Mahwash Sheiki (born 1966) is a native of al-Qamishli, north-eastern Syria. An electrical engineer and a civil activist, she was one of the founders of Komela Şawîşka, one of the first women’s associations of its kind to be established in Syria after the revolution in 2012. Still active, the association focuses on empowering women intellectually, economically and politically. Sheikhi also started an important literary gathering in the city of al-Qamishli before moving to Germany where she currently resides. She sat down with SyriaUntold to talk about women empowerment in the Federation of Northern Syria (also known as Rojava).
SyriaUntold: What are the most important accomplishments the Democratic Autonomous Administration (DAA) has been able to achieve in the field of women’s rights since 2012?
Mahwash Sheikhi: In theory and according to the laws and general principles issued by the DAA, the accomplishments are great. As women civil activists, perhaps we used to call for these rights without having much hope of seeing them recognized. Unlike the current Syrian law, and especially the Personal Status Law which is mainly based on Islamic Sharia, Hanafi jurisprudence and other Islamic sources, what the DAA has approved matches laws passed in first world countries relating to women’s rights.
For example, women can no longer be forced into marriages and dowries [given by the groom to the bride’s family] have been banned as they rendered women to be the property of their husbands. Now both parties are required to work equally to provide for themselves as a couple; polygamy has been banned; marriage licenses have been organized in accordance with civil law, in addition to many other issues that benefit women now.
Yet the most important principle the DAA has stuck to was the principle of equal participation in all institutions. This has been followed to the letter as it is also part and parcel of the structure of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Perhaps it’s been taken from the teachings of [Kurdish leader Abdullah] Ocalan, where even governance of counties is based on equal participation. There is no [PYD-controlled] institution that doesn’t follow this rule of participation.
However… things are different on the ground. In truth, the PYD has been able to [mobilize] and include marginalized groups in the area, including women as they were thrust into the military and political life. This change was not natural but forced, and it was not accompanied by the development of women as independent entities with their own needs, rights or obligations. Also, the change did not come about due to a change in the socio-economic system. In fact, it was the result of a top-down party decision to bring women in large numbers into the fold of the ideology. This has been greatly successful because it’s always easier to win over the oppressed and the undermined masses.
Neither democracy nor economic development were achieved, and the right circumstances for providing a decent living never came into being. Nonetheless, all these grand laws were passed in a society that exhibited openness but only surface deep. Essentially, it was one of the most oppressed societies on many different levels (in terms of class, nationality, and -- especially for women – in terms of gender). When these laws were passed, confusion reigned among families and trouble started. Yet any new social or political [change] is bound to cause confusion and raise challenges in the beginning.
Many said that the new laws have led to the breakdown of the family unit and encouraged women to rebel. These laws may have emboldened women, but we must not forget that the ongoing war has also been a reason why families broke down and were displaced, and this rings true for the rest of Syria. Therefore, regardless whether we agree or disagree with this system, we find that it has, at least in theory, achieved a lot in advancing women’s rights.
How do you assess the legislation that was passed regarding civil marriage? And how did it affect the community in those areas?
I believe that approving civil marriage is one of the most important revolutionary legislations that were passed by the DAA, especially for women activists who only dreamed of achieving such a thing, not only because it was far-fetched but also because it would be faced with resistance on the ground. Yet not much resistance was met due to the fact that there is religious and ethnic diversity among the [residents] who are already religiously moderate. However, the legislation remained mostly on paper, even though some cases of civil marriage were recorded but only for some elite or merely for the media’s sake.
Have the rates of violence against women (as well as honor killings) dropped after the local authorities passed special laws to protect them?
Yes, the rate did drop, while women were being previously assaulted under the pretext of being weak. Overall, perhaps there was an increase in violence because of the raging war. This violence did not spare anyone, but the rate of violence against women severely dropped due to the public’s growing awareness as well as the major support women received from the DAA.
I have statistics from several bureaus of social justice that show they have received 1,032 complaints between 2015 and 2016 related to either violence against women or to them not receiving their full rights, such as cases made against polygamy, sexual assault, marriage of minors, rape, hiyar [forced marriage between cousins], inheritance, etc… Even though these are [still] sensitive topics in our area.Have you noticed any changes in social awareness when it comes to women’s rights that are currently safeguarded by PYD policies?
At the beginning of the [civil uprising] in Syria, women were heavily involved and were present at demonstrations. Women civil organizations were the first to organize, and we noticed the large presence of women in the political arena. Then the PYD came into power and the DAA passed all these laws related to women. All this cumulated in a change in social awareness and the advancement of women’s rights and their effective participation in the political and military arenas.
How do you assess the work of women organizations, such as Kongreya Star, that are run by the PYD? What is the nature of its relationships with other women associations and organizations?
Due to the large number of women within both the party and the administration, we are unable to separate the work of these organizations [Star and its likes] from that of the party. Personally, I was never a fan of the organization’s work because they were merely a “women” mouthpiece for the party. They did not allow themselves to be specific to any cause that would set them apart from the party.
The relationships between these party-run organizations and other [independent] organizations were never smooth. In the beginning the former tried to connect with other organizations, but as they gained momentum, they no longer cared for other organizations and tried to control them and direct them as they please.
Did the emergence of these organizations boost women’s self-confidence? Did it encourage women to file charges against offenders? How are these organizations different than other women organizations set up under the rule of the Baath Party?
It wasn’t the emergence of these organizations per se that led to women’s confidence boost. It was the general circumstances that women faced at the time that forced them to become stronger. War pushes people to fight for survival. The DAA and its general achievements worked in favor of women, which in turn, boosted their confidence. Some figures toed the line in their rebellion, especially after the so-called Mala Jinan ["House of Women" in Kurmanji] was established and overdid it trying to convince women of their freedom.
As for the organizations established under the Baath Party, they had an Arab nationalistic nature. Due to the many different ethnicities, especially with a Kurdish majority, there was a rather large disparity between these Baathist organizations and the women in the region. Their offices were merely women congregations who knew nothing of women’s rights. They didn’t even know what a women’s civil organization was [meant to do], but they too were a mouthpiece for the regime.
The DAA-run women’s organizations are, first and foremost, closer to the women in the area, making that a big achievement in and of itself as they pay more attention to marginalized women here, even if these organizations fall within the framework of the party and its totalitarian ideological system.
Do you agree with analysts who consider Rojava to be the sole experience that has put the issue of women’s rights at the forefront, therefore enabling them politically and socially since the beginning of the Syrian revolution? And if you agree, how is Rojava’s experience different than other Syrian revolutionary experiences and what are the obstacles that prevented the empowerment of women in these areas? Are they a result of traditions and customs or the fact that most military opposition forces right now have marked Islamist features?
Yes, I consider the Rojava experience to be special and different than others across Syria, be it under the regime or the “liberated” areas especially when it comes to passing laws related to women’s rights and to empowering women militarily and politically.
This doesn’t mean women are fully empowered because empowerment to people and individuals also means economic and social empowerment as well as spreading democracy. I don’t think we can praise or criticize this experience because we are still at war. Usually these issues are reassessed in more stable times.
But the Rojava experience remains better than most other areas, especially those controlled by Islamist factions, which worsened the situation of women at a time when women organizations were calling for amending and developing the Personal Status Law in the Syrian Constitution. We found that in some [opposition-controlled] areas, there was a segregation between boys and girls in schools. Women were forced back into the household, and some were taken captive as used to happen in the jahiliyyah (pre-Islamic) times. Women were stoned to death, and wearing the veil became the official identity of women. Such practices have put us down.
I won’t lie; such things happened in areas we used to consider more revolutionary [and progressive] such as Darayya. One of my veiled friends who was excited about the revolution told me that once, after enduring extenuating circumstances, she managed to visit Darayya to deliver aid. At the time, neither Daesh nor the Nusra Front controlled the area. It was the Free Syrian Army, which we had hedged our bets on, who stopped and arrested her for traveling without a mahram (a non-marriageable male kin). Mind you, she is an adult, religiously committed woman with a university degree and a strong personality.
This is only to compare it to what the DAA offers women. I find that the experience in Rojava is pure in comparison. The more Islamist parties become extreme when it comes to women issues, the more support is given to women issues in Rojava.
What do you think of the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ)? Is it a way to empower women by involving them in military units?
Personally, I find weapons to be the destroyer of humanity, be it a man or a woman who is carrying it. War doesn’t build us up, but it tears us down. However, when we get to the point where women need to carry arms with their fellow men and face the worst kind of barbarity, I don’t think anyone can force them back into the prison of the household. Having said that, these women and the men [who have gone to war] will need to be rehabilitated and to have special programs that will help them assimilate into [civilian] life again.
Some say that the PYD is merely another form of the Baath party. To what extent can one freely work for women's rights within an authoritarian system, especially when some claim that women’s rights now are the same as they were under the rule of tyranny, i.e., when they were just a slogan repeated to win over the West while it was only a ceremonial form of freedom?
Yes, the PYD is a totalitarian ideological party that doesn’t accept others with different ideologies. The women’s organizations under such a system are considered party organizations that follow in the same footsteps. One can’t expect a free, balanced person to be the product of such a system.
But the question remains: Were women better off before the PYD took over? I don’t think so. The active, cultured elite is not the measuring stick here. I’m talking about many, many women who believed they were less [than men], that they were mentally and practically stunted and who suffered from many kinds of [forced] financial and moral degradation.
This [PYD-run] system has at least allowed these women to leave the home and come into the streets, reinforcing that women are equal to men and not lesser beings. We know that women do not enjoy true freedom, but do men? And where is this true freedom that we talk about? Even in more advanced societies, it doesn’t exist. So what about societies that have been oppressed for thousands of years and that are still plagued with all kinds of authoritarianism?
I repeat, yes, the PYD is a totalitarian ideological party that doesn’t accept other views, but it managed to take the first step towards the emancipation of women. It might be unfair to judge this experience so quickly, given that we can still hear the drums of war and see blood being spilt and destruction reign. It might even be a luxury to sit and talk about real freedoms in light of the absence of any [normalcy] in Syria.
[Main photo: Kurdish volunteers pose at the entrance of Girke Lege´s women centre - 10-1-2016 (Karloszurutuza (Own work)/CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)].