On Saturday, December 6, the Academic Delegation to Rojava met in Qamişlo with two representatives of Tev-dem, the Movement for a Democratic Society. Abdulkerim Omar and Çınar Salih first gave us some background to Rojava’s thinking about the state and democracy. Then they explained the structure of the democratic self-government—the commune and council system—and took our questions. Speaking through translators, Salih did most of the talking.
We have built our democracy so that people of different nationalities live together. We’re new, and we’ve made mistakes, and we’re trying to stop Daesh [i.e., Islamic State] from entering Rojava. Other delegations have come here, but we are delighted to have you. Your project is giving us hope. We haven’t achieved freedom yet, but we’ve learned how to struggle.
The system that we’re living in has been going on for five thousand years. Different stages of history have given it different names, but at its core it has remained the same, and its main pillar is the state. This has to be well understood. In the last hundred years people have struggled against the state, and they have achieved independence historically, but they haven’t achieved freedom, because they didn’t emancipate themselves from the state. Their concept of freedom remains within the limits of the state.
The current nation-sate system has opened the gates to the huge crisis that we are seeing. The Kurds have also played a role in this region—as our archaeologist friends have found out, they have left a mark on history and culture. We understand as Kurds that our problems will not be solved by creating a new nation-state. How can we overcome this chaos with as little bloodshed as possible? How to find a solution in spite of the existing state borders?
Instead of an independent state, we prefer autonomy. The solution has to be at the grassroots level. The nation-state system has created many prejudices, so people think Arabs and Kurds and Turks can’t get along. That idea has been reinforced by nation-state system. It’s been wired into people’s brains, with bad outcomes. It excluded conditions of coexistence and cooperation between people. We are struggling to get rid of these prejudices and create conditions for common life.
We believe that the state system equals the systematic destruction of women, and that democratic autonomy equals the liberation of women. That’s why our Rojava revolution is a revolution of women. In Rojava there is no area of life in which women don’t take an active part. One of our biggest achievements has been to break this prevalent dogma in Middle East that women are weak and lacking, as expressed in different ways such as in Sharia law. But this is just one result of our revolution. We believe that a revolution that does not open the way for women’s liberation is not a revolution. There have been revolutions in Libya and Egypt and Tunisia—there have been new governments—but the same status for women has persisted.
Our system rests on the communes,
made up of neighborhoods at the level of the residential street of 300 people households. The communes have co-presidents, and there are co-presidents at all levels, from commune to canton administration. In each commune there are five or six different committees. Communes work in two ways. First, they resolve problems quickly and early—for example, a technical problem or a social one. Some jobs can be done in five minutes, but it you send it to the state, it gets caught in a bureaucracy. So we can solve issues quickly. The second way is political. If we speak about true democracy, decisions can’t be made from the top and go to the bottom, they have to be made at the bottom and then go up in degrees. There are also district neighborhood councils and city district [city plus its surroundings] councils, up to the canton. The principle is “few problems, many resolutions.”
So that the government doesn’t remain up in the air, we try to fill the bottom of it. There have been questions about how the grassroots is actually organized. So you can ask questions.
Q. It’s very interesting concept, and probably there are tensions and challenges within this system. One is the tension between decisions from below and immediate needs on the level of the entire canton. For instance, probably you have to decide in a centralized way that you need to establish a mill to make flour. Or you have to decide to build a refinery. Strategically, these highly important things. On the other hand you have this bottom-up system coming from the communes. It’s not useful to establish similar infrastructure in several communes or in several cities. So you need some kind of coordination between the communes and the city councils. Who coordinates them?
We are also discussing theses issues—there is no ready-made formula to apply. Talking with numbers can help. Qamişlo has 6 different
districts neighborhoods. Each district neighborhood has 18 communes, and each commune is made up of 300 people households.
Now each commune has 2 elected co-presidents. And each commune has different committees. The 2 elected co-presidents from each commune come together to make up the people’s council of that
Then each of these 6
district neighborhood people’s councils elects 2 co-presidents. So from Qamişlo’s 6 districts neighborhoods, 12 people make up the citywide district-wide people’s council of Qamişlo. But 12 people alone can’t make up the council—it’s supposed to have 200. So in addition to these 12 people, the others are directly elected. Even if you’re not on a committee or weren’t elected in the commune, you can put their name out and potentially be elected.
Cizîre canton consists of 12
cities districts. Delegates to the canton-level people’s council are allocated according to population. Qamişlo is the biggest city district, so it gets more delegates than others–it gets 20. They determine it by population numbers. The co-presidents are already part of this big council; then Qamişlo gets 18 more. Each city district people’s council elects who’s going to go to the cantonwide people’s council. At the end you have a canton-wide people’s council. It’s like a parliament, but the ties between the commune and the councils are not severed.
Q. Each commune votes for delegates that go to the higher level?
Q. Qamişlo gets more delegates–who decides how many delegates each
city district gets?
It’s based on population.
Q. According to which census?
From the regime time. Now, the cantonwide people’s council doesn’t exist yet. They’re doing a census now. But at the commune level
in cities, it works there already. The cantonwide people’s council doesn’t even have a name yet—it may be called a parliament.
Each commune has committees, like, say, a health committee and there are similar committees at higher levels. That’s how they make sure the canton administration’s health committee has direct connection with the needs of the commune.
Q. What is the role of Tev-Dem?
Tev-Dem coordinates and mobilizes people in the grassroots and so carries the connection to parliament. It ensures the connection of the direct democracy to the government. It mobilizes and coordinates, but also sits in the parliament, where it represents the interests of the people. It’s a double identity.
Q. Women’s councils exist parallel to the people’s councils, in which women have 40 percent. Does that exist at all levels, and do all have veto power over women’s issues?
Yes. Women’s councils exist in parallel at all levels, the commune, the
district neighborhood, the city district, and the canton. The women’s councils don’t decide on general issues—that’s what the people’s councils are for. They discuss issues that are specifically about women. If there’s a social dispute, say about interpersonal conflicts. A committee tries to resolve issues between people. The women’s council also has a committee like this. So if they see in this committee an issue that concerns women, like a domestic violence dispute, and they disagree with the people’s council, and they say no, the no of the women’s council will be accepted. They have veto power on issues concerning women.
Q. Is it always clear what’s a women’s issue?
We go on a case-by-case basis. There’s no set formula. Whenever a women’s council vetoes something, that veto is accepted. If an issue can’t be solved at the lower level, those issues go to court. But these issues, like all issues in Rojava, are first resolved locally if possible.
UPDATE June 12, 2016:
I’ve altered the terms for the four levels mentioned in this article to conform to those that used in the book Revolution in Rojava by Ayboga, Flach, and Knapp. I originally called the four levels neighborhood-district-city-canton. But the Revolution in Rojava terms are more accurate: residential street, neighborhood, district (city plus surroundings), and canton. Here is a helpful diagram: