The Kurds in North-East Syria (an area they call Rojava) have for six years been able to build a semiautonomous state. This is often called the Rojava revolution because of its major impact on the conservative social climate the Kurds have challenged. And by far, the greatest shift is the empowerment of women that the new Kurdish-dominated rulers have ushered in. Clashes between the Kurds and the very conservative Arab population are common, but there is no denying that the impact has fundamentally changed the lives of people in the area (NYT).
Legally, the traditional patriarchal society has been challenged and the rights of women greatly enhanced, meaning for example that women were immediately given the right to divorce, previously a right reserved to men; to inherit property on an equal basis and to keep their children and their homes in a marital breakup. Gone were long-observed Shariah law provisions that gave a woman’s testimony in court only half the weight of a man’s.
Also by law, every government institution in Kurdish-controlled Syria has a co-president or cochairman of each sex, and most government boards and committees have to be equally mixed by gender as well — except for women’s institutions, which are led by only women. And the armed force of the Kurds in Syria – the YPG – has a women-only force called the YPJ (the women’s protection units). That women are not only given legal equality with men, but also that they can carry weapon and take part in the fighting, is an earth-shaking change in the conservative and rural Arab areas taken over by the Kurds. Not the least Arab women have come to embrace those changes. Given the resistance from many Arab men, and also the sometime heavy-handed Kurdish enforcement of the reforms, it’s unclear if all this will survive the continuous war and political upheavals in Syria.
In some areas, such as Kobani, polygamy was outlawed and even in the Arab-majority city of Manbij where an exemption had to be made due to severe protests, women were told and informed that if a husband takes another wife, they could divorce him and walk away with the children and half the property. Especially in cases concerning child-marriage and polygamy, these changes have resulted in an unprecedented amount of divorces initiated by women.
The background to all this is the ideology of the imprisoned PKK-leader Abdullah Öcalan. Turkey, the US and the EU still regard the PKK as a terrorist-group (and Turkey still view the PYG in Syria as an outgrowth of the PKK, hence its bloody attack on the Kurds in Northern Syria) but his ideology is very popular and gender-equality is an integral part of that.
The years in which the Rojava has been in existence has meant that these ideological tenets have been tried and tested in a real-life political setting and theirs is little doubt that it has had an impact and given women in the region a taste of real freedom never experienced before.