“If it wasn’t for the women, this revolution wouldn’t exist” – interview with an internationalist in Rojava

We interview Arîn Hêlîn, a Castilian internationalist who is part of the Women’s Movement of North and East Syria: “The struggle of the women in Rojava has made me feel more love towards my own gender, and towards the rest of my women comrades, and understanding that patriarchy tries to divide women because that way we are more vulnerable and defenseless.”

We have a chat with Arîn Hêlîn, an Internationalist from Castilla, member of the Jineolojî Academy of Rojava in North and East Syria, and organiser in the Women Defend Rojava campaign started by Kongra Star, an umbrella organization for women in North and East Syria.

This campaign tries to impulse and organize the role of women around the world, in the defense of the Rojava Revolution, with a very clear perspective: not only that women rise up to defend Rojava, but that they rise up against Patriarchy.

With a bit of reflection, because you’ve been here for a long time, what brought you to Rojava?

Having spent some time in the Spanish state working in support of the revolution in Rojava and the Kurdish liberation movement, and having traveled a several times to Bakur (Northern Kurdistan, controlled by the Turkish state), I decided to come to Rojava with the purpose of seeing with my own eyes how this revolution was developing, trying to go deeper in the feeling, the philosophy of the liberation movement, and at the same time get to know the society and the development of the revolution from a more pragmatic perspective.

So you were already involved in the liberation movement before coming to Rojava, why?

In 2015 I was pretty burned out by counterproductive dynamics , mostly from the anti-authoritarian or anarchist movement in the Spanish state, and all of a sudden the revolution in Rojava became famous due to the war against the Islamic State in the city of Kobane. I started to investigate a bit more about the Kurdish liberation movement and getting involved, getting to know people interested in the same issues, and quite soon I traveled to Bakur to get to know the refugees from Kobane. Seeing the hope, the motivation and the resistance that they showed to recover Kobane from ISIS, in spite of the war and the rough situation in the city of Suruç, gave me a lot of strength to continue with the solidarity and support work to the Kurdish movement when I returned to the Spanish state.

What have you been doing in Rojava?

At first, I was in the Internationalist Commune, working with society. When the war broke out in Afrîn I was lucky to have the chance to be there, participating in the resistance information center, to give visibility to the Turkish invasion of the canton. It was very hard work because it was a very bloody war ,and a historical resistance, but since my specialty is media work, I think we did a great job. When the situation was stabilized, even though the war and the violence in Afrîn hasn’t stopped, I started participating in the Jineolojî Academy, which later would be transformed into the Andrea Wolf Institute. We did education, investigation, we were writing a book on the Kurdish women’s movement, their history, philosophy…

Later, when again, there was a certain risk of another occupation of the Rojava territory, I started to take part in the Kongra Star women’s movement to build up the Women Defend Rojava campaign and that way organize the women’s solidarity with the revolution in Rojava.

“As a movement, and individually, women of all kind are the vanguard of this revolution.”

How is the women’s movement working, ideologically and practically?

First of all I think that the women’s area is the one that has developed the most during all these years of the revolution in Rojava. As a movement and individually, all kinds of women are the vanguard of this revolution. This revolution, if it wasn’t for the women, wouldn’t exist. We can look at particular cases like the entire movement, like Kongra Star, or the Mala Jin, the House of the Women, or the Jineolojî Academy. We can look at the women of all ethnicities, I’ve got to know Arab, Syriac, Kurdish and Yazidi women who have made huge advances so that there can be a real development for women in this part of the world.

Regarding the running of the movement, there is a general structure, where men and women work together, and then there is a parallel structure where only women participate. This is very important, because one of the theoretical matters in Abdullah Öcalan’s philosophy is that women need their own space to be able to develop, to accompany each other, to empower themselves together. This doesn’t mean putting aside all the work that has to do with other genders, but it means that spaces are needed for women to develop according to their perspectives, their protocols, their needs.

So there is a bit of everything: in the Communes there has to be a women’s committee where they gather to debate and discuss their problems, and finding solutions together, there is also Kongra Star as an umbrella organization for the women’s movement, composed by its different committees (the committees of justice, of society, of economy) who promote the creation of cooperatives so that women can achieve economical independence, as well as impulsing judicial assemblies where women deal with, for example, cases of gender based violence… These are structures or assemblies where women make decisions about all these issues that concern women directly.

In territories with Kurdish majority, as well in those with Arab majority, in the women’s area as well as in the general areas, they are the ones who impulse the work, who bring initiatives into realization, who put the energy and enthusiasm, and who on top of that are convinced that they will not tolerate a retrogress to the anterior system. Everything they have won these years is for them a total change of life, as before a woman could not divorce, have custody of her children, the right to inherit, or to only inherit half compared to her brothers, and not leave the house to work… The women aren’t willing to regress, and that’s what makes this system of mixed- and non-mixed structures in Rojava so powerful.

“The women are convinced that they won’t tolerate regression to the previous system.”

In Europe and the western world we have a certain way, full of prejudice, of viewing Middle Eastern women. Has your vision changed?

To any European woman, being here is always a minor clash due to issues like the veil, their way of expression, their own conception or cultures… But after spending some time here these things become normalized and you stop caring about if a woman uses the veil or not, because what’s in someone’s head is so much important. I’ve met women who wears the veil and who have a ideology or political philosophy much more radical than myself, or a great courage in exposing themselves and in their struggles, like women, who, after living under ISIS, have survived and decided to create a women’s movement in Raqqa. Sometimes, from our comfortable western view, we don’t even ask these women what they want, why they wear the veil or not, what place religion has in their lives… When we try to look for answers, without asking the persons directly involved, it seems quite a paradox.

What input has your experience in Rojava given you as a woman?

As a woman, the biggest specific input from this experience is s new vision, or feeling of respect and appreciation towards the rest of women. Working in a separate movement, living together with my women comrades 24h, the whole philosophy of the liberation movement of the Kurdish women, Abdullah Öcalan’s philosophy, and the martyrs who has given their lives for this struggle, has given me more love for my own gender, it has made me feel more love, respect and appreciation of my women comrades, and understanding that patriarchy tries to divide women, because that way we are more vulnerable and defenseless.

Many collectives and militants started seeing an example in the Kurdish women’s struggle since the battle of Kobane. We have spoken of women as a vanguard and about the autonomous women’s structures, for instance, but aside of that, how can the women’s liberation movement contribute to the feminist movement in the Spanish State?

To me, there are two very basic things in the women’s movement that are great examples. The first is the self-organization. It’s not possible to maintain a long term struggle, a struggle that is truly radical and that seeks real change in society if we don’t self-organize formally. Without this way of organizing it’s not possible to progress in the women’s liberation, nor in the liberation of other oppressed genders, and in this way, at the same time, a total liberation for the entire society.

“It’s not possible to achieve long term progress in Europe because most people don’t want to have long term commitments.”

What do you mean by organizing “formally”?

This is very attached to the second thing I wanted to say. When a person has an organization that they work for and at the same time commits to and assume a series of responsibilities, it’s possible to make medium and long term tactical and strategical advances. This is one of the bases searching for change that affects the life of people. One of the big problems we have in Europe is the informality caused by individualism, in which today I’m here with this collective, I work here for a while, but later, due to individual circumstances or incapacity of solving certain problems, collectives break up, and we have to start all over. Because of this there are problems like the generational gap or ignorance of our own history. We can’t progress or make long term plans because a majority of persons don’t want to have long term commitments: today I’m here and tomorrow I take off to Cuba, or Mexico, or India, because my individuality allows me to do so.

The level of commitment that these women have here is what makes this a real revolution, for a better or lesser extent, and it’s what made and make this possible eight years later.

Without that level of commitment, without that level of organization, this would not be possible. This is for me one of the things we have to look at in Western society: what level of commitment we have and what level of organization we can reach.

– Another topic we talked about was the unity of women, how to value each other more, for example. We found that in our territory there are an infinite number of currents and nuances that divide the struggle into a thousand collectives. How do you build women’s unity here?

In my opinion, unity is built through respect. A mutual respect for individualities, for collectives and for differences. Clearly a 50 year old married Arab woman is not the same as a 20 year old Syriac woman, for example, but they agree on certain things: they live under the same system, in the same territory, they have a series of common objectives of gender liberation and also of liberation of the territory, against oppression, but they still respect their differences.

The basis of respect of differences and autonomy, because Syrian and Arab women and Kurdish women have their organisations, but they all come together, for example in the assembly of women from the North and East of Syria. And that assembly manage to develop a common policy where, gathering all the differences, gathering all the needs, gathering all the projects needed by the different collectives that exist, the autonomy and the differences of each one of them are respected.

I think this also has a lot to do with how we focus on the problems. When your problem is that an invader like Turkey is going to come and kill you, rape you or kidnap you, certain other problems can go more unnoticed, whether they are problems of ideological, ethnic, cultural or religious differences. There are a number of common problems and these are considered problems for everyone. I’m not saying that we need those kinds of problems to organize ourselves collectively or being coordinated within a territory such as the Spanish state. I am saying that when we are able to identify the problems that we all share, as well as understand and respect what the problems are that certain collectives of women or other genders suffer specifically, in the territories in which we live, then we will be able to achieve certain agreements and common objectives to fight these problems. Always respecting the existing diversities.

“The vindication of the female subject is a very important issue, here and all over the planet.”

It crossed my mind that the differences in Rojava are between ethnic or religious groups, but in our territory, although there are also groups of specific collectives such as Gypsy Feminists, often among the autonomous women’s collectives it’s more about ideological differences or where we put the focus of the struggle, than because the profiles of women are very different. Is it because of cultural differences or differences in the way we approach our militancy and organization?

I think there’s a big historical difference. We cannot compare ourselves to women in the Middle East on a historical level, on a cultural level, on a religious level or on any other level. It doesn’t make sense trying to transport something that exists in one place directly to another part of the world because it will not work. There are certain bases that can serve us as models, readjusting them to the places we come from, but you can never make a copy and paste. What I do think we should ask ourselves is whether or not all these differences really are differences and where they come from. I believe that what is happening particularly and profoundly in Europe with women is our total loss of history. Now the history of women is being recovered with lots of books, research… but we need to look at history with an objective that goes beyond “these were the facts and we have come this far”, but from these facts try and see how it has influenced us and how it has made us come to this point. To see how it affects our personalities as European women, because with a review of history from the point of view of women and analyzing much more deeply what is the common history that we have lived we will be more capable of taking steps to common objectives and needs.

Another matter that generates a lot of division and debate is the “subject issue”. Here we see a clear vindication of the subject “women”, both in the women’s movement and in the international campaign Women Defend Rojava, for example. How can we analyze it from the feminist perspective in the Spanish state?

This is one of the big questions, and it’s what I was talking about before. We cannot translate it into our context because there are big differences, and by this I do not mean that in the Middle East there are no transsexuals, no homosexuals, no non-binary people… But as the genders here are understood, what is their culture, their tradition and their history, the claim of the female subject is a very important question, just as I think it is for the whole planet. Because there is a reality and that is that there are many people on this planet who identify with the “woman” subject, who are oppressed, and who accumulate a series of common characteristics that make them have a common struggle. And it’s not a question of not visualizing other gender identities, which are oppressed by the same system that has oppressed women, and they have to be respected. What is important in the end is how, respecting our differences, we can generate alliances to fight against a patriarchy that violates all of us.

Facing this violence, one of the central aspects of the liberation of Kurdistan, and one of the most famous, is the question of self-defense. Is this understood in the same way as in the Spanish state, where this concept is increasingly gaining ground?

In general, the entire Western world sees Kurdish women with Kalashnikovs in their hands, fighting the Islamic State, and it is true that physical or military defense is a very important part, especially in a region where war is always present. But self-defense is not just that, it is a holistic concept that involves defending yourself from all threats, from all violence that is practiced against our bodies, against our minds and against our lives. Self-education, for example, is one of the most important areas of self-defense, so you can make your own decisions. Another is the defense of the environment, because we have to defend what is allowing us life.

The “theory of the rose” says that self-defense is like a rose: it maintains its beauty, gives joy to the world, but at the same time has thorns with which to defend itself from being cut. All living beings have self-defense mechanisms while we humans have left it in the hands of external groups such as the police, the army, a husband, parents… When we are not able to defend ourselves individually and collectively – which means protecting the place where we live, protecting ourselves physically, our capacity for thought, for decision making, having the economic capacity to sustain ourselves both individually and collectively… – we are losing one of the faculties that are proper to any being that is alive. And this is what is absurd.

“Women don’t need men to be liberated, women will liberate themselves”

Concerning the role of men in the liberation of women in Rojava, what is that role and how is it applied in practice?

Women do not need men to be liberated, women will liberate themselves, and the important thing is that women free themselves so that they can also free society. The role that men have to play – not in the liberation of women but in their own liberation and in the liberation of society – is to rebuild themselves. If they themselves are not able to understand that they are also oppressed by this patriarchal system, and reject the privileges that this patriarchal system gives them because they impose violence to other people, the complete liberation of society is not possible. Women and other genders can be supportive, but if they themselves don’t want to, it’s going to be a fight between enemies rather than as comrades.

On a practical level it’s very complex, it still requires a lot of time. For example, in Rojava, whenever education is given, there is Jineolojî, where they talk about the history of women, about patriarchy… so that men ask themselves questions about both women and themselves, that often haven’t even been asked before.

You’ve mentioned Jineolojî a couple of times, can you explain what it is?

It is a proposal made by Abdullah Öcalan and developed by the Kurdish women’s movement, but it is a proposal for all women in the world. Basically what it proposes is a science of women and life, that is to say, to review the sciences and knowledge that have been developed until now and to look at them from the point of view of women. For example, to see from what point of view history has been written and to reinterpret and rewrite it as women. And so on with all areas of life: sociology, etymology, epistemology, economics… It is a very broad project that the women of the Kurdistan liberation movement are putting on the table and it is an invitation to the rest of the women in the world to participate in redefining that knowledge in a way that will lead us to freedom, to a society that uses knowledge for the benefit of society and not for the benefit of power.

“Sehîd Hêlîn Qereçox, Anna Campbell, was a great example of a revolutionary woman vanguard.”

Finally, any stories or experiences of women, that have impressed you, in the women’s struggle in Rojava?

Let me take two examples. The first is from an internationalist: I spent a relatively long time with Şehîd Hêlîn Qereçox, Anna Campbell, and for me, apart from being a great comrade and a great friend , she was a great example of a vanguard revolutionary woman, which I think is indispensable. The way she approached people, her interest in knowing, her mind completely open to understanding and rethinking all the dogmas, knowledge, or theories she had before, which she brought with her from Europe… Her desire to fight, her respect for diversity, her happiness, the care she took of her comrades, how she paid attention to them… Şehîd Hêlîn is an example of that not only Kurdish women can be a vanguard but any woman who is truly determined to fight for the liberation of women and all of humanity, whether in her own land or in another, is a vanguard for the women’s movement in the whole world.

The other case is that of a mother of two şehîds, her two oldest children. One is Agîrî, who fell in Raqqa, and the other Saxin; who fell in Afrîn. This woman is active in the commune of her neighborhood, helping the refugees who have come from Serêkaniyê, she goes to all the funerals there, to all the demonstrations… She is Kurdish, her husband is Arab, and you can see a little bit of the democratic nation and the momentum of the women’s movement inside the house. And above all you can see that energy that the women’s liberation movement talks about so much: she has a very special energy, able to cope with everything, to feel empathy, to put energy, to give value to all the people around her. She always says that she has a special connection with her children who have fallen as martyrs, and that when her first son fell, she felt it. She knew before they came to give her the news that her son had fallen as a martyr and that he was in the place where they put the bodies. She said, “It was 10:00 a.m. and I was suddenly very cold. After a few hours they came to look for me and they told me that exactly at that time they had put my son in cold storage.” And somehow when she needs it her children come to see her. She always says: “You may not believe these things as Europeans, you’ll say we’re a bit crazy, but this is a reality for me.” Kurdish women, and Arab women I think, have a very strong connection with their children, with nature. This energy that can seem very mystical, very inexplicable, is a very strong reality that makes you have a very different connection with the whole environment in which you live and with the people you love. It is one of the things that I will never, ever forget. and that makes me think where this connection with the people we love, with the nature around us, has been left within our nature as people, where all this energy has been left that we are no longer able to feel that way. And for me it’s one of the most impressive things and this woman is incredible, you have to meet her!

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