Rojava: Kurdish democracy without a state

Wes Enzinna visited Rojava in northern Syria, to teach a crash course in journalism: ‘‘I’m an atheist,’’ said Ramah, an 18-year-old student with a neatly trimmed goatee. A crowd of students had circled around, curious about who I was, what music I liked, how I had ended up here. None of them had ever heard of Bob Dylan or Edward Snowden or Brooklyn, where I lived. They asked if Obama really was a Muslim. They asked if everyone in America was an atheist, like Ramah. I told them there were many Christians, Muslims and Jews, though I said I didn’t believe in God.

‘‘Were you afraid when you discovered that God didn’t exist?’’ Ramah asked, imploring me with earnest, walnut-brown eyes.

‘‘Why would I be afraid?’’ I said.

‘‘In a world where there’s no God,’’ he said, ‘‘how do you deal with the constant fear of dying?’’

The next morning, I met with a student named Sami Saeed Mirza. I had barely slept, kept up by the intermittent swoosh of fighter jets and a series of loud thuds, whether distant bombs or the innocuous din of street life, I couldn’t tell. At one point, I went onto the rooftop and looked out at the horizon, a squiggly line of undulating sand spotted with a few stone huts. It was beautiful, in its way, a whole world painted with a single brush stroke of brown. Somewhere out there was the front line.

Mirza, 29, had sad, drowsy eyes and wore thick spectacles perched low on his nose. He hadn’t noticed the commotion. ‘‘I’m used to the sound,’’ he said. Unlike other students at the academy, Mirza grew up outside Syria in a small village in western Iraq. He is not a Muslim or an atheist but a Yazidi, part of an ethnic and religious minority that practices a modern form of Zoroastrianism. He hadn’t heard of Abdullah Ocalan until recently. In August 2014, ISIS extremists attacked his village, near the city of Sinjar, and butchered as many as 5,000 of his neighbors. While Mirza and his family were trapped on a mountain for four days, waiting to die, a battalion of women — Y.P.J. soldiers — fought through the ISIS lines and created a path for them to escape. Mirza, severely dehydrated and on the verge of collapse, fled.

‘‘The battle made me think of women differently,’’ he told me. ‘‘Women fighters — they saved us. My society, Yazidi society, is more, let’s say, traditional. I’d never thought of women as leaders, as heroes, before.’’

Mirza heard about the academy at a refugee camp, and here his education in feminism had continued. He and his fellow students studied a text that Ocalan wrote on gender equality called ‘‘Liberating Life.’’ In it, Ocalan argues that problems of bad governance, corruption and weak democratic institutions in Middle Eastern societies can’t be solved without achieving full equality for women. He once told P.K.K. militants in Turkey, ‘‘You don’t need to be [men] now. You need to think like a woman, for men only fight for power. But women love nature, trees, the mountains. … That is how you can become a true patriot.’’

‘‘I’ve learned the truth,’’ Mirza said. ‘‘The leader has shown us the correct interpretation of society.’’ Rojava’s Constitution — its ‘‘social contract’’ — was ratified on Jan. 9, 2014, and it enshrines gender equality and freedom of religion as inviolable rights for all residents. The Sinjar massacre gave Rojavan authorities an opportunity to show that they were deadly serious about protecting these rights. Still, I wondered if the rescue of Yazidis like Mirza wasn’t also strategic, a way to enlist the minority group in the defense of Rojava.

‘‘Why do you think the Y.P.G. and Y.P.J. saved you?’’ I asked.

‘‘Maybe I know, maybe I don’t,’’ he said. ‘‘But they are the only ones who came to help us. America didn’t come. The pesh merga’’ — Iraqi Kurdistan’s military — ‘‘didn’t come.’’ Now he wanted to devote his life to the teachings of Ocalan. ‘‘I was nothing before coming to the academy,’’ he said. [Continue reading…]

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