Challenging Power by Building Democratic Autonomy in Rojava / North and East Syria

October 7, 2021

In the past centuries various anti-colonial and revolutionary struggles have been led with the aim to liberate people and the land from exploitation. Their declared aims have been to gain peoples’ self-determination and self-empowerment, a life in freedom, welfare and justice for everyone. Many liberation movements in Africa, Latin-America, Asia and the Middle East were able to force colonial powers to retreat physically from their territories. However, many movements have not been as successful in realising their declared aims. Former colonial elites were often replaced by new national elites exerting power over people and the land. Hereby the hopes of many people -including those of many former freedom fighters – were shattered. Many in the following generations also became disenchanted. Instead of thinking and organising in an alternative way, people tended to arrange themselves in the structures of state and power. It seemed like Margaret Thatcher’s hail to capitalism ‘There is no alternative!’ had been tacitly accepted as a destiny.

The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. – Audre Lorde

Even so, in reality the problem is of a different kind since we do know that there are many alternatives out there. For example, if we look at the first formations of communal life in human history where women played a leading and uniting role, or if we listen to the pluriversal cosmovisions all around the world, we become aware that ecological, political and ethical societies based on the values of democracy, solidarity and justice have always existed, and are still existing.

So, the greatest challenge we face is rather: how can we establish a radically democratic system, mentality, and ways of life that does not reproduce hierarchical power structures? And how can we defend democratic, egalitarian social structures against the chokehold of the capitalist hydra? These questions have also been key issues of reflections by Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdish people’s freedom struggle and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party PKK. Analysing that only beyond state, power and violence , the liberation of life and society can become possible, he laid the foundation of building democratic alternatives in Kurdistan that are rooted in the ideas of paradigm change, autonomy, and Democratic Nation. Even though he was illlegally captured in 1999 and has been isolated on the prison island Imrali in Turkey since then; Öcalan’s thoughts have continued to inspire new and comprehensive discussions in the movement as well as in the Kurdish society in all four parts of Kurdistan and the diaspora.

Rejecting widespread Machiavellian approaches, according to which ‘the end would justify the means‘, Abdullah Öcalan stated that ‘revolutionary means have to be as clean as the revolutionary aims’. Similar to Audre Lorde’s conclusion that it is impossible to dismantle the house of the master with the tools of the master, he assumed that the state, power and violence have been means of oppression and therefore cannot become instruments of liberation. These key points of Öcalan’s analysis paved the way for a freedom struggle based on the pillars of women’s liberation, ecology and radical democracy. During the last two decades, the Kurdish people together with people of other cultures and ethnicities in the region have started to build up structures of self-organising in all four parts of Kurdistan as alternatives to oppressive, patriarchal and nationalist state structures.

Due to the different colonial policies of the authoritarian regimes in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria the conditions have been very difficult in Kurdistan. Despite this, the Kurdish people have been able to regain a common spirit which is described by the term Democratic Nation. This means that communities and individuals directly participate in decision making and in the creation of a democratic society. Contrary to the nation-state, it is based on plurality of languages, ethnicities, religions and cultures that co-exist across state borders. Democratic Nation refers to the culture of living together on the basis of a shared economy, common ethical principles and values, while also respecting different cultural, social and religious communities. This spirit has found its body in the structure of peoples’ self-administration – the Democratic Autonomy and Democratic Confederalism. Democratic Autonomy means that despite of and parallel to the oppressive structures of the nation-state, local and regional people’s councils, cooperatives, academia, and self-defence forces are being built up. Through these structures of grass-roots democracy, the society can develop its own ways of politics, education, economy, and health systems and fulfil many needs by themselves without being dependant on the state. Hereby the state becomes less able to exert power over the lives of individuals and society.

Since 2005, the first steps towards building Democratic Autonomy have been made in North Kurdistan, a region with a majority of Kurdish people occupied by the Turkish State. This region has a long history of organising for national liberation and resisting fascism. With the people’s uprising against authoritarian regimes and dictators in North Africa and the Middle East in spring 2011, the Kurds too, in Syria took the initiative to claim their rights and declare their political will. Despite repression and nationalist chauvinism of the Syrian Arab Republic, the women and peoples of Rojava (West Kurdistan) have started to build up various forms of organising in order to meet the vital needs of people. This has been done through more than 30 years of clandestine political work and community organising. Assemblies, committees for women, workers, youth and children, arts, culture, language and furthermore have created a foundation for people to take control of their lives. It has been the foundation of peoples’ democratic self-administration in Rojava/North and East Syria which was officially announced as a  Democratic Autonomy in 2014. In the subsequent sections, we will address the challenges that have emerged in this process with the focus on the relation and contradictions between power and democracy.

Challenging Power by the Strength of Communal Resistance and Organising

There are two different expressions that we can use for translating the English term ‘power’ into the Kurdish language: It can be either hêz or desthilatî.

Hêz also means strength and can be connected to an understanding of a natural ‘authority’ that resists injustice and cares for the well-being of society and the respect of everyone’s dignity. In Rojava we can experience this hêz in the personality of women – especially mothers – who went out on the streets to make the Syrian army forces withdraw from the Kurdish regions in 2012. We see this hêz in the eyes of the women who have taken up arms to defend their homeland against the attacks of ISIS and the Turkish army. And we can feel the hêz of women who are rejecting patriarchal norms that perceive them as the honour and property of the family through insisting on speaking and deciding for themselves. This hêz is present in the attitude of women who celebrated their liberation from ISIS by burning the black niqab and wearing their colourful clothes again. It is the hêz of women who became Kurdish teachers although they had nit been allowed to go to school, either by the state due to being undocumented Kurds or by their parents due to being a girl. The hêz of women is manifested in the active and leading role that women play today in politics as equally responsible co-chairs in all structures of the Democratic Autonomy. This hêz of wisdom and creativity led women to establish an autonomous women’s system based on women’s cooperatives, academies, health care centres, justice committees, self-defence units, and culture & art centres. Thanks to this willpower and strength, principles of women’s rights and freedom were also acknowledged by the general assembly of the Autonomous Administration of Rojava. Although we are aware that the actual challenge of patriarchal power does not happen through laws and sanctions against perpetrators, many women emphasize that the principles set out in the law have given them courage to take up the fight against sexist violence and discrimination in public as well as in their private lives. In this way the collective understanding of social ethics as well as family and partnership models has started to change.

By working, organising and learning collectively, women have gained the possibility to see more options in life. Up until very recently it was hardly possible to imagine a mother living on her own with her children after a divorce or the death of her husband. Today, projects like women’s cooperatives or the women‘s village Jinwar have enabled single mothers to determine their lives and care for their children within a community of women. The co-chair system in which women and men collectively represent the will of the people and coordinate the works in all communes, people’s councils and in all fields of life has empowered women’s role in society as well as in many families. Women who once were seeking help are today working themselves actively in the communes and women’s councils to solve problems or have joined the women’s defence forces to protect the lives and rights of other women.

Building our own Houses with our own Tools

During the last decade we have experienced the creative hêz of society in many discussions and actions. It is a process of regaining the ability to express one’s own thoughts and opinions, to take part in decision making processes and to take responsibility. This is not easy, however, since for thousands of years a hierarchical state mentality as well as feudal and patriarchal codes have taught women and society not to think but to obey the master’s orders and accept their ‘destiny’. Therefore we often tend to delegate responsibilities. Maybe we complain about miseries but do not see it as our task to generate changes – either because we never felt entitled to think and act upon our own will or because we are afraid of punishment or failure if we take any initiative.

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The hêz – namely the courage, the democratic will, dignity and collectivity of women and society – has been constantly in conflict with and attacked by another form of power which we translate in the Kurdish language as desthilatî. Literally this term means ‘raised hand’. It is the opposite of ‘bindestî’ which literally means ‘being under the hand’ and is translated into English as ‘subjection’. The dichotomy of desthilatî (power) and bindestî (subjection) is fundamentally contradicting with hêz, the ethical values and political attitude of democracy.

Desthilatî – namely patriarchal oppression, colonial occupation and capitalist exploitation – is the source of the severe problems that we are struggling to overcome. Along with threats of military occupation, one of the biggest problems are insufficient water supplies. The Turkish state has not only cut off the natural water supplies of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers towards Syrian territory by big dam projects, but also occupied the Alok water station. Thus, since winter 2019, hundreds of thousands of people in the big city Haseke and the surrounding region don’t have access to clean drinking water. Even so, in spite of many difficulties, the communes and autonomous administration have been working hard to cover the people’s basic water needs by organising water transport from other regions in tank vehicles or through digging new wells.

Moreover, the drought and field fires ignited by sabotage acts of ISIS and the Turkish state have devastated the biggest part of the harvest in 2019, the main source of life and income in North and East Syria. Together with the embargo and the rapid inflation caused by the US “Caesar Act” sanctions against Syria, the shortage of basic supplies and poverty have increased dramatically in the whole of Syria. In addition, the Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria has been exposed to an embargo by the Syrian regime. This situation means a difficult challenge and a touchstone for the Autonomous Administration.

Trying to find solutions to the economic problems caused by external power politics, in May this year (2021) the General Council of the Autonomous Administration decided to increase the prices of fuel and gas. This decision was met with immediate public protests. People criticized that the communes had not been sufficiently included in the decision-making process, and that the people’s economic situation could not cope with the increase of fuel and gas prices at present. Against this background, the General Council reconsidered and cancelled its former decision 3 days later. Now, in line with the people’s demand, discussions and counselling meetings are organised in all communes to ensure the best possible solution in the interest of the people. This recent example ensured people’s confidence. It shows that the awareness and hêz of society to shape politics can defend the people’s will and interests.

We can conclude that democracy is not a form of capitalist state that allows its citizens every 4 – 5 year to give their vote to MPs who are supposed to represent them. Democracy is an alternative to the state. It is the hêz of the communities to resist against any oppressive desthilatî-power and to govern themselves without the state and without becoming a state.

Democracy is inherent in an open and free society, where individuals and groups are political subjects and govern themselves on the basis of collective consensus.

This model is still in a continuing development process. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria is still not recognized by the international community, although it could serve as a model for creating peace and grassroot democracy for the whole of Syria and beyond.

Generating Alternatives

In a time of deep despair, human and ecological crisis, we have learned that democratic confederal organisation of society can fulfil many spiritual and material needs of society. We have learned that democratic transformation is a continuous process that requires constant reflection and self-reflection. None of our gains is assured forever, if we do not protect and advance it.

As women from different communities, by discussing and listening to each other, by sharing our experiences of life and struggle, singing songs and telling stories of our ancestors, we learned about our common pains and aspirations. We have learned that we can find solutions for many problems in our lives when we unite wisdom and spirituality, our analytic and emotional intelligence, our strength and courage and our deep solidarity with each other. These are our tools for dismantling the houses of the masters. At the same time we have created our tools for building our own houses and gardens of a democratic society by uniting our political thoughts and statements with our way of life and actions. We know: There are alternatives!


Teaser photo credit: Kurds, Assyrians, and Arabs demonstrate against the Syrian government in Qamishli, 6 January 2012. By –, CC BY 3.0,

Şervîn Nûdem

Şervîn works at the Jineolojî Academy in Rojava (West-Kurdistan). Her work is focused on popular education programs and collective, communal research on the historical and social foundations of the women’s revolution and the system of Democratic Autonomy in Rojava/North and East Syria.

Tags: building resilient communities, democratic autonomy, direct democracy, Rojava, women's rights