gita Sahgal was fired from Amnesty International’s Gender Unit for questioning Amnesty’s alliance with a Muslim group linked to terrorism, Tax joined Sahgal in founding the Centre for Secular Space to “oppose fundamentalism and promote universality in human rights.”

Tax’s new book, A Road Unforeseen: Women Fight the Islamic State, to be published by Bellevue Literary Press in August, finds hope for this lifelong struggle in an unlikely place: the Rojava region of northern Syria, where, in the midst of civil war, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) established three self-governing cantons based on principles of direct democracy and gender equality. Women constitute at least 40% of all local governing bodies in Rojava, Tax writes, and separate all-female councils determine policy on issues of particular concern to women, including honor killings and forced marriages. These political developments are remarkable enough, but what first attracted Tax’s attention was the PYD’s autonomous Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), which helped defend the city of Kobane from ISIS in 2014.

Although the Rojava cantons have successfully resisted ISIS while maintaining a democratic alternative to the Assad regime, Tax saw little press coverage of the region or its female soldiers. “[They] did not fit into any acceptable Western narrative,” she comments in A Road Unforeseen. “They were feminists, socialists, if not indeed anarchists or communists.” The information she found was mostly on anarchist websites, and the more she learned, the more she felt she must make Americans aware of this promising social experiment.

“Both as a writer and an activist, I have been concerned with how women actually gain equality,” Tax says. “I’ve seen so many revolutions that promised women equality and didn’t come through—and we’re not doing so well in the U.S. either. We may have more women in Congress, but we don’t have universal day care, or secure abortion rights, or secure contraception rights. Here were people who had a different answer.”

Tax’s article “The Revolution in Rojava” appeared in Dissent in April 2015. When Bellevue publisher and editorial director Erika Goldman suggested Tax write a book on the subject, Tax says, “My first thought was, how can I? I can’t go there.” She adds: “I have psoriatic arthritis, which makes travel very difficult, and there’s a war on. I consulted someone who had arranged a tour for academics and a Kurdish feminist living in Canada, and they both said, ‘Don’t even think about it now. Wait a few years and then write the book.’ But I thought, unless Rojava gets more support than they’re getting now, they might not survive. Nobody knows what’s going on; I have to do it now.”

Tax decided that going to Rojava would not be necessary to write the book. “What difference would it make if I went there for a week or so?” she asks. “I’d see whatever they wanted to show me. I wouldn’t have the language capacity to ask probing questions, and anyway, I’m not an investigative reporter. I want to write about the big historical sweep of the issues.”

Tax has lost none of her edge since she wrote a seminal work of the feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s, Woman and Her Mind, a 1970 pamphlet that sold an astonishing 50,000 copies.* “I come out of the radical part of the women’s liberation movement,” she says. “We would talk all night in these little groups and tear out our hair and try to imagine how anything could ever change. It’s so different from these ladies— I always think of them as blonds in red blazers, which is perhaps unjust: they’re not all blonds.” She flashes a wicked grin. “I call it corporate feminism because they act like they’re running corporations. You don’t build movements with a bunch of organizations competing for the same funding streams.”

Tax investigated a different kind of feminism in The Rising of the Women: Feminist Solidarity and Class Conflict, 1880–1917, which profiled women striving to unite feminist and working-class concerns within the labor movement and the socialist parties. She researched and wrote the book while struggling to support herself as a single mother in the 1970s. Dropped by her original publisher when she missed her deadline, Tax couldn’t interest any other mainstream houses in the completed manuscript. “They all said, ‘Oh, the women’s movement is over; we’re not going to need another women’s book.’ This was in 1976, ’77, ’78!” she recalls. “I finally got a small publisher, Monthly Review Press, and was able to revise it because I got an advance for my first novel, Rivington Street, that was big enough to live on while I did both.”

The story of how William Morrow came to pay $50,000 for Tax’s first novel, published in 1982, should gladden any impecunious book critic’s heart. “I was reviewing for Kirkus Reviews, $25 a book,” she says. “I specialized in Regency romances and bodice rippers, because I could read them so fast. I kept thinking, God, these are so awful. I could do better with my hands tied behind me! A friend in my women’s group knew this agent, Harriet Wasserman, and she said if I wrote a proposal she would show it to her. I didn’t even know how to write a proposal, but Harriet took my 25-page plot summary for a historical novel and sold it for $50,000! I couldn’t believe it.”

Making fictional use of her research for The Rising of the Women, in Rivington Street and its sequel, Union Square, Tax chronicled the lives of Jewish women on the Lower East Side in the early decades of the 20th century. The novels pointed toward a writing career Tax never wholly abandoned, even as she devoted most of her time to global feminist issues. “I love fiction,” she says. “I have a completed novel in my desk right now, about Occupy, and I have this big biblical epic in mind, but I have no agent.” Wasserman closed her agency and disappeared in the wake of a missing-royalties scandal in 2007, and, Tax says, “I never found anybody I could work with as well.” She adds, “I would like to have written more books, but I’d also like to have three lives at the same time.”

Or maybe just two: “It’s very hard to go back and forth between writing and activism,” Tax says. “Writing is very wonderful and exciting while you’re doing it, but it’s very solitary, and the feedback is deferred. I really love doing political work, because you can see the results so fast, and you’re not doing it alone. But both take the same energy and the same part of your mind.”

[*Note from M. Tax: Actually, before the New England Free Press closed down in 1981, “Woman and Her Mind”had sold 150,000 copies according to Don McKelvey, at prices ranging from thirty-five to fifty cents]

This article appeared in the 07/04/2016 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: The Good Fight

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Bill Fletcher review in Alternet: “Changing the Paradigm: Women, National Liberation and Revolution in the 21st Century”

By Bill Fletcher Jr. [1] / AlterNet [2]

July 16, 2016

I was in the middle of reading Meredith Tax’s exceptional book, A Road Unforeseen: Women Fight the Islamic State [3] (Bellevue Literary Press, 2016), when the Istanbul terrorist bombing took place. As is so typical of the U.S. media, the level of analysis was superficial. We were given the horrific details but beyond that there was little background as to what might have unfolded on that terrible day. Some mention was made of the Kurds and then Daesh (the so-called Islamic State). The most recent report I have seen is that the suicide bombers may have been Chechens.

Yet it was Tax’s book that actually put the bombings in a much larger context, one that looks at the historic oppression of the Kurdish people, the role of the current administration in Turkey in covertly encouraging—if not supporting—Daesh, and the struggle over the future of the Middle East. What makes this work unique is the manner in which it looks at these issues from the standpoint of women. Tax examines the struggles in that region through central attention to the link between national oppression, patriarchy and evolving global capitalism, and in this context, illuminates the complexities of the moment.

Tax has been an outspoken leftist in critiquing the manner in which many on the left have either fallen prey to knee-jerk anti-imperialism, i.e., if the United States is involved in a situation a) it must be the central player; and b) anyone opposing it must be a positive force, or post-modern visions of the world that permit cultural relativism particularly when it comes to women. For Tax, both of these approaches—which are often linked—are disastrous not only for women but for progressive forces. In that sense, A Road Unforeseen represents an effort to challenge, if not put to bed, a decrepit paradigm that is leading progressive forces into an ideological and political cul de sac.

Though Tax starts by introducing the reader to the struggles in northern Syria led by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) against Daesh, she quickly turns her attention to providing the reader with background on the regional Kurdish struggle. The Kurds, a predominantly Muslim population found in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, are frequently described as the world’s largest nation without a state. Irrespective of whether that is factually accurate, what is clear is that the Kurds have faced ethnic/national oppression at the hands of each of the states in which they find themselves. Though the Kurdish struggle in Turkey is perhaps the most known, Kurdish emancipatory movements have emerged in other locales, generally crushed by the dominant regime.

What brought the current incarnation of the Kurdish movement to Tax’s attention was the unique role women were playing in the struggle in northern Syria in the region known as “Rojava.” Bits and pieces of this story made their way into leftist and mainstream media over the last few years as military units of Kurdish women (and their allies) engaged the Daesh, regularly defeating the latter. This stood in contrast to the near total collapse of the Iraqi military in the face of the Daesh offensive next door.  Thus, the question that emerged was, who was behind these units and what was this struggle really about?

Tax gives the reader a look at the 20th-century struggle of the Kurds for freedom, a struggle that found the Kurds frequently played off by either one imperial power against another, or on a regional basis, one nation against another. U.S. readers may be most familiar with the situation that unfolded in Iraq when, in the 1991 war, President George H. W. Bush called upon the Kurds—in northern Iraq—and the Shiites—in southern Iraq—to revolt against Saddam Hussein, only to abandon them when the goals of the U.S.-led coalition were satisfied. The Kurds (and Shiites) suffered terribly, some of which was eased through the introduction of the no-fly zone, prohibiting Hussein’s planes and helicopters from attacking those regions.

Yet, in many respects, the heart of the Kurdish struggle is to be found in Turkey where the Kurds account for approximately 20% of the population and have suffered vicious oppression at the hands of various Turkish governments as those governments attempt to dissolve the Kurdish people into a larger Turkish mass. In Turkey arose the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which was ultimately declared to be a terrorist organization by the Turkish government and by the U.S. Tax presents the PKK, however, as far more complicated.

The link between the PKK and the struggle in northern Syria against Daesh becomes much clearer later in the book, but Tax’s examination of the plight of the Kurds in Turkey is not only informative but heart-wrenching. Turkish governments have repeatedly acted to suppress each and every example of Kurdish strivings for public recognition, including but not limited to the ability to speak their own language. Every political act by Kurdish movements, when it is perceived by the Turkish government to be threatening, is condemned as terrorist, leading to jailings, killings and other forms of persecution.

It is worth noting here that the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan and its specific repression of the Kurdish people represents a continuity in oppression rather than a qualitative shift. The dominant discourse, since the end of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the secular Kemalist state (named after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the “father” of modern Turkey) has been that there exists only one people in Turkey. Whether during periods of so-called democratic rule or military juntas, this discourse has prevailed and with it the oppression of the Kurdish people.

The AKP has represented a break with the secularist Kemalist forces and a move in the direction of what some people describe as “moderate Islamism.” This Islamism is much aligned with that of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. The Erdogan regime has had objectives of moving Turkey in the direction of an Islamist state, ending secularism and entrenching a socially conservative authoritarian regime in power. This has included significant repression of popular democratic forces including but not limited to the Kurdish movement.

The hatred of the Kurdish forces by the Turkish regimes, including but not limited to the AKP, can be illustrated by their tolerance of Daesh—at least until very recently—contrasted with their antipathy toward the Kurdish movement. The AKP regime has been prepared to cut off supplies to besieged Kurdish areas in Syria that have been threatened by Daesh. They have, additionally, been prepared to turn a blind eye toward Daesh forces in transit through Turkey. At the same time, the AKP regime has carried out severe repression against the Kurds, labeling most acts of protest—whether peaceful or not—as terrorist. Martial law has been used and Kurdish political parties have been repeatedly rendered illegal. Thus, portraying the AKP as “moderate Islamists” is taken as a sick joke not only by the Kurdish movement, but by pro-democracy and pro-women activists in Turkey who have experienced the horrors associated with the regime.

The PKK, on the other hand, rose as a fairly typical left-wing national liberation organization in the 1980s, though possessing certain unique features, e.g., not following any of the socialist or so-called socialist states. It chose military action against the Turkish state, concluding that there was no other path. The story of its ups and downs, as well as the role of the iconic and all-present PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was striking in that Tax makes no effort to gloss over crimes committed by the PKK or the equally troubling tendency, within the PKK towards the deification of Ocalan. Instead, this reads as a critical analysis of a movement that has undergone dramatic transitions, including in its understanding of women and patriarchy.

The heart of the book is actually about patriarchy/male supremacy and the redefinition of liberation  For Tax, the revolutionary trend within the Kurdish movement represents an anti-fascist and anti-misogynist force in the region. The link between the anti-fascism and anti-misogynism is key.  Tax examines the rise of religio-fascist movements like Al Qaeda and Daesh and sees in them not a revivalist movement but a demonic, barbaric force which seeks to create a neo-fascist “paradise” in the Muslim World. Central to this mission is the renewed oppression of women, including but not limited to overthrowing all of the gains that had been won by progressive and revolutionary forces in the Muslim world during the 20th century.

The religio-fascists may use the rhetoric of a return to the seventh century, but the seventh century that they reference never existed. Instead, this is a movement which gained great support from both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. during the Cold War as an effort to both counter the then Soviet Union but also to crush the broader Left and progressive nationalist movements in the region. The base of this movement, however, are men, and specifically men who have been cast aside by a changing (neo-liberal) global economy.  These alienated men see no future for themselves but rather they see a future in a mythical past. Al Qaeda and Daesh offer that and contained within that future is a barbaric oppression of women.

The PYD-led struggle in northern Syria is part and parcel of this anti-fascist/anti-misogynist effort. It is a struggle that Tax identifies as having arisen, to a great degree, out of the evolution of the PKK (in Turkey) whereby the struggle came to be understood as far broader than on the military plane and, most importantly, that the struggle of women for freedom was moved to the center of the theory and practice of the movement, and away from its periphery/afterthought.

In discussing conflict in Syria I was initially concerned Tax was going to walk around the question of the Assad regime. While Tax explains the vibrant anti-fascism of the PYD in its struggle with Daesh, I would argue that the greatest source of terror in Syria has been the Assad regime, though in no way am I suggesting that Daesh is in any respect progressive. Rather, the Assad regime has been brutally repressive and there are sufficient facts now commonly understood that demonstrate that it was Assad’s lethal repression of peaceful protests in 2011 that sparked the militarization of the conflict.

As the story unfolds it becomes clear that Tax does not walk away from a critique of Assad. She holds him responsible for the horror that has unfolded, though she does identify the internationalization of the conflict, particularly the introduction/intervention of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In fact, she gives important note to the manner in which Assad cooperated with Al Qaeda, in originally providing them safe transit into Iraq, only to later jail and then free their (now Daesh) militants when the Syrian conflict became militarized (an act that she correctly identifies as having been aimed at trying to make the conflict appear to be sectarian and, at base, a war against terrorism). A weakness in her portrayal of the conflict, however, is little attention to the destructive role of both Russia and Iran, key allies of the Assad regime.

In writing this review I have resisted the impulse to retell the entire story. This has been difficult because not only is the book excellent, but the story is compelling. Yet it is the analysis that situates what is otherwise described as a struggle against terrorism or a struggle for national freedom as a more complicated struggle for the emancipation of women, and thereby the emancipation of society, that gripped me as a reader and activist.

Tax closes her book with cautionary notes. Among other things, as an experienced leftist, she has all too often witnessed the romanticizing of various struggles and the blurring of reality. There are countless examples where leftists from the global North have seen only one side of a struggle and drawn overly simplistic conclusions. Khmer Rouge-led Kampuchea/Cambodia was a dramatic and tragic example of this. In the case of women, there have been many progressive and revolutionary movements in which women have taken leadership only to be thrown backward into traditional roles upon the “success” of the movement. Thus, Tax is fully aware that the future is not written but is the result of the struggles and ideas which we elaborate in the present. Indeed, the future is very much related to how we understand the past. In that regard, A Road Unforeseen leaves the reader with both a sense of optimism for the possibilities of a truly radical road, while at the same time a soberness as to the many real dangers that await anyone traveling toward the “undiscovered country.”

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a talk show host, writer and activist.  He is the author of ‘They’re Bankrupting Us!’ And Twenty Other Myths about Unions [4]. Follow him at [5].

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[6] on Changing the Paradigm: Women, National Liberation and Revolution in the 21st Century


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