Adam Curtis on Bookchin and Öcalan

This morning I awoke to find that Adam Curtis, the great British documentary filmmaker, has traced the parallel lives of Murray Bookchin and Abdullah Öcalan, and in the process helped explain both of them to the wider word. It’s published on his BBC blogpost here.  Curtis has clearly studied my article on the subject from 2012, which was published here. Let’s hope that his article helps free Öcalan from his island prison, helps remember the “forgotten revolutionary” Bookchin. Let’s hope further that it illuminates the mentality of the Kurdish freedom struggle today.  Viva Kobane!



Dispatch from the war zone, October 26

Back at the Border, Near Kobanê

by Ulf Peterson of TATORT Kurdistan

Yesterday we visited the family of a friend from Cologne in the border town of Mizaynter, where a solidarity vigil was being held.

Solidarity vigil at Myzanter, October 25

Solidarity vigil at Myzanter, October 25

Twenty-eight refugee families have been added to the village’s twelve families; they are living, in part, in mud huts intended for animals. Our host explained that up until 1924, the villages on the Turkish side of the border had belonged to the Kobanê district—the border had been open. Only after the Second World War, during the Cold War, was the border enforced, and then the Turkish army laid 650,000 landmines, against smugglers and PKK: ( [German]).

Thereafter the families were separated. In 1990 construction of the Ataturk Dam was completed. It diverted water to the adjacent plain of Harran ( [German]), but it parched this area. Previously the people had been able to farm the fertile land on the Syrian side of the Kobanê district, as their ancestors had long done, but no more. The poor were left to smuggle tea, sugar, and tobacco for an income. The war has destroyed even this existential source of support.

The battle for Kobanê has been raging for forty-one days now. The day before yesterday, in the “press hill,” we met the ARD correspondent Martin Weiss, who delivered this fine short report for Mittagsmagazin: [German] In the evenings we watch on Kurdish TV reports by the courageous journalists who, cameras in hand, accompany the fighters.

Day and night, throughout city, we can hear gunshots and armor-piercing shells. But yesterday only two air attacks were launched on the Islamic State. An old acquaintance, a member of the executive of the HDP (People’s Democratic Party), said: “Before the IS invaded the city on October 6, while it was still hunkered in its tanks in the countryside, it was like sitting ducks. But back then it wasn’t bombed. Only after the IS invasion, and the great uprising of the Kurds in response, did the coalition strengthen its air attacks, somewhat.”

Human chain at Caykara, October 25

Human chain at Caykara, October 25

Our host family, their strong and joyous children, and the militant village commune in Mizaynter, all affirm that “resistance is life” (Berxwedan Jiyan e). But resistance is death, every day. The ambulances from Suruç overtake us with the dying and the survivors.


Traveling with Brigitte Kiechle, Gül Güzel, and Nick Brauns

Urfa, October 26, 2014
I thank Janet Biehl for the translation into English at: Tomorrow the article “Brutal Game in Kobanê,” by our traveling companion Nick Braun, will appear : [German]. On the rise of the Islamic State, I recommend:!148217/ [German]

Translated by Janet Biehl. This article originally appeared at

Dispatch from the war zone, October 21

From a village near Kobanê

by Ulf Peterson of TATORT Kurdistan

We spent two nights in the village of Mehser (Turkish: Çaykara), about four kilometers from Kobanê–close enough see and hear the war. In the border villages a few thousand people stand guard. Many of them have children or other relatives who have been fighting in the People’s Protection Unites (YPG) for thirty-seven days in Kobanê against the Islamic State (IS). The guards are supposed to prevent IS fighters from coming over the border. The military police (Turkish: Jandaram) often attack them with tear gas, and a few villages have been entirely evacuated.

In Mehser we stayed as guests of a family on the village’s southeastern border, about 1.5 kilometers from an IS-occupied village directly behind the border. Through a telescope we could make out the black flag. Map:

Two evenings ago, around 8:30 pm, we watched as the U.S. Air Force dropped three bombs on the IS in Kobanê. Along with our Kurdish friends, we applauded. A few here speak of ironically of “Heval (Comrade) Obama”. An old Kurdish saying goes: “If you’re drowning, you have to grab onto the snake.”

A family driven from its village by IS

A family driven from its village by IS

Yesterday we took part in the burial of two YPG fighters and a YPJ fighter. (YPJ are the Women’s Protection Units). The coffins were carried in a protest march from the hospital to the cemetery. We saw a whole row of fresh graves, the headstones often still without names.

The district town of Suruç is 8 kilometers from the border. It has 60,000 inhabitants and is currently accommodating 50,000 refugees, among whom 12,500 are in temporary camps. They are lacking pretty much everything, and the tents aren’t winterproof. One woman reported that when ISIS attacked Kobanê, she had to watch as IS decapitated her neighbors.

In Suruç we met the journalist Natalie Amiri, who made a good report for ARD’s morning magazine [German]:

And then there was the mentally ill seventeen-year-old German from North Rhine-Westphalia, who arrived in Mehser the evening before we did. He wanted to join IS, so he could “behead the infidels.” The mayor of Batman, who was participating in the guard, was able to persuade the police in Suruç to detain him until his mother comes to pick him up.

My traveling companion Nick Brauns is writing an article for tomorrow’s edition of the daily Junge Welt [German]: (

Brigitte Kiechle, Gül Güzel, Nick Brauns, and Ulf Peterson in the village of Mehser, in sight of Kobanê

Brigitte Kiechle, Gül Güzel, Nick Brauns, and Ulf Peterson in the village of Mehser, in sight of Kobanê

Greetings from Urfa (Turkish: Şanlıurfa),


Translated by Janet Biehl.


People’s Protection Units, YPG and YPJ

Guarantors of the Revolution

by TATORT Kurdistan

On May 6, 2014, we had an opportunity to spend a day with the People’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ). We visited the Şehit Jînda Academy and met the graduating class of new commanders, male and female.20141014 Kurdish0001

The academy stands among cornfields in Cizîre canton, in traditional houses built from mud, as in the villages. At this school, YPG and YPJ soldiers are educated to become commanders. Contrary to our expectations, these soldiers were of various ages and had already had fighting experience. Many had had their first taste of battle in early adolescence, when they fought regime troops, or ISIS, or the FSA, in defense of their district or village.

Now at the academy they are at least nineteen years old, and the training they are getting places special emphasis on political education. As one commander, Heval Rustem, explained, the mind is the best weapon, and men stand in the middle of the battle. The liberation of women and especially the battle against one’s own male-patriarchal identity, he says, is one of the hardest battles that he has to fight, in order to be socially effective. The YPG and YPJ see themselves as transcending parties, but they are unabashedly committed to humanistic values like women’s liberation, the coexistence of all social groups, and a life in grassroots democracy, beyond capitalist modernity.

The academy’s graduates take an oath in which they swear to uphold the paradigm of a gender-liberated, ecological, and democratic society. More and more Arabs, Assyrians, and members of other ethnic identities participate in the YPG and YPJ as well.

The confrontation with the current political situation, and with gender relations, is revealed not only in the curriculum but also in the form of self-organized theater pieces. The sketches at the Moral Forum portray first feudal society and then its deep-seated transformation, especially through the women of the Kurdish freedom struggle; they show the sordid role played by the Kurdish parties close to the South Kurdish KDP. The soldiers recite poems and revolutionary songs. The mood among the activists is decidedly comradely and positive, as we also saw in the many interviews that we were able to conduct.

Campaign TATORT-Kurdistan, Delegation to Rojava, May 9, 2014. Translated by Janet Biehl. Originally published at

The New Justice System in Rojava

Consensus is Key

by Ercan Ayboğa

In May 2014 Campaign TATORT Kurdistan’s delegation to Rojava (North Syria, West Kurdistan) spent almost four weeks in the region of Cizîre. The delegation conducted numerous interviews about the political situation and various aspects of self-management. Ercan Ayboğa was among them and wrote this account of the postrevolutionary justice system.00 Rojava solidarity image

 After the revolution in Rojava began in July 2012, the Syrian justice system was rendered obsolete. Obviously the people, and the political movement that stood behind them, rejected the security apparatus, the political state representatives, and the intelligence agencies, but they also rejected the representative of justice and ousted them from office.

Equally important as removing the dictatorial Baath regime’s personnal was, however, the question of what the new form of justice would look like. In any society that is not yet entirely free of domination, not yet wholly emancipated or liberated socially and along gender lines, so-called crimes—even at a low level—take place, especially against the background of war—conflicts, violence, theft, and robbery—with which the city must grapple.

The foundation of the new justice system that was constructed has the Peace and Consensus Committees. Some of them had previously been formed in the 1990s by left Kurdish political activists in Syrian cities with supportive Kurdish majorities. Even today they perform the tasks of ensuring social peace in their district or locality and of taking action against criminality and social injustice. Under the [Baath] regime these early committees operated underground—the state saw them as a threat to its monopoly over justice, so they operated in parallel to the existing justice system. Despite the increased repression after 2000 and especially after 2004, they continued to exist, albeit in smaller numbers and without reaching the majority of the Kurdish population.

After the localities of Rojava were liberated in the summer of 2012, the places that had already had this experience with the Peace and Consensus Committees underwent no “chaos” or confusion when it came to settling differences in civil and criminal cases. The existing committees were now the go-to places for matters of justice, and where they were absent, they were quickly constructed according to the already existing model.

The Structure of the Justice System

To describe the structure of the justice system in Rojava, we must study the structure that has developed over the past two years. Once the cities and villages were liberated on July 19, 2012, regional justice councils (in Kurdish, diwana adalet) were constructed in the various regions. They emerged at the initiative of the TEV-DEM [the Movement of the Democratic Society], which organized executive bodies of the West Kurdistan People’s Council, or MGRK, throughout Rojava; the MGRK–people’s council system was the decisive force that drove the revolution. The justice councils engaged judges, lawyers, prosecutors, jurists, and others who had broken with the ruling system. Moreover the people’s councils were also members of the Peace and Consensus Committees and elected and appointed further persons. These justice councils have since been crucial for the construction of a new justice system.

The three majority-Kurdish-settled regions were recently were named cantons; the largest of the three is Cizîre. Its justice council, which has eleven members, comprises several district councils; the justice councils in Afrîn and Kobanê have seven each. (Apparently not many people sit on these important committees.) These justice councils coordinate with the people’s councils and are accountable to them; after wide-ranging discussions in the people’s councils, they founded the new justice system.

At the lowest level of the new justice system, created in the villages, districts, and even sometimes streets, are the Peace and Consensus Committees. They resolve cases on the basis of consensus. If it turns out that they can’t do so, the case is taken up to the next level. Difficult cases like murder, it must be said, aren’t handled by the Peace and Consensus Committees but are taken directly to the higher levels.

At the communal level the Peace and Consensus Committees have a dual structure. The general committees are responsible for conflicts and crimes; the women’s commissions are responsible for cases of patriarchal violence, forced marriage, plural marriage, and so on. They are directly attached to the women’s organization Yekitiya Star [the Star Union of Women].

At the next level up, in the big central city for each area, are the people’s courts (dadgeha gel), which were called into life by the justice councils. Their member judges (dadger) can be nominated by the justice councils or by anyone in the area. The people’s councils at the regional level (like Serê Kaniyê, Qamişlo, Amude, Dêrik, Heseke, Afrîn, Kobanê) advise on the nominations, and from them seven people are elected for each area. The nominees do not have to be jurists; in the contrary, unlike in other justice systems, some of those chosen have no judicial background at all. It’s considered far more important that the people nominated for justices are those who can represent the interests of the society.

The remaining levels of Rojava’s justice system are much like those in other states.

At the close of a proceeding in the people’s court, one of the parties may enter an objection and bring the case to the appeals court (dadgeha istinaf). Rojava has only four of three courts, two in Cizîre and one each in Kobanê and Afrîn. At this level the judges must be jurists.

At the next level, those who wish to bring a suit have at their disposal the regional court (dadgeha neqit); there is only one to cover all three cantons.

Finally there is a constitutional court (dadgeha hevpeyman), whose seven justices decided that the social contract—which was adopted at the beginning of the year instead of a constitution—and other important laws would be observed in the proceedings and other decisions of the government. In each region people’s court attorneys (dizgeri) as well as other prosecutors work in the public interest.

At the summit of the legal system is the justice parliament (meclisa adalet); each of the three cantons has one. Each justice parliament consists of 23 people: three representatives of the justice ministry, newly founded in January 2014; eleven from the justice councils; seven from the constitutional court; and two from the bar association. One member of justice parliament speaks publicly. This setup contains an even more important difference from typical justice systems, for with only three representatives, the new transitional government has little legal influence.

The justice parliaments have the responsibility to ensure that the legal system accommodates the needs of this fast-changing and democratizing society. Their top priority is the ongoing reconstruction of the justice system. It’s still only skeletal, and many details and practices have not been talked out or decided upon. The legal system faces the huge imperative to work out the new legal foundations (above all the social contract), but it must also refer to existing Syrian laws, since the new laws don’t yet cover everything. Still, new laws don’t have to be worked out in every area.

Every law, regulation, and guideline is newly analyzed; the undemocratic elements are struck out and replaced with new ones, and new parts added on as necessary. The three cantons understand themselves as part of the Syrian state, but as a democratic one. Should a democratic transformation not be possible, a completely new law for the affected area will be created.

Furthermore the justice parliaments advise on pending technical and administrative questions. The problems and demands of the bar are also discussed there, and common solutions are developed.

Up to now the work in the justice parliaments has developed through many discussions, but their members have not disagreed strongly, or at least so they say. Given the pressure to build a functioning judicial system relatively quickly, there has not been much time for discussions. The deep necessary discussions have mostly had to be postponed to the coming years, when peaceful times will hopefully prevail.

Education of Staff

In the mid-2013 in Qamişlo an academy for jurists of Rojava’s three cantons was founded. It was necessary because the new justice system requires at least several hundred professionals and staff. Each basic educational course of study lasts four months. In May 2014 two groups of three dozen people each completed the first unit. After passing exams at the end of four months, students can begin work in the new justice system. But their education doesn’t end there—they return to the academy at regular intervals for further education, for many months more. The junior jurists better and more comprehensively is under discussion, as the relatively short four-month period was instituted only because of the great need for professionals.

Results of the New Justice System

It goes without saying that the new system abolished the death penalty. A penalty of life imprisonment (the maximum term is temporarily set at 20 years) can be imposed only in cases of murder, torture, or terror. Up to now that’s happened only twice in Cizîre: for a man who murdered a woman in a barbaric way, and for a man who tortured and murdered a member of the security forces (called Asayiş).

In Rojava, arrest is considered the last resort. And according to the principles of the legal system, the arrested person is to be viewed not as a criminal but as someone to be rehabilitated. Prisons are understood to be educational institutions and once the means are available are to be transformed into rehabilitation centers; they will not be punitive institutions. Rojava’s legal commissions are especially concerned with the issue of the prison conditions, for as onejustice council member explained to us: “We have already deprived the prisoners of their freedom; we don’t want to punish them further with prison conditions.”

In the past two years, as a result of the new justice system and especially the greater self-organization of the people in communes and councils, the number of crimes has declined slowly, although reliable figures are still hard to determine. They are concentrated at the urban peripheries. In South Kurdistan, so-called honor killings remain commonplace, but in Rojava, especially because of the work of the women’s movement, those crimes have noticeably declined.

The Peace and Consensus Committees

The most basic difference between Rojava’s justice system and the justice systems in other kinds of states—capitalist, real-socialist, parliamentary, dictatorial—is the existence of the Peace and Consensus Committees at the local level and the roles they play in the council structure.

Members of the Peace and Consensus Committees are nominated by the people’s councils. At the level of the commune (the lowest organizational structure of the MGRK system, consisting of 30 to 150 households), all residents come to an assembly and elect the members. At the next highest organizational authority, the district or village community (around 7 to 10 villages), the Peace and Consensus Committees chosen when the people’s council meets with the delegates of the communes. The higher levels in the council system have no Peace and Consensus Committees.

The council system in Rojava was constructed at the beginning of the revolution in Syria three years ago; thereafter the Peace and Consensus Committees emerged at the district and village community levels. Starting in 2012, with the emergence of the communes, the Peace and Consensus Committees were elected at these lowest levels. Most of the communes don’t have authority over such committees.

As I mentioned earlier, the first Peace and Consensus Committees were built back in the 1990s, which benefits the MGRK structure. Without this long-standing experience, it would have been much harder to build these committees so quickly in other places. The fifteen-plus years of experience were very valuable.

Each Peace and Consensus Committee usually consists of five to nine people, with a gender quota of 40 percent. The people elected are usually those who are thought to have the ability to bring conflicting parties together in discussion. Most are over 40.

The committees’ procedures are not spelled out in writing in every detail or even in their entirety. Rules and principles have developed in practice over the years and to some extent are transmitted verbally.

Members of the Peace and Consensus Committees are not to be understood as traditional magistrates, since they are elected democratically and with gender parity. This is important, as the councils and the political movement that undergird the construction of the committees relate to the councils of elders of traditional society. The councils of elders hardly exist today—they were dispersed in the 1960s and 1970s. Rojava identified these traditional institutions but infused them with the values of its social contract: council democracy, gender liberation, and human rights. By incorporating and superseding the traditional councils of elders, they constitute s a bridge of understanding between tradition and revolution.

The parallel structure of the women’s commissions and Yikitiya Star should guarantee that feudal structures have no jurisdiction in cases of patriarchal violence. In this context women are the driving force.

The goal Peace and Consensus Committees, when it comes to jurisprudence, is not to condemn one or both sides in a proceeding but rather to achieve a consensus between the conflicting parties. If possible, the accused is not ostracized though a punishment or locked away but rather is made to understand that his or her behavior has led to injustice, damage, and injury. If necessary, the matter is discussed for a long time. Reaching consensus among the parties is a result that will lead to a more lasting peace.

Over the long term that is a great benefit for the local society, as it furthers a rapprochement among groups and individuals and promotes peace. Social solidarity and social cohesion grow in this soil; that has been the experience of two years of revolution in Rojava. Today in the communes and localities, if the bulk of the people behave in solidarity, are able to found cooperatives, and are able to make decisions together, it’s partly because the work of the Peace and Consensus Committees has been successful.

That the committees are accepted by the society and enjoy great respect is also shown in the fact that more and more people from other ethnic groups are turning to them with their problems. It should not be forgotten that a large number of Arabs live in some cities of Rojava.

Another indicator of the committees’ positive effects is the fact that where they are well-organized, quarrels and altercations between individuals, families, and groups are slowly declining; moreover crime, especially theft, is on the wane.

Note: This article was published in Kurdistan Report, September-October 2014; Translated by Janet Biehl. A short version appeared in August 2014 in TOA magazine, issue no. 4, published by Täter-Opfer-Ausgleich und Konfliktschlichtung;




The Bookchin-Öcalan Connection

Would you like to know more about how Murray Bookchin, the American communalist theorist, influenced Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the PKK?  You can read my account here. This article is based on a speech I gave at the “Challenging Capitalist Modernity” conference in Hamburg in 2012—you can watch the video here.00 Rojava solidarity image

My other writings on Kurdistan:

“Hasankeyf: A Story of Resistance,” about the fight against the Ilisu Dam on the Tigris River, New Compass, August 7, 2011.

“Kurdish Communalism,” an interview with Ercan Ayboga, New Compass, October 9, 2011.

“Report from the Mesopotamian Social Forum,” New Compass, October 5, 2011.

“Is Obama’s Best Ally Against Isis a Force Associated with Bookchin’s Communalism?” New Compass, September 12, 2014.

“Democratic Autonomy in Rojava,” by Michael Knapp of TATORT, October 10, 2014; translated from Kurdistan Report.
Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan.  2012. A translation from the German of Demokratische Autonomie in Nordkurdistan, written by TATORT Kurdistan.




Democratic Autonomy in Rojava

Starting in 2012 a communalist social system has been in the process of transforming Rojava (West Kurdistan, or Syrian Kurdistan). This firsthand account of the institutions of that transformation was written in the early summer of 2014 and thus before the current war. The world’s powerful countries should be supporting this courageous people and their high-minded social and political transformation, rather than allowing one of its cities, Kobanê, to be overrun by ISIS barbarism. Viva Rojava!00 Rojava solidarity image

The Goal Is a Democratic Solution for the Entire Middle East

by Michael Knapp

Rojava delegation of Campaign TATORT Kurdistan


In the past 33 years, the Kurdish freedom struggle, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, have not only reacted to social changes but shaped them and proposed further steps in the direction of a liberated society. Significantly, the PKK conceives the Kurdish question as an issue not of nation or ethnicity but of the liberation of society, of both sexes, and of all people. Öcalan’s book Sociology of Freedom is a kind of a road map for the liberation of Rojava and the entire Middle East, highlighting in detail steps toward freedom.

During our journeys through Rojava, we met many people who had close relationships to Öcalan and to others who have decisively participated in the PKK’s history. This ongoing contact has engendered a transformation in the region’s otherwise feudalistic social terrain. The women especially emphasized this connection—they have known about Kurdish women’s liberation ideology for more than twenty years and have been trying to implement it. Thanks to all the close interconnections within the Kurdish freedom movement, many people [from Rojava] joined the PKK and fought for it in North Kurdistan. So it is a mistake to see the PKK as strictly a North Kurdish phenomenon; this movement also belonged and belongs to tens of thousands of activists from Rojava.

Öcalan’s 1999 arrest, followed by the Assad regime’s intensified repression, gave rise to a period of reorganization in Rojava. After the regime’s 2004 massacre of Kurds in the city of Qamişlo and the subsequent uprising, this reorganization began to gain momentum, to the point of creating armed self-defense units. The leftist Party of Democratic Unity (PYD) had already been founded and quickly became a strong regional political force. Meanwhile new paradigms emerged from the Kurdish freedom movement and especially from Öcalan, inspired by the work of the libertarian theorist Murray Bookchin, whose model of democratic confederalism and democratic autonomy became a touchstone for the reorientation. Öcalan developed a critique of the history of actually existing socialist states and of national liberation movements, including the PKK itself. As an alternative to conceptions of revolution that strive for an armed uprising and seizure of power, he outlined a plan for a “democratic, ecological, gender-liberated society.” He introduced the concept of an “ethical and political society” that would be self-managed and would situate itself outside the lifeless, homogenous consumer society of capitalism.

Even before the rebellions in Syria began, the Kurds of Rojava had already created the first councils and committees and thereby began to institute a radical democratic organization of most of the region’s population. Starting on June 19, 2012, the cities of Kobanê, Afrîn, Dêrik, and many other places were one by one freed from regime control; the strength of the reorganization then revealed itself. Military bases were reconfigured, and the vastly outnumbered regime troops were offered the option of withdrawal. Only in Dêrik did the situation lead to a struggle, with a few casualties. But even here, as people in Dêrik told us, the new self-organization prevented violent attacks and acts of destruction and revenge.

Self-defense and the “Third Way”

As we considered this phase and the politics of the Kurdish movement in Rojava, we also observed the implementation of another paradigm of Democratic Confederalism: self-defense and the primacy of nonviolent solutions. The Kurdish movement and especially the PYD were organized before the Syrian revolution began resisting the Assad regime. At that time they saw it as a matter of democratic transformation; a militarization of the conflict was to be avoided. But with the outbreak of war, Islamization, and the heteronomy of the Syrian revolt, the Kurdish movement in Rojava decided to go a third way: it would side neither with the regime nor with the opposition. It would defend itself, but it would not wage war. The movement has remained this politics up to the present [July 2014]. Thus in Qamişlo, in the quarters that were inhabited by regime supporters, regime military units were still tolerated. The same was true for the airport. The goal was and is always to reach a political, democratic solution for all of Syria.

The Commune as the Center of Society

“The creation of an operational level where all kinds of social and political groups, religious communities, or intellectual tendencies can express themselves directly in all local decision-making processes can also be called participative democracy.”

— Abdullah Öcalan, Democratic Confederalism (London, 2011), p. 26.

Democratic Confederalism has as its goal the autonomy of society: in other words, instead of the state governing society, a politicized society manages itself. As against capitalist modernity, it proposes democratic modernity. In Rojava, to make this system possible, the center of the social system became the commune. The commune, the self-management of the streets, would emerge as the hub of the society.

Decision making in the communes requires that quotas be met—that is, in order to make a decision, here and in all councils in Rojava, at least 40 percent of those who participate in the discussions must be women. In the communes, current issues of administration, energy, and food supply, as well as social problems like patriarchal violence, family conflicts, and much else, are discussed and if possible resolved. The communes have commissions that address all social questions, everything from the organization of defense to justice to infrastructure to youth to the economy and the construction of individual cooperatives—such as bakeries, clothing production, and agricultural projects. The ecology commissions concern themselves with urban sanitation as well as specifically ecological problems. At the forefront is the imperative to strengthen the social position of women: committees for women’s economy help women develop economic independence.

The commune, as the mala gel (people’s house), lends support in all questions; it is simultaneously an institution of support and a kind of court. Central to its processes is the ideal of agreement and compensation; for general offenses, the causes of an infraction are investigated and overcome, and the victim is protected. For patriarchal violence and all attacks that affect women, the mala jinan (women’s house) is in charge; it is attached to the women’s council, a parallel structure to the commune’s mixed-gender council.

As we ourselves could see, meanwhile, people of the most diverse identities take part in the communes, especially Arabs and Assyrians. The mala jinan likewise works to solve social problems and responsible for implementing the goals of women’s liberation. As much as possible, the councils prefer to vote by consensus. The communes send their representatives to their respective district councils and city councils, and the structure continues into the general council of Rojava.

Democratic Autonomy and the Nation-state

“Peaceful coexistence between the nation-state and democratic confederalism is possible, as long as the nation-state doesn’t interfere with central matters of self-administration. All such interventions would call for the self-defense of the civil society.”

–Abdullah Öcalan, Democratic Confederalism, p. 32.

Democratic Confederalism is a form of self-management and thus stands in contrast to the model of the state. It is an attempt at permanent social revolution, as is reflected in every facet of the social structure. Overcoming the nation-state is seen as a long-term goal. The state will be overcome when Democratic Confederalism in practice assumes all structures into its self-organization and self-management. In that society neither statist nor territorial boundaries will play a role.

Indeed, by virtue of the self-management of society, Democratic Confderalism renders the state and the nation-state redundant. In this social model the commune, the council, and the society are integrated, with the commune is the political center. In outward form the region of Rojava has chosen to follow the Swiss cantonal model, structuring itself in terms of the cantons’ far-reaching regional autonomy. Ideally the canton arises from the cooperation of the autonomous political councils. While the nation-state is based on social homogenization through the construction of identity and its reflexively coercive implementation, Democratic Confederalism is based on social diversity. Over the course of world history, the nation-state has been compromised by bloodshed.

In this region, typically only the Arabizing politics of Syria and the Turkicizing politics of Turkey were discussed. But Syria is home to Sunni and Shiite Arabs, Sunni Kurds, Assyrian Christians, Chaldeans, Yezidi Kurds, Armenians, Aramaeans, Chechens, Turkmens, and many other cultural, religious or ethnic groups. All these social groups should achieve representation through the council system with its corresponding quotas.

The commune, as the structure of self-management that directly binds to the neighborhood, must therefore be the center of political self-management. In order to raise the level of social organization, it provides educational forums for members of the commune, on topics like democratic self-determination and rights, women’s liberation, the history of Syria, the history of Kurdistan, the Kurdish language, and many other social issues.

On our journey in the region, we saw that the success in implementation varies from region to region. In many areas Arab councils and especially the Assyrians work very closely together with the Democratic Society Movement (TEV-DEM). Central positions are allocated to three or four co-chairpersons, who correspond to the social groups of the region.

The Highest Council, or Parliamentary Democracy?

While in many areas the Kurdish population already has decades of experience with the Kurdish movement’s concepts of women’s liberation and social freedom, here too there are of course also divergences. Some wish to organize in classical parties rather than in councils.

This problem has been solved in Rojava through a dual structure. On one hand a parliament is chosen, to which free elections under international supervision are to take place as soon as possible. This parliament forms a parallel structure to the councils; it forms a transitional government, in which all political and social groups are represented, while the council system forms a kind of parallel parliament. The structuring and rules of this collaboration are at the moment under discussion.

Closing the Gap

Mamosta Abdulselam, of TEV-DEM in Heseke, has explained the system of communes in Heseke. “There was a gap between the councils and the people—that’s why we developed the commune system,” says Mamosta Abdul. “There are 16 district councils here. On each council there are 15 to 30 people. About 50 houses form a commune. The communes are numerous—in each district there are about 10-30 communes with 15-30 persons each. The Mifte district in Heseke has 29 communes, while the neighboring district has 11 communes. Each district forms about 20 communes per 1,000 people. The 16 district councils are formed form the communes. One hundred and one people sit on Heseke’s city council. In addition the PYD has five representatives, as do five other parties. Families of the Fallen have five, Yekitiya Star has five, the Revolutionary Youth have five, and the Liberals have five. The district councils normally meet every two months. Twenty-one people are elected as the coordination. The leadership meetings take place once a month and as needed in special cases.   Always at least 40 percent of the representatives are women and at least 40 percent are men. Decisions are made according to consensus principle. Care is taken that one person doesn’t dominate the proceedings. The co-chairs are elected. Members of the commune nominate them and then elect them.”

Women’s Work

At the beginning of our stay in Rojava, Sirin Ibraham Ömer, a 45-year-old woman from the district of Hileli in Qamişlo, reported to us on women’s work in her commune.

“We are 60 active women in our commune. Once a week we do educational work—we read books together and then discuss them. Twice a month we visit other women and explain the tasks of the revolution. Many are much influenced by the logic of the state—they don’t see themselves as people who can manage their own affairs. They have many children, and there are many arguments at home. The children are outside on the street and play instead of going to school. We’re concerned about that. If a family has no income, we have a committee for that, to provide the basic foodstuffs.

The peace committee talks with the families. If there is violence in a family, the woman can get help from the Asayiş. In Hileli meanwhile it’s socially disapproved for a man to hit his wife—that’s all but come to a stop. In other districts it’s still present in places. Here it was usual for the television to be on 24 hours in an apartment, with Turkish broadcasts in Arabic language—that was a big problem. But when the energy suddenly went off, so did the TVs, and people’s minds were cleared to do something else.

Many women are married off very young, even as children, so that there will be no extramarital pregnancies. Now they see that education is good for them, that they can have a better life.

Once a week we go out and collect a little money—it’s a symbolic way to help. We distribute the weekly newspaper (Rohahi) —it’s very cheap, so everyone can read it. It appears in Arabic and Kurdish. When we all get together now, our topics are not gossip and chitchat as before, but political developments and the women’s organization. We know it all here in the district.

In many districts there are also so-called women’s houses. They aren’t women’s safe houses like in Germany, but houses where women can get together and educate one another and talk about heir problems. They frequently offer classes in computers, language, and sewing.

The most important work of the women’s houses is however to provide assistance against social sexism. “The women come to us, when they have a problem. Not only the Kurdish women but also the Arab women,” says a representative of the women’s houses, Serê Kaniyê.

We witnessed such an inquiry. Two older Arab women arrived and asked the women at the women’s house for help. “Through the commune system we know every family,” says Serê Kaniyê, “we know every family’s economic situation, and we know who hits his wife and his children. We go directly there and speak with those affected, until it gets to a solution.” She agrees on a date with the two women, to find a solution for their problem.

Conflict Resolution

The commune is a place not only of self-organization but also of social conflict resolution. It concerns itself with social problems in the districts, support of poorer members of the commune, and the just distribution of fuel, bread, and foodstuffs. Meetings of the commune handle not only conflicts, the usual neighborhood fights, but also violence against children, and resolution is attempted. In Dêrik we attended a meeting of representatives of a commune: they were discussing the case of a family that had tied up a child. This behavior was now monitored and controlled. If the misbehavior continues, the children will be taken to a protected place.


Translated by Janet Biehl. The original article appeared in the July-August 2014 issue of the German-language periodical Kurdistan Report. See