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Afrin Canton in Syria’s northwest was once a haven for thousands of people fleeing the country’s civil war. Consisting of beautiful fields of olive trees scattered across the region from Rajo to Jindires, locals harvested the land and made a living on its rich soil. This changed when the region came under Turkish occupation this year.
YPG in Afrin.
Operation Olive Branch:
Under the governance of the Afrin Council – a part of the ‘Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’ (DFNS) – the region was relatively stable. The council’s members consisted of locally elected officials from a variety of backgrounds, such as Kurdish official Aldar Xelil who formerly co-headed the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEVDEM) – a political coalition of parties governing Northern Syria. Children studied in their mother tongue— Kurdish, Arabic, or Syriac— in a country where the Ba’athists once banned Kurdish education. The local Self-Defence Forces (HXP) worked in conjunction with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) to keep the area secure from existential threats such as Turkish Security forces (TSK) and Free Syrian Army (FSA) attacks.
This arrangement continued until early 2018, when Turkey unleashed a full-scale military operation called ‘ Operation Olive Branch’ to oust TEVDEM from Afrin. The Turkish government views TEVDEM and its leading party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – listed as a terrorist organisation in Turkey. Under the pretext of defending its borders from terrorism, the Turkish government sent thousands of troops into Afrin with the assistance of forces from its allies in Idlib and its occupied Euphrates Shield territories. This forced the Afrin Council into exile and pushed out Afrin’s residents as well as its defenders. TSK and Turkish-backed FSA (TFSA) bombarded the region and eventually took control of Afrin city on March 18th – claiming victory.
During the bombardment campaign that was committed by Turkish artillery and aircraft, thousands of people lost their homes. Many civilians fled to nearby regions, mainly Shahba, to seek refuge away from the fighting. YPG and HXP defended what areas they could, but made a tactical decision to withdraw in order to protect civilians. Those fighters who stayed are resisting the occupation, with some forming groups like the ‘Afrin Falcons’ to assassinate targets within the TFSA.
Seven months on from the completion of Turkey’s military operation, Afrin remains under Turkish occupation. Thousands of former residents are displaced and now live outside the region in refugee camps, such as the camps in Shahba. Deprived of basic necessities, such as running water, and cut off from electricity, life for these displaced civilians is hard. They are unable to return to their homes because the fighters that took Afrin either destroyed the houses during the process of invasion or are outright looting and occupying them.
Under the Turkish government’s watchful eye, these TFSA fighters occupying Afrin are taking personal items left by fleeing civilians. After looting the homes, the fighters then settle in with their families. Adding insult to injury, the Turkish government rewards them with Turkish citizenship and helps facilitate the safe passage of fighters of Jaysh al-Islam and other opposition forces, escaping places like East Ghouta, into Afrin.
Hundreds of thousands of families from Syria’s southwestern Ghouta and Daraa regions accompany these fighters. Through the Turkish government’s ‘resettlement policy’, thousands of Syrian refugees within its borders are being resettled in Afrin and Euphrates Shield territories. This resettlement policy has impacted upon the once predominantly Kurdish Afrin canton. Kurdish homes are now filling with Arab families in what appears to be a concerted effort by the Turkish government to shift the demographics of the region.
Schools that once taught Kurdish along with other languages as part of the curriculum now are reducing access to the learning of the language. Kurdish teachers are being replaced by Arab ones. In schools in places like al-Caviz, the Kurdish language is no longer taught. Children are instead taught an Arab-centric curriculum reminiscent of the Baath regime’s curriculum system. However, praise of Assad has been replaced with praise of Erdogan – as evident in the Turkish propaganda videos coming from the school.
Internally Displaced People in Shahba.
Ethnic Cleansing in Afrin:
During the initial days of the operation, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan made clear that his government would resettle Syrian Arab refugees living in Turkey:
“The whole issue is this: 55 percent of Afrin is Arab, 35 percent are the Kurds who were later relocated, and about seven percent are Turkmen. [We aim] to give Afrin back to its rightful owners…. We house about 3.5 million Syrians [as refugees]. We want to send them back to their land in no time…”
Afrin’s population consists of predominantly Kurdish inhabitants who have lived in the region for centuries— long before the existence of the Turkish state. However, the Turkish president’s statements are meant to revise history and justify state policy. Erdogan is not the first Turkish leader to revise history to justify state policy, especially when that policy is aimed at Kurds. When this revisionism is used to justify the displacement of thousands of people of a group from their original homelands, then there are grounds for claiming such action as ‘ethnic cleansing’— a war crime.
History tells us that when there are signs of ethnic cleansing occurring, genocide is soon to follow. For example, during the Bosnian war, the Republic of Srpska forcefully displaced thousands of Bosnian Muslims and expelled these individuals from their homelands. In the following months, the occupation by Serbian forces in places such as Srebrenica turned violent and resulted in the deaths of thousands in what is classed today as a ‘genocide’. Afrin is not near this stage yet, but it is important to keep in mind where ethnic cleansing often leads.
Turkish and Free Syrian Army flags in Afrin city.
Turkish State Chauvinism
Demonstrating a disregard for facts and the original inhabitants of the region, Erdogan spent weeks— in preparation for the election no less— rallying the country behind the costly operation. Exploiting the fervour of the nation, Erdogan legitimised violence against critics by uniting ultranationalists and enforcing strict censorship laws within the country. This demonstration of Turkish chauvinism in the form of ultranationalist legitimation was frightening. Even more frightening was the sheer extent to which critics within the country were locked up. Those daring to criticise the government’s operation found themselves either arrested under charges of ‘abetting terrorism’ or beaten by ultranationalists.
Turkish chauvinism did not stop at the country’s borders, but extended to the front lines as well. Soldiers on the front lines demonstrated their sense of eagerness for the operation through nationalist songs and displays of ‘Grey Wolves’ hand signs. Others displayed their pride through sadistic pleasure in the filming of tortured Afrin civilians and the draping of Turkish flags over conquered buildings. Some even burnt Kurdish flags on camera – a sign of anti-Kurdish sentiment that Erdogan claimed was not present.
When TFSA and TSK soldiers entered Afrin city, the Kurdish statue of blacksmith Kawa that had long been at the heart of the city was torn down, under claims that it was a statue of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Even ancient structures were not spared in the offensive, with the temple of Ain Dara facing damage by Turkish aircraft. The level of destruction brought upon monuments of once great ancient civilisations in Syria throughout this Syrian war is saddening. US Senator Hiram Johnson was once purported to have said the line, ‘the first casualty, when war comes, is truth.’ One might add that the second casualty of war is history.
After expelling the locally elected Afrin council and TEVDEM’s government from Afrin, the region has come under new administration. Considered to fall under the control of the Hatay province in Turkey’s southwest, officials appointed by the Turkish government are running the region in accordance with state policy. Each appointee placed in control of the canton is paid in Turkish Lira and is under supervision of TSK.
A ‘local’ interim council formed prior to the invasion are jointly administering the region with the Turkish government. This model of joint control has been adopted by other Turkish occupied areas such as those incorporating territories in ‘Euphrates Shield’ (Jarabulus-al-Bab pocket). The model shares similarities to the model adopted by Turkey and France for the Republic of Hatay in the 1930s. That was, of course, before the annexation of the state by Turkey in 1939. It would not be surprising if a ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Syria’ were to form, in the same vein as the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ and other occupied areas when Turkish control is finally consolidated.
The annexation of Afrin by Turkey reflects the ideology of neo-Ottomanism that is supported by a large segment of Turkish nationalists within the country. There is a longing by thousands of Turkish citizens for the reestablishment of Turkey as a global power. A desire for Turkey to reclaim its history and establish control over former Ottoman states in the Middle East. This sense of nationalism extends to religious institutions, with Turkish imams— and Erdogan— attempting to ‘persuade’ the Islamic world that Turkey is its protector and sole representative.
Military institutions were not left untouched by this ideology. Turkish foreign policy for the last couple decades in areas like Cyprus and Syria reflects this. The construction of military bases for long-term occupation under the guise of ‘combating terrorism’ and the establishment of an administration that does not reflect the local populace’s wishes suggests that there is something more sinister at play. When the Turkish-backed administration is taking orders from Ankara, considered essentially to be a de-facto part of Turkey, paying its employees in Turkish lira and giving fighters citizenship, what is really on display is imperialism. The development of Turkish infrastructure in Afrin only demonstrates this further.
An injured Kurdish boy.
Silence and Violence:
The international community has been silent about Turkey’s military operation and occupation of Afrin. Calls of ‘deep concern’ were repeatedly uttered throughout the conduct of the operation, but little was done. No emergency United Nations Security Council meeting was held, nor did any nation prevent Turkey. Overall, the international community was complicit in Turkey’s operation. This was not surprising given the strategic ‘importance’ of Turkey as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Continuing a long trend by western governments in remaining silent about the injustices committed by their allies, well condemning those of their enemies. Protesters across the world took to the streets to do what their governments would not do.
Resistance continues in Afrin to oust the occupation army from continuing to control the region. The attacks continue to target those abetting the occupation forces, which extends to those officials assisting Turkey. Explosive mines left from the fighting also continue to kill TSK and TFSA forces. The YPG has sworn to retake Afrin from Turkey, although this occupation is unlikely to end any time soon. With the Idlib offensive on the horizon for the regime in Damascus, Turkish forces are being spread out across the occupation zones, from Idlib to al-Bab.
The relationship between the guarantors of Syria— Russia, Turkey and Iran— continues to fluctuate as Turkey gambles on what to do in Idlib. The occupation of territories within Syria has been costly on Turkey and the prospect of an offensive against Idlib only exacerbates the situation. Erdogan wants to remain perceived as a ‘strong leader’ externally with the spread of military might, well simultaneously clamping down on increasing dissent internally. This arrangement will not last forever.
The war in Syria is now in its seventh year. Hundreds of thousands of people are dead and more than two million people have been displaced. The world continues to watch as humanitarian crisis after humanitarian crisis continues, unchallenged and without clear sign of ceasing. Dictators continue to control the country with little response from the international community. The blood of Syria’s people continues to be shed.
Despite the death, destruction and devastation wrought upon the country, there are signs of development and progress. In northeastern Syria, people are building up communities and choosing to live. There might be the threat of invasion by Turkey to the north and a regime invasion from the south, but this does not deter the spirit of these people. Children play in the streets of Kobane – a city once devastated by Daesh – with joy, Arab and Kurdish families in Manbij coexist with one another. These are flashes of light in the darkness. These lights are sometimes all that are needed to establish hope for the future.
Kids from Kobane smile for the camera.
Written by Anthony Avice Du Buisson (06/10/2018).
Original Region version: https://theregion.org/article/13161-a-blood-soaked-olive-what-is-situation-afrin-today
The last phase to uproot the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS) is underway in Syria’s Euphrates River Valley as ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF), assisted by artillery and air support of the ‘US-backed Coalition’, push against the last remnants of ISIS’ proto-state.
With ‘Operation Jazeera Storm’ – the name of the operation – intensifying in Syria and Abu Al-Baghdadi’s hiding spot found in near the Iraqi border, in Hajin, Syria, it is not hard to have many heavy emotions rushing through one’s body. It was not even four years ago when ISIS was building its proto-state in Iraq and Syria, slaughtering thousands of Arabs, Yazidis and Kurds. Now that proto-state has lost over 95% of its territory in the span of a couple years – a huge blow to the organisation’s attempt at building a caliphate.
Thousands have lost their lives at the hands of this ‘cult of death’. Millions more have been displaced by its political-religious pursuit of dominance. Journalists, aid workers, soldiers and civilians – all targeted during this conquest. I think of the journalists, such as American James Foley who were brutally beheaded. I think of the Yazidis at Sinjar forced out of their homes and massacred – raped, abused and enslaved. The children indoctrinated. The survivors left with trauma and PTSD. I think of the large-scale suffering, destruction and torment wrought at those who loved death more than life itself – a modern evil. Millions are unable to return home because of the destruction caused by ISIS. Many who have lost loved ones – daughters, sons, fathers and mothers – and who will never see the joy of their lives again.
A Yazidi girl on Sinjar mountain in 2014
However, despite all the suffering that flashes when I think of the years that have passed, I still remember heroes who gave their lives to save thousands. I think of the fighters in Iraq and Syria – the Kurds, Arabs, Syriacs and so on – who refused the barbarism of ISIS. Who said, “no” to the injustice and inhumanity. I think of the sacrifice of Abu Layla, a man whose smile is captured in the below photo. (Abu died during the liberation of the city of Manbij in 2016.) The Love for life that this smile shows will never leave me.
The survivors of ISIS who carry their scars and use their experiences to help others inspire me, normal heroes who are doing extraordinary work. The people, who are fearless, brave and want to create a better world. The work of Nadia Murad and Lamiya Aji come immediately to mind. Both are Yazidi survivors of ISIS’ brutality that refused to remain silent, choosing to instead speak out and help those still carrying scars. There are thousands of these heroes around the globe. Helping survivors to rebuild and tell others about the horror of ISIS, educating the next generation and fighting those militants left defending the remnants of a dying caliphate. Rojda Felat is an example of one of the commanders in the Syrian Democratic Forces who has sacrificed heavily in the fight against ISIS.
Left to right: Nadia Murad and Lamiya Aji.
In July 2017, Iraqi Security Forces liberated Mosul – ISIS’ defacto capital in Iraq – and the place where Baghdadi announced, three years prior, a caliphate. Iraqis celebrated the defeat of an organisation responsible for so much loss and destruction. In October 2017, Syrian Democratic Forces liberated Raqqa – ISIS’ de-facto capital in Syria. Liberating large swaths of territory and helping to crumble the caliphate across Iraq and Syria. Whenever I think of the years of suffering that ISIS wrought on the world, I cannot but also think of the love and heroism of normal people put in difficult situations. I cannot help but think of how much evil as humans we are capable of, but also how much beauty is in us.
Kurdish fighter kisses a man’s forehead during the liberation of Manbij in 2016.
Artillery pieces provided by the Americans and French are currently shelling ISIS positions, well Syrian Democratic Forces and Iraqi forces advance steadily in the Deir Ezzor governorate. Operation Jazeera Storm will take months to complete as the Syrian border is cleared of remaining fighters. Whether Baghdadi is captured alive by SDF or killed in the crossfire is yet to be known, but what is known is that his vision of an Islamic caliphate has failed. And with that failure, so too the dreams of ISIS.
Written by Anthony Avice Du Buisson (01/06/2018).
Region version: https://theregion.org/article/13189-homage-to-unsung-heroes-fighting-isis
Editors note [Mohammed Elnaiem]:
It has been 41 days since attacks by Turkey on Afrin began. Anthony Avice Du Buisson provides you with an updated primer on the latest updates of the attack. He also discusses the role of the International community in bringing the Afrin crisis to an end.
What are the latest updates on the situation in Afrin?
Turkish attack helicopters (TuAF) have been conducting aerial bombardments on the town of Jinderis in Syria’s Afrin region, for the last couple days. Artillery barrages assist in the bombardments, as fighters of the ‘People’s Protection Units’ (YPG) scramble to repel the attack on the town. Jinderis is just a recent addition to the many towns being targeted by Turkish security forces (TSK), assisted by Islamists of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA), since the launch of Operation Olive Branch (the Afrin offensive) in late January.
Since its inception, the Afrin offensive has claimed the lives of nearly three hundred and fifty civilians (Kurdish Red Crescent estimate). Met with fierce resistance by the people of Afrin, TSK and TFSA have found it difficult to advance deep into the region. What was expected by Ankara to be a quick operation has turned into a gruelling and lengthy exercise. Despite the superior technology, numbers and firepower of the Turkish military, the YPG and its allies are putting up strong opposition, where they hold the advantage of familiarity with the mountainous terrain.
In Turkey, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has whipped the country into a frenzy, as State news media pumps out propaganda in support of the offensive, while police and other state organisations eliminate dissent. (Anadolu Agency, a state media outlet, exaggerates the numbers of kills Olive Branch forces have made. The current number is over two thousand, at the time of writing.) Any show of public disapproval or critique towards the operation runs the risk of state crackdown, as journalists, politicians, academics and so on, are arrested without question. Further highlighting Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism.
Turkey claims to be fighting against “Terrorists” in Afrin, is the international community convinced?
Despite the Turkish state’s effort to impose a positive narrative of the operation upon its own people, it has had a difficult time convincing the world that the Afrin offensive is justified. Ankara may claim that it is waging a war to cleanse its borders of ‘terrorists’ and help relocate its refugee population, however, the forces that it commands demonstrate another more sinister intent.
Videos have surfaced online of TFSA and TSK forces committing atrocities, from the brutal interrogation of an Afrin farmer to the mutilation of a ‘Women’s Protection Unit’ (YPJ) fighter. All these videos, as well as Erdogan’s rhetoric on Turkish state media, portray the Turkish forces as conquerors, as opposed to ‘liberators’. (A recent video of a farmer being executed by TFSA fighters is another example of the brutality of the Olive branch forces.) Erdogan’s rhetoric also has been suggestive of a possible intent for ‘ethnic cleansing’ Afrin and ‘annexing’ the territory to expand Turkey’s border.
So how has the world responding to the Afrin offensive? And who is to blame for sanctioning it?
While Erdogan has gotten the Turkish public to largely support the Afrin offensive, the response of the international public has been quite different. Public demonstrations have been held in major cities across the globe in solidarity with the people of Afrin. Protests have erupted all over the world against the offensive, whether it be on the streets of Cologne, Germany or outside the parliament in Canberra, Australia – people everywhere across the globe have been condemning the offensive.
The condemnations have not only been directed at the Turkish state but also at Western states for failing to intervene to halt an offensive against a force that fought ISIS. Supporters of the people of Afrin point towards the use of German tanks, British jets and other EU supplied equipment and armaments by the Turkish military, as a sign of complicit support for the offensive by Western states. Parliamentarians in the German and British governments, especially from the Labour party and German Left Party (Die Linke) have raised concerns over Turkey’s war, calling it ‘illegal’ and ‘unjustified’.
Despite the US not having an active military presence in the Afrin region and thus no military intelligence on the ground, Afrin supporters including those from the US see it as a complicit actor that has enabled Turkey. The US State Department has voiced concerns over Turkey’s Afrin operation, calling it a ‘distraction’ from the fight against ISIS. A rather neutral position that the US continues to maintain, due to the increasing weakening of US-Turkey bilateral relations. (Tillerson recently visited Ankara, unaccompanied by any translators, to try repair relations between the states. Confusion still surrounds the details of that over three-hour long conversation.)
International organisations are being lobbied by Turkish officials to end support for the ‘Democratic Union Party’ (PYD), as well as other members of the ‘Movement for a Democratic Party’ (TEV-DEM) who currently govern the ‘Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’ (DFNS), to cripple international support for YPG. Turkey even went as far as to attempt to extradite former PYD co-chair, Salih Muslim, while he was in the Czech Republic. An attempt that ended more in embarrassment for Turkey than anything else.
Recently, Afrin authorities called for help from Damascus, why?
On the ground, Afrin Authorities have called for international solidarity in general, but to little avail. While Convoys are coming from all parts of Northern Syria to defend Afrin, crossing through Syrian Government controlled territory in Aleppo to reach the cities in the region that are being attacked, this has not been enough. Due to the need to use such territory, dialogue channels between Afrin Authorities and the Syrian government have been increasingly used. Given the precarious situation of the canton and the lack of international military intervention, authorities in Afrin have exercised the right of autonomy of the canton to find alternatives to deal with the crisis. (Each canton in the DFNS is autonomous, as the current ideology of the system is democratic confederalism.)
Negotiations over pro-Syrian government [Iranian-backed] troop placement along Afrin’s borders have been made, as popular forces of the National Defence Force (NDF) have deployed to Afrin’s southern border. However, the nature and extent of these negotiations have yet to be fully disclosed, as negotiations are ongoing and the forces that are currently in Afrin are limited in number (a few hundred) and not assisted by Syrian air force (SyAAF). TuAF targeted convoys of NDF entering Afrin, killing many, which demonstrated the ineffectiveness of these units.
These negotiations have been opposed by Russian authorities, as well as questioned by TFSA supporters and some MENA analysts. Initially, it was Russia who gave the green-light for Turkey’s Afrin operation, after Afrin authorities refused to accept the ultimatum Russia posed:
“Either Turkey will attack you and occupy Afrin or the regime will come and enter Afrin.” – Shahoz Hassan, said PYD co-chair on the Russian proposal.
What exactly is the role of Russia in the Afrin offensive by Turkey?
Russia allowed Turkey to use the airspace that it controlled in Afrin in exchange for parts of Idlib – a province to the south of Afrin in Syria that is currently dominated by Al-Qaeda linked Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Russia wants Afrin to return under the government control, as was the case prior to the uprisings in 2011. (Russia would rather see a battered and weak YPG that is forced to accept all of its demands, rather than one that is able to stand.)
However, even though Russia is playing a thuggish devil’s game, Afrin authorities insist that should they be forced to play this game, then the terms must be negotiated as much as possible in Afrin’s favour. I have mentioned previously that there is a limited troop presence of pro-Government forces. This is important to note, as some MENA analysts and TFSA supporters are jumping the gun already and proclaiming that YPG has ‘sold out to the oppressive government’. (A claim that is not true, but one that, regardless, should be avoided by Afrin Authorities.)
Afrin is in a precarious situation now, as it is being attacked by a NATO country that is determined to deny its autonomy and impose a system of authority that runs counter to the system currently in place. Employing Islamist mercenaries as cannon fodder to fight on its behalf, while justifying these fighters’ acts with fatwas and proclamations in support of waging a war of ‘jihad’ against the Kurds, Erdogan is willing to stoop to any level to capture Afrin and ensure the longevity of his political career.
What has the United Nations done, and what should be done next for the people of Afrin?
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) recently voted to adopt a resolution in support of a thirty-day ceasefire over Syria. A resolution that was unanimously passed and one that has already been violated by Russia, Iran and Turkey – the so-called ‘guarantors’ of peace in the Syrian conflict. In the resolution, it mentions that humanitarian aid is to be allowed into areas of conflict, such as eastern Ghouta. Although it does not mention Afrin by name, nonetheless the resolution – as was confirmed by US State Department spokesperson, Heather Nauert – extends to Afrin. Meaning that Turkey is required to follow through, as are all parties in Syria, to this ceasefire.
The very fact that Turkey was one of the main entities calling for a ceasefire in eastern Ghouta, but continues to attack Afrin, should highlight the level of hypocrisy on display by the Turkish state. Although a lack of agreement to the ceasefire by some parties is not surprising, given the history of resolutions over Syria, it should be concerning for all how little power the UNSC has to stop parties from violating the ceasefire. Those who suffer the most are the people of Syria, who simply demand to live in peace and security. A simple request that has yet to be delivered.
The people of Afrin are continuing to resist Turkish occupation, despite the inaction of those that claim to be allies. Even though the world focuses on the tragedies unfolding in eastern Ghouta, which are concerning and should not be ignored, focus should also be concerned with those in Afrin. Civilians are being forced to hide in caves to escape Turkish bombardments, while children are denied access to education due to the destruction of their schools. The death count rises with each passing week and the only way this can stop is for pressure to be applied to Turkey, as well as humanitarian aid delivered to those in need. I would even go so far as to argue for humanitarian intervention by UNSC and sanctions to be imposed on Turkey, but whether this would do anything is another question. What is clear is that a devil’s game is being played in Syria. And all suffer.
Written by Anthony Avice Du Buisson (02/03/2018).
Region version: https://theregion.org/article/12938-the-responsibility-to-end-the-devil-s-game-in-afrin-lies-on-us-all
Syria’s Kurds are altering the political landscape of Northern Syria, reducing the power of Bashar al-Assad’s government and reorganising the power dynamics of the country – allowing for political and legal rights for Kurds, Assyrians, Syriacs, Turkmen and other minorities that were absent under Arab Socialist Baath rule. It is through organisation of political and military resistance, establishment of place of authority and abstaining from taking sides in Syria’s civil war, as well as the engagement in the war against the Islamic State, that Kurds in Syria now are in process of achieving self-determination and autonomy.
Figure 1: Kurdish Inhabited areas and population distribution.
Kurds are one of the largest ethnicities in the Middle East with a population of over thirty million, occupying parts of Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey (Yildiz, 2005, p. 1). Descendants of Indo-European tribes that migrated westward from Zagros Mountains in Iran, Kurds have a distinct culture and identity that sets Kurds apart from other Middle Eastern ethnic minorities (Mcdowall, 2004, p. 8). In northern Syria, Kurds make up 8-10% of the nation’s population (over thirteen million people) and have been the subject of Arab assimilation policies – Arabization. One such policy was conducted in Hassakah governate in 1962, when a consensus rendered over 110, 000 Syrian Kurds without citizenship – giving these individuals status of ‘ajanibs’ (foreigners), well absentees were given status of ‘maktoumin’ or, ‘hidden’ (Fragiskatos, 2007, pp. 112-114; Sherry, 1996, pp. 13-19). Discrimination and persecution followed in subsequent decades, right into early 21st century. When Syria fell into civil war after the wake of the Syrian revolution in 2011, Syrian Kurds revolted against Bashar Al-Assad’s government and started the ‘Rojava revolution’ – ‘Rojava’ is Kurdish for ‘Western Kurdistan’ (Savran, 2016, p. 7).
Figure 2: Rojava.
The Kurdish uprisings in Northern Syria have subverted the traditional authority of Bashar Al-Assad’s government, as political and military resistance has formed to resist Baath hegemony. ‘Power’, as defined by German sociologist Max Weber, is the potential of an actor to achieve personal objectives in a social relationship in the face of opposition (Uphoff, 1989, p. 299). When a subordinate entity can limit or reduce the potential of an entity to achieve personal objectives, then that denotes ‘resistance’ (Barbalet, 1985, p. 541). For decades, the Arab Socialist Baath party government, under first the leadership of Hafez al-Assad and then Bashar al-Assad, enacted its power through coercion, fear, state repression, manipulation and bribery.
Figure 3: Hafez al-Assad (Left) and Bashar al-Assad (Right).
Any other party, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, that stood in the Baath party’s way would be heavily suppressed and have its members locked up in jail. Policies, such as those of assimilation and Arabization, aided in the consolidation of the government’s power and the pursuit of its aims – Arab nationalism (Pace, 2005, p. 37; Talhami, 2001, p. 112).
When peaceful demonstrations in Damascus and Idlib were suppressed by Syrian government troops in 2010, armed resistance developed, as defectors of the ‘Syrian Arab Army’ (SAA) and local dissidents established the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA) and its political wing ‘Syrian National Coalition’ (SNC) (Spyer, 2012, pp. 46-49). Uprisings occurred all over Syria, including Northern Syria in cities, such as Qamishli, Kobane and Afrin. These armed uprisings resulted in the start of a civil war between Syria’s government, FSA and Islamist entities of Al-Qaeda (JFS), and the Islamic state (ISIS) after 2013. However, what distinguishes the Northern Syrian Uprisings in 2012 from the other uprisings in the rest of Syria is the organisation and direction.
In 2012, the Syrian government was pushed out of Jazira (Cizire), Kobane and Afrin cantons by organised local militia of the ‘People Protection Units’ (YPG) and its political wing, the ‘Democratic Union Party’ (PYD). Subverting Assad’s power in Northern Syria by exploiting the conflict dynamics of the civil war, with Assad’s forces focused on fighting FSA in other parts of Syria, PYD established a political alternative to Assad’s government with formation of a de facto autonomous government – Rojava Autonomous Administration (Federici, 2015, pp. 82-84). Organised under the ideology of Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the ‘Kurdistan Worker’s Party’ (PKK), the PYD and other parties in the ‘Movement for a Democratic Society’ (TEVDEM) coalition (leadership of Rojava) adopted a ‘Democratic Confederalism’ ideology and implemented it in governing (Paasche, 2015, pp. 78-80).
Figure 4: Abdullah Ocalan
Figure 5: Flag of TEVDEM
The ‘Rojava project’ spearheaded by TEVDEM undermines the ideology of Arab nationalism and political hegemony of Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party, as the ideology of Democratic confederalism focuses on empowerment of minorities through local governance and aims at decentralising power – redistributing power among local municipalities. Instead of adopting a Kurdish nationalist project – similar to that of the ‘Kurdish Democratic Party’ (KDP) in Iraq – that aims at establishing a Kurdish region (Kurdistan), TEVDEM adopted a Democratic Confederalist project – similar to that of the PKK – that aims at establishing grassroots, democratic and parliamentary system (Ibid, p. 78):
…[TEVDEM] sought a bottom-up system of self-administration whereby the direction of the flow of power is from the local municipally organized councils toward a larger democratic confederation of libertarian municipalities with local councils directly controlling policy-making. Such organization of politics is to provide it with concrete social content and reduces the likelihood of potential relations of domination, thereby contributing to advancing the cause of freedom as non-domination (Cemgil, 2016, pp. 424-425).
Through the implementation of ideology of Democratic Confederalism in Rojava’s Autonomous Administration in Northern Syria, the influence of ideology of Arab nationalism that had disenfranchised non-Arabs was significantly reduced. Kurds and other minorities in Northern Syria, such as Syriacs and Assyrians, could now establish local assemblies – form militias, police and self-administrate (Ibid, p.425; Duman, 2017, p. 85).
Figure 6: Syriac Military Council (MFS)
This system decentralises power and prevents power from establishing in one party, thus weakening Assad’s central government in Damascus from having total domination in Northern Syria.
The opposition to taking sides in the Syrian Civil war and the fight against the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS), significantly increased TEVDEM’s influence in Syria’s political landscape and increased western support for the Rojava project – altering Syria’s power dynamics, and allowing TEVDEM more territorial control and political power. A strategy was adopted early on by the Rojava Autonomous Administration to not officially declare allegiance to any side in Syria’s civil war, instead opting to provide a ‘third path’ to the competing factions (Government forces versus rebels). This strategy aimed at allowing TEVDEM to focus on self-governance and self-defence, well keeping the war from reaching the de facto borders, therefore allowing TEVDEM to not lose local support and allow negotiation power with both sides, if need be (Hevian, 2013, pp. 50-52).
However, despite YPG clashes between both the FSA, JFS and SAA, the introduction of ISIS in 2014 would significantly alter TEVDEM’s trajectory.
Figure 7: (In clockwise direction) SAA, JFS, ISIS, FSA and YPG
The Siege of Kobane in 2014 by ISIS, brought global media attention to Rojava and increased Public Relations of TEVDEM with International Community. Victory by Kurdish forces against ISIS in 2015 was a huge Public Relations boost to TEVDEM, as the victory appealed to all sides of western political landscape.
Figure 8: Rojava flag on radio tower after ISIS is defeated in Kobane.
Conservatives had a force to support that was ‘western’ and hard-line Leftists could sympathise with Rojava revolution, and the Kurdish ‘struggle’. The United States-led Coalition to battle ISIS formed a military alliance with Rojava at Kobane, which started US supporting and supplying arms to YPG, as well as other militias (Dalton, 2017, p. 2).
Capitalising off this new-found support, TEVDEM mobilised forces to resist ISIS occupation in order to increase influence in Syria’s political landscape, liberate civilians and expand the borders of the de-facto Autonomous region through acquisition of territory (Kaya & Whiting, 2017, p. 86). The Islamisation of the opposition to Assad had also contributed in bolstering number of defectors to Rojava, as former secular FSA factions started aligning with YPG – this led to the formation of ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) in late 2015, a multi-ethnic coalition of anti-ISIS fighters (Gunter, 2017, p. 79; Krajeski, 2015, pp. 94-97).
Figure 9: The Syrian Democratic Forces’ flag.
The success of Rojava against ISIS and the territorial expansion of the de facto autonomous region’s borders altered Syria’s power dynamics, as TEVDEM posed an increasing threat to Assad’s government and legitimacy. The acquisition of oil fields has expanded Rojava’s economic and political power, as TEVDEM has leverage to negotiate its future and achieve Rojava’s goals of self-determination, as well as autonomy for Syrian Kurds and other minorities (Krajeski, 2015, p. 95). Though the war is not over, Rojava Autonomous Administration is in a greater position than ever before in its short history to negotiate and achieve its personal objectives, despite resistance of Assad’s government and external threats, such as ISIS and JFS (now Hay’at tahrir al-sham – HTS).
Figure 10: Map of Northern Syria showing territorial control of each faction.
However, as with everything in the Syrian conflict, the precarious nature of these relations and situations can change at any moment. In the recent months for example, with the liberation of Raqqa by the SDF, Turkish-US relations have begun to heat up. A new offensive into Idlib by the Syrian government and its allies in early 2017 has given way to a Turkish offensive in the Afrin canton of Rojava ().
Figure 11: Map of situation in Syria circa January 2018.
The power dynamics are shifting and TEVDEM officials face a difficult uphill battle in 2018. Despite these difficulties, the determination of the Kurds is stronger than ever before and international support for Rojava continues to grow with each passing month.
Through the organisation of political and military resistance to Assad’s government, establishment of an alternative government and abstaining from taking sides in Syria’s civil war, as well as the engagement in the war against the Islamic State, Kurds in Syria now are in process of achieving self-determination and autonomy. The implementation of ideology of Democratic confederalism in Rojava Autonomous Administration governance has challenged the hegemony of Bashar al-Assad and the ideology of Arab nationalism, empowering disenfranchised in Syrian society. The war against ISIS has allowed TEVDEM to acquire territory and has led to alteration of power dynamics within Syria, allowing for greater potential for Rojava in pursuing its personal objectives.
Written by Anthony Avice Du Buisson ( Originally written for James Cook University on the 09/11/2017 – Updated and released for the Region on 28/01/2018). Region version: https://theregion.org/article/12639-unpacking-rojava-examining-power-dynamics-in-northern-syria
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- Sherry, V. N. (1996). Syria: The Silenced Kurds (No. 4). Retrieved from Human Rights Watch website: https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/SYRIA96.pdf
Selahattin Demirtas, who is the co-leader of the ‘Peoples’ Democratic Party’ (HDP) in Turkey, will be stepping down from his position. This comes after a recent HDP party meeting where a letter from Demirtas was read out before the congress. It is a heavy blow to the Kurdish party, which is the third largest and youngest Turkish party in government.
Since its founding in 2012, the primarily left-leaning party has been a welcome breath of fresh air in Turkish politics. Fighting for Kurdish rights, secularism and desiring to re-establish a democratic Turkey, HDP’s presence in government is in stark contrast to the Justice and Developments Party’s (AKP), which has ruled the country since 2002. Selahattin Demirtas was elected co-leader of HDP in 2014, along with Figen Yuksekdag, and both have fought passionately in Turkish parliament against the various injustices that have been wrought by AKP rule.
Prior to the formation of the HDP out of the ‘Peoples’ Democratic Congress’ (HDK), the Kurdish movement in Turkey had been largely framed by the war between the ‘Kurdistan Worker’s party’ (PKK) and the Turkish State. The PKK has been engaging in an armed struggle against the Turkish state since 1984, where the organisation prior to this had been a civil rights movement (it was founded in 1978). This war brought Kurdish issues to the forefront and started a discussion in the 90’s over the ‘Kurdish question’ – a term that has since referred to conversations over Kurdish rights, homeland and so forth.
When the PKK’s leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has been jailed in isolation on Imrali island since his capture by the Turkish ‘National Intelligence Organisation’ (MIT) in 1999, was contacted by AKP government in 2013 to discuss a solution to the conflict, HDP MP’s took part in negotiations. Turkish state media has since framed such engagements between HDP and PKK as being indicative of a partnership between the two. Accusing HDP of being a political wing to the PKK, these outlets’ (Daily Sabah etc.) contrived a narrative of events that would be later used by AKP as justification to jail HDP members.
Upon the election of Demirtas to party co-leadership in 2014, the Rojava revolution had been in full swing in Syria and a revitalisation of the Kurdish movement in the Middle East had taken hold. However, this revitalisation did not come without its challenges. Another group in Iraq and Syria had emerged out of the instability and chaos. The ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS) had emerged and grown exponentially. Its growth had brought with it great suffering and bloodshed, and was now on the doorstep of a small Kurdish city in northern Syria called, ‘Kobane’.
The besieging of Kobane at hands of Islamic State militants created a huge outcry in Turkey. Thousands of Kurds in the country protested the inaction of the new president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. In Diyarbakir (Kurdish capital of Bakur) and places like Mursitpinar, Kurds vocalised their support for fellow Syrian Kurds. During the siege of Kobanî, Turkish forces watched from a distance and closed the border between Syria and Turkey, forcing hundreds of fleeing civilians from Kobanî to return. A charismatic Demirtas was one of most vocal proponents for intervention to stop ISIS’ siege and one of biggest critics of Erdogan’s lack of action.
Soon after ISIS besieged Kobani, the US delivered the necessary assistance in the form of airstrikes that helped break the siege. This led to a victory for the ‘People’s Protection Units’ (YPG) who had been holding out against ISIS for months. After this victory, Demirtas became an increasingly pernicious thorn in Erdogan’s side. As the young HDP leader did not stop his criticisms of the president in parliament. These criticisms would culminate in his arrest in November of 2016.
When a military coup was foiled by AKP in 2016, Erdogan blamed the coup’s orchestration on Fethullah Gulen and his organisation, ‘The Gulen movement’. The president used the failed coup attempt as a pretext to arrest thousands of individuals, whether they be Gulenists or not. I have mentioned in my writing before that this was the spark that consolidated Erdogan’s, ‘Republic of Fear’. Thousands of members of government, education, law and rival parties were arrested on terrorism charges, as ErdoÄŸan unleashed a purge on the country.
In a speech that was delivered before the Turkish parliament in 2016 Demirtas highlighted the power that Erdogan had been given from the foiled coup and his abuse of that power. However, for Demirtas and for many other HDP members’ comments, many – including Demirtas – were arrested. Arrested without trial, the HDP leader and members of the party have since remained in jail ever since.
The new year of 2018 brought with it striking news for Kurds and supporters of HDP in Turkey, as before a recent HDP party meeting and regarding future party elections for February 11th, a letter was read from Demirtas that stated that he would be stepping down from party leadership. This comes as a sad development, but an understandable one, as the party’s main leadership is behind bars and cannot effectively run the party well in this state. Such a development has brought with it concerns for the future.
Debates over the Kurdish Question have resurfaced in Turkey, as Erdogan’s incursion in Syria in 2016 (operation Euphrates Shield) to stop YPG, which Ankara considers to be a Syrian PKK branch, and increasing crackdowns in the country have brought forth a discussion over the place of Kurds in the Middle East. Whether AKP has meant for this or not, there are large numbers of Kurds, both in Turkey and out of it, that do not trust the Turkish government. There are still Kurds who do not identify as Turks within the country and the banning of Kurdish terms in parliament does not help the AKP to convince Kurds of the fairness of the government to them.
The length of imprisonment for some HDP members, if the pro-AKP justice system is anything to go off, looks to be quite long. For Kurds, the major parties beside HDP, such as CHP and MHP, do not fight for Kurdish rights. Each of the major parties either has a Kemalist, Turkish Nationalist or Islamist ideology that have each been historically rooted in anti-Kurdish sentiment. As a result, there are many Kurds who do not feel that the government represents their interests and have supported HDP as a result, because they feel it to be an avenue for representation.
What is evident is that the country is in a precarious position, as increasing opposition towards Erdogan’s government coupled with a failing foreign policy, repressive policies and creeping Islamist decrees have put a lot of the country on edge. Regardless of what may happen and what can be speculated for the future, what is known now is that many Kurds desire a change in how the government treats them. It is up to the government of Turkey to heed their calls.
Written by Anthony Avice Du Buisson (05/01/2018)
Original piece on the Region website can be found here: https://theregion.org/article/12375-homage-to-demirtas-as-he-steps-down-more-leaders-will-rise
Stories of those forcefully taken from their homes by ISIS’ militants and sold into slavery are just haunting reminders of the tyranny that Daesh (ISIS) has wrought on so many, during its seizure of power in Iraq and Syria. Yazidi women were some of the worst effected by ISIS, as many witnessed their families butchered, homes destroyed and children taken. Having to undergo emotional, psychological and physical trauma through rape, beatings and abuse that is too graphic to mention in detail is unimaginable, yet there were thousands who experienced this — one being Nadia Murad.
Nadia Murad speaking at the UN.
When parts of Shingal (another name for it is ‘Sinjar’) — a district located in the North of Iraq and home to a large proportion of Yazidis — were taken by ISIS’ militants in August 2014, the world witnessed a brutal and bloody campaign of slaughter. Those Yazidis who had not yet fled to the Shingal mountains by the time ISIS arrived, and who instead became trapped in villages at the bottom of its slopes, bore the brunt of ISIS’ brutality. In villages like Kocho, men were forced to either convert — as Yazidis are considered to be pagans by ISIS — or be executed. Many refused ISIS’ demands to convert, resulting in hundreds of Yazidi men being butchered and thousands of women, some as young as twelve and taken from their schools, being forced into slavery. Nadia Murad was one of these women who was captured. Nadia was just nineteen, when she witnessed her brothers butchered before her eyes and was sold off into sex slavery. Taken to Mosul, Nadia endured three months of horror before luckily escaping. She has since gone on to speak out about the injustices of ISIS and the need to bring ISIS’ militants to trial.
Nadia returned to her village in Kocho in Late May, 2017 — just after it was liberated by Hashd al-Shaabi (PMU), a collection of a majority Shiite militias backed by the Abadi government of Iraq (1). It is evident that years of trauma and horror at the hands of ISIS, especially when family and friends were taken, executed and sold, came flooding back to Nadia, as upon returning she cried out in agony around the ruins of desolate buildings in the village. For many of the young taken by ISIS, the trauma still stings and such experiences that Nadia has faced will not be forgotten any time soon. Since 2016, Nadia has been the UN’s goodwill ambassador.
Nadia’s story, which has been documented in a ‘Time’s’ article from 2015 (2), also highlights the barbarity of ISIS and the suffering experienced by those sold into sex slavery. For example, Nadia recalls how some women would throw battery acid on their face, just to avoid being picked by militants for sex. Women enslaved are treated as objects to be used and abused, where militants share and trade them amongst one another. This sex slavery network, where militants buy, sell and gift sex slaves to other militants between Iraq and Syria, is very popular — narcotics comes close too. After being captured and interviewed, a wife of an ISIS militant — wives are treated differently to sex slaves, as these wives came to the caliphate voluntarily — explains how this operation works below(3).
Another Yazidi woman that was taken into slavery by ISIS was Nihad Alawsi (4). She was just fifteen, when militants abducted her. In slavery, Nihad was beaten, raped by multiple men and forced to have a child — to describe her experiences as, ‘going through hell’ would not come close to reality. This woman was beaten, raped repeatedly and verbally abused by her ‘owners’. Nihad is scarred, both physically and mentally, and has developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) over what she had to go through in those months of captivity, but she is not the only one. Many Yazidi women who have been liberated from ISIS have shown signs of trauma and now have to undergo serious psychological treatment (5). This only further highlights the impact that ISIS has had on the psyche of people, especially the Yazidi community.
Put simply, ISIS committed a genocide in Shingal through its deliberate targeting of Yazidis for slaughter and its mass enslavement of Yazidi women(6). Targeted for their identity, Yazidis who managed to escape ISIS’ clutches are still dealing with the trauma. Some, like Nadia Murad, have decided to help other victims and raise awareness of what happened at Shingal. Others, however, have decided to take up arms and take the fight to ISIS. Joining the Peshmerga (Kurdish forces) in Bashur (Iraqi Kurdistan) and those in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), Yazidi fighters now are the ones on the hunt. There still remain many more of their fellow friends and family trapped by ISIS, in places like Raqqa — Syria. These fighters desire now simply to help liberate those they care for. And they are not the only ones.
In 2014, it took a concerted effort from multiple forces, such as the Peshmerga, Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and the United states, to prevent further slaughter in Shingal region. Those Yazidis who fled to the Shingal mountains, out of fear for their family’s safety, had help provided to them by the PKK who brought arms and training to Yazidis that had escaped ISIS during this period. These Yazidi fighters formed with The Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ) for self-defence and brought the fight back to ISIS. These units have since gone on to cooperate with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their fight against ISIS in Syria.
Sinjar Resistance Units arriving at the Raqqa front.
Nearly three years on since the Yazidi genocide took place in Shingal, when the world watched ISIS expansion in Iraq, and the Yazidi community is slowly returning to the region. However, ISIS is far from defeated, but the forces that are bringing it closer to its death are made up of those who care for others. Those forces fighting against Daesh intend to oust its presence from their homes and liberate those held captive — to turn back the years of tyranny. There are Yazidis who fight with SDF that want to free their sisters from slavery. And it is that struggle that will be won, but only through unity, support and determination. As for those Yazidis and many other women who have been liberated, it is clear that serious help will have to be given to them, especially psychological help. This will all happen in time, but until then, we can only fight till its over.
Written By Anthony Avice Du Buisson (27/07/2017)
When in the course of human developments, current establishments prove to be unjustified and tyrannical to the requests of human dignity and rights, when these bodies only wish to subjugate, steal and dictate humankind, the individuals within a society most oppressed have the eternal right to dissent against, and revolt against, these establishments. Moreover, for those who wish to spectate to this injustice against human dignity, may it be known that those who are spectators of injustice are unknowing accomplices to tyranny. One has to take a stand when the moment demands it. One has to speak up to break the silence that comes from fear and inaction.
History shows that in every epoch, there are those who are willing to go against what a society deems ‘moral’, ‘traditional’ or—more condescendingly—‘normal’ in pursuit of their own identity; leading lives that inspire others to follow a similar course of action—from Rosa Luxemburg to Mona Eltahawy. These individuals do not choose their paths out of joy, but rather out of a desire to escape what is around them and to seek out or ‘create‘ a better realm. Often doing so as a part of a minority, these individuals nonetheless fight fiercely for dignity, autonomy, identity and other values that make for a better humanity. However, this journey is not easy and many face serious penalties for even daring to take the road less travelled. No better examples of the cost for dissenting than in those societies that depart from human dignity and rights, such as in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
One of the largest kingdoms in the Arabian Peninsula, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (abbreviated ‘KSA’) lays claim to many things; notably, Islam’s holiest sites—Mecca and Medina—and oil reserves that span across its large desert. For these many things, however, KSA also is home to an archaic system of laws that gets its reinforcement from culture, tradition and religion. Those who disobey or dissent from these laws have serious punishments to face, from imprisonment and lashings to execution via public beheading. (Dare to criticise the government and you will find yourself taken away by police, as was the case for blogger Raif Badawi who posted commentaries on Saudi Society and was sentenced to a thousand lashes and imprisonment in 2012. He remains in prison to this day, despite his wife Ensaf Haidar’s activism.) These laws reach all aspects of Saudi society and benefit those few who are wealthy and powerful. However, what is notable is the way tradition and religion play a large part in Saudi society, as both extend to the private sphere and defy the roles of men and women. Women’s role being the worse within Saudi Society, as is evident with the Male Guardianship system.
Slavery still exists and it comes in a variety of different shapes and forms: the Male Guardianship system is one. Male Guardianship is a system within Saudi Society that requires women to have a male ‘guardian’, which is usually a male relative, who has to accompany and give permission to a woman for her to be allowed to do tasks. From wanting to travel abroad to wanting to seek an education or even medical help, under Saudi law, a woman is required to have a Guardian who can grant permission. Furthermore, if a woman should be involved in a domestic abusive relationship with their guardian, then the guardian’s rights supersede those of the woman—under Saudi law. This means that should a woman complain to Saudi authorities of abuse by her guardian, the word of the guardian is listened to first. The Male Guardianship system is geared to favour Male Guardians. Denying autonomy, financial independence, identity and rights for women, Male Guardianship eclipses the life of a Saudi Woman and denies her a future by herself. It is a system that makes women slaves.
Moreover, the quality of a woman’s life depends entirely on her Guardian. There are guardians who are liberal in their approach and allow women to travel abroad, seek an apartment or work. However, and what must be noted, is that just because the quality of a woman’s life may be good in some parts in KSA, it does not negate the negative experiences of women who depart from said ‘good experience’. In other words, just because some slaves are treated better than others, does not deny what happens to the majority of slaves and the reality of slavery. As for every one woman in Saudi Arabia that benefits, there are at least ten others who do not. This must be recognised, as there are always apologists and PR spokes people that Saudi Government is more than happy to prop up, who will deny this and who will state how ‘nice’ women are treated in KSA. Others will justify the treatment of women by appeals to analogies, often along the lines of claiming Saudi women are ‘queens’ who must be protected. Even though queens are treated better than Saudi women are—having their own autonomy, as well as subjects to command—analogies like the ‘queen analogy’ still persist and the privileged stories of some Saudi women continue to be perpetuated, unknowingly at times, by writers.
Mona El-Naggar, an Egyptian writer based in New York, wrote an article in The New York Times called, ‘I live a Lie: Saudi Women Speak Up’ in October of 2016, about the experiences of Saudi Women in KSA. In it are many powerful stories, but one story stands out. Meeting a group of privileged Saudi students in Washington Square Park, Mona asked them about their experiences under the system. What was their response? “We don’t need to abolish male guardianship. We need to teach men how to be better guardians.” This is a slap to the face of those struggling under the system. By including this story, Mona unknowingly has undermined the piece she seeks to make. (Audiences have a tendency to think that a problem is not as big as it is when there are two sides to it.) Many Saudi girls have escaped from their home nation, many desiring ‘to feel the air on their faces’. One example of those who have escaped Saudi Arabia is Moudi, previously known by the online pseudonym, ‘Sinner’.
Using ‘Twitter’ as a means to raise awareness of the plight of Saudi women, as Twitter is just one of the few sites not banned in KSA, Moudhi—like many Saudi girls—sought to give both fellow Saudi women and foreign audiences a window into the life of a woman in KSA. In real life a law student studying in the USA, Moudhi wore a mask to protect herself from both her family and the system. (Saudi Law, especially when it comes to studying abroad, can send back Saudi girls on scholarships for even daring to criticise KSA.) After a long time of contemplation, Moudhi took off her mask and voiced public criticisms of the Male Guardianship system. Despite the psychological abuse that follows her, both by her own family and Saudi males, Moudhi continues to raise a voice for Saudi Women. Stories like Moudhi’s are not to be taken lightly, as they emphasise what individuals can do and have to undergo when speaking truth to power.
[Writer’s note: More stories will be touched upon later within this essay. However, there are a few stories attached in the appendix.]
Picture: Moudhi, normal face and wearing a veil
History of Oppression
Acknowledging the role religion, culture and tradition play into shaping Saudi Society is imperative, as it fundamentally means accepting reality for what it is and not what it should be. Saudi Arabia in the 60’s and 70’s, just like most countries in the Middle east during that time, from Egypt to Syria, was undergoing radical shifts in culture as more of its populace were experimenting with art and discussing new ideas, such as whether the ban on women driving—imposed in 1957—should be lifted. (What should be noted is that women can drive in non-public areas and only if their guardians allow it; however, they are not allowed to drive on public highways.) However, these shifts in culture did not come without their hostile reactionaries. Ever since its formation as a kingdom in 1932, Saudi Arabia—initially under the leadership of King Abdulaziz—had to deal with trying to synthesise both the non-religious and religious sectors of its nation. Prior to its formation, Al Saud monarchy had a close relationship with the ulama—religious body of clerics. The ulama adhered to a more orthodox version of Islam, ‘wahhabism’ and helped the conquest of Al Saud monarchy over most of the Arabian Peninsula throughout the mid-18th-early 20th centuries. This bond between religion and the state (theocracy) helped to create the kingdom, as the government got its religious legitimacy from the Wahhabi clerics in turn for the clerics being able to propagate the ‘Tawhid’ doctrine—monotheism. (An intertwining of religion and politics was crucial in maintaining KSA’s legitimacy.)
This changed when British imperialistic ventures in the Middle East proved to be an obstacle for the Saudi government, forcing a rigid drawing of strict borders with surrounding nations, KSA had to cut concessions to the ulama and instead pursue secular goals—non-religious national security and foreign policy goals. This would muddle relations between religion and the state. Well more technological and secular influences made their way into the country from western nations, and a ‘modernisation’ of the country began to take root, Mullahs and clerics condemned this ‘westernisation’ of Saudi Arabia in their mosques. However, these mullahs dared not delegitimise the royal family, and when Al Saud monarchy called upon religious justifications for its proposed state policies, clerics dared but refuse. (This contradiction remains, as clerics ‘criticise’ policy in theory, but legitimise it in practise for the state—highlighting something worth note: the power of the monarch.) After the abolishment of slavery in 1962, pushed by Prince Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and in conjunction with international pressure from the United States and Britain, Saudi Arabia’s growing internal struggles and changes led to the abdication of King Saud and the appointment of his successor—King Faisal.
King Faisal introduced ‘radical’ policies in the 60’s and 70’s to Saudi Society that would alter its structure. Through the pushing away of Wahhabi draconian rules and condemnations, Faisal was able to allow women the ability to seek an education and allowed for the creation of Saudi television—policies that cemented Faisal as a ‘reformer king’. This angered a great deal of Wahhabi clerics and religious fanatics, who saw these policies as a ‘perversion’ by the west on Saudi society. These clerics were not alone in their attitudes to westernisation, as religious fanatics throughout the Middle East were growing increasingly angry at their governments ‘capitulation’ to Western influences—seeing their nations going away from ‘pure’ Islam. (To those who were not fanatical in their beliefs, this growing change was increasingly affording women rights and public discussions were commonplace.) However, in 1975, Faisal’s reign ended with assassination by his deranged nephew—Faisal bin Musaid. After King Khalid’s ascent to the throne to fill void left by Faisal, KSA found it amidst turbulent political winds, as nations surrounding it were growing increasingly involved in internal struggles, from Iran to Iraq. These winds engulfed Saudi Arabia in 1979 with the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
Armed with guns smuggled in via coffins, a group of insurgents stormed the Grand Mosque in Mecca and declared that Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani was the Mahdi (redeemer of Islam), and demanded King Khalid to step down. Allegedly receiving word from Allah while in prison, Juhayman al-Otaybi believed Saudi Arabia to have lost its way and saw it as an imperative to not only rid the country of ‘western perversion’, but to also bring it back to a ‘purer’ form of Islam. Otaybi and his brother-in-law, Qahtani, gathered a group of a few hundred devotees to enter Mecca’s holiest Mosque during hajj (pilgrimage). Taking hostages, Otaybi demanded King Khalid to step down. This ‘mahdist’ group occupied the mosque (whereby it desired to establish a theocratic state), for nearly two weeks. It was quelled when French and Pakistani forces, scrambled together by the royal family in desperation to secure KSA’s legitimacy, stormed the Mosque, killing Qahtani and capturing Otaybi. However, King Khalid had to seek a ‘fatwa’ (religious decree) beforehand from the ulama to allow those forces to be given access to the Mosque to remove the insurgents. The ulama sought the opportunity to push for an amending of relations between the state and religion. In turn for allowing access, it wanted more power to affect policies, which it got after the recapture of the Grand Mosque. This increase in power meant that the Monarch gave Wahhabi clerics more decision making abilities and agreed to help export its religious ideology (Wahhabism) globally in the oncoming decades.
With the reforging of this alliance between the state and religion, Saudi Arabia started to reverse the modernisation that had gripped it in the 60’s and 70’s. The ulama began to impose stricter Islamic law (Sharia) upon the country: censoring media, enforcing greater restrictions on women and banning things like alcohol. Forcing women to cover up, either with an abaya or with hijab, KSA ended the liberal experimentation and started to enforce traditional roles upon Saudi women. King Khalid’s successor, King Fahd, allowed for the formation of the ‘Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vices’ (CPVPV), which intended to maintain these laws. It did this through the Religious police who were given greater reign to enforce dress code, sex segregation (aptly denoted by some as ‘sex apartheid’), the Male Guardianship system and ensure the domination of Islamic state policy. If a woman should be seen in public unaccompanied by her Guardian, then the religious police could take her and lock her up in a ‘care home’, which is a prison for women. In the education system, more schools had to have religious studies. In this way, the ulama wanted to regain Saudi Arabia’s status as an Islamic nation and ensure ‘Islamic values’ were spread to its populace—more orthodox values, as opposed to liberal ones. This ‘Wahhabi’ imposition on Saudi society did not come without its resistance.
Wherever there are those who are willing to subjugate others, there will always be a small pocket of dissenters willing to raise their voices against tyranny and defy state law. This was the case in Riyadh in 1990, where a couple dozen women drove cars throughout Saudi Arabia’s capital. Knowing perfectly well the risks, these women took their guardians’ cars and drove them—defiant of the law. Paying with the revoking of their passports and jail time, such a demonstration only shows the desire of women to have rights and sheer desperation of the Saudi government to keep its legitimacy through force. In addition, as it clamps down harder, there will be more resistance to it as women refuse to be silent. This ‘fire’ to have rights cannot be extinguished merely by physical force, as is evident with the continuation of such protests in the 21stcentury.
Picture: Wajeha al-Huwaider driving a car in 2008
Moving to end the Male Guardianship system
Movements have flurried with the advent of the internet and Social media, as more women gain access to platforms that allow them to voice their experiences under the Male Guardianship System. Despite KSA banning certain social media sites and apps, such as ‘Skype’, ‘Facebook’ and ‘Whatsapp’, sites like ‘Twitter’ and ‘Instagram’ remain, providing a venue for women to write and share videos of what life is like in KSA. Well there are many women who have to adorn pseudonyms to protect their identity from Saudi Authorities, there are those brave few who choose to come out publically—despite the costs. Saudi women activists like Wajeha Huwaider, a woman who was arrested for posting a video of herself driving a car in Riyadh in 2008, and Manal al-Sharif, a woman who launched ‘Women2Drive’ campaign that sought to teach Saudi women to drive in 2011, both have been in the public eye and have protested the ban on women driving. Aziza Yousef is another activist who is involved in the highlighting of women’s rights abuses in KSA. Highlighting a couple cases in 2014 (one of them being where a woman died on campus in Riyadh after not being given access to paramedics, all because of not having a Male Guardian), Aziza sought to petition the Shura Council with other activists to demand an end to Male control over women. These activists seek to highlight the grave human rights violations that Saudi Arabia is guilty of and have inspired many Saudi women to take up a new mantra. A mantra that has since gone on to define a movement: ‘I am my own Guardian’.
‘“When you are born a girl in KSA, you will feel that the only crime that you have committed is being born into the wrong sex.” I am forced to love someone I hate. However, I am not the only one. There are many like me in my country. Many women who suffer as I do. We want our freedom from this tyranny. We want the Male Guardian system to end. This is my wish. My name is Aisha. I am just another woman who lives in KSA.“-Aisha
[Writer’s note: full story, as well as many others that I have received, will be attached in the appendix of this essay.]
In mid-2016, Saudi women took to twitter to start a movement to end the Male Guardianship system. Tweeting under various hashtags, such as #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen, #TogetherToEndMaleGaurdianship and #سعوديات_نطلب_اسقاط_الولايه (Abolish the male Guardianship system), Saudi Women started to raise awareness of what harrowing experiences that happen in KSA. Many of these women, which included activists like Hala Al dosari, began posting videos and their stories of oppression, and began to demand an end to Male Guardianship and Saudi Women’s liberation. On its 159th day, at the time of writing this, #سعوديات_نطلب_اسقاط_الولايه this Arabic hashtag is the primary one that many Saudis use to voice their concerns. Some of the stories included in this hashtag are very horrifying and provide just a glimpse into the life of Saudi women. Many of these stories include domestic abuse cases, where the Male Guardian has subjected their daughters and wives to torture, psychological manipulation and rape, and have gotten away with it! (Human Rights Watch wrote an excellent piece in July 2016 called, ‘Boxed In’, which highlighted many experiences from Saudi women.) Highlighting the injustice and discrimination of the system, the movement to end Male Guardianship has a couple goals, which many of those involved would agree with:
- Abolish the Male Guardianship System.
- End the ban on Women driving.
- Acknowledge human rights for women.
However, in order to achieve these goals, Saudi Arabia needs to acknowledge the abuses of its government upon its own people. The Saudi government is reluctant to do this and at times denies its treatment of women. This is evident with it saying one thing to United Nations Human Rights Council, but doing another thing within the Kingdom. (It is a sad state of affairs when KSA is Chair of the Human Rights Council of the UN, as it currently is and has been ever since 2015.) Prior to the current King Salman, King Abdullah had made small concessions to international pressure to give women greater rights. Electing thirty female members to the Shura Council, more as a publicity stunt than anything else, Abdullah made snail progressions that are still not enough. There needs to be more action.
Within the movement, there are both non-Saudis and Saudis alike who do their part to raise awareness of the plight of Saudi women. Those who are against the movement claim it to have a ‘western agenda’ in mind, because of the involvement of western individuals. This ‘rationale’ follows the same conspiratorial mindset of those who claimed that Otaybi’s zealots, such as the Ayatollah of Iran, were ‘CIA-backed agents’. In other words, it is ridiculous at best and seeks to undermine the legitimacy of the movement at worst. There is an international presence within the movement, but what must not be forgotten is that the movement is for Saudi Women’s liberation. Saudi women come first and their concerns for rights are the focus of the movement. In a nation where a woman can have her entire life dictated to by a Male guardian, where this guardian can take away her rights to go to school or seek medical assistance and so on, it is imperative to raise awareness of her struggles and seek justice to end them. Not just because she is Saudi, but because she is human. The struggle for Saudi Women’s rights is a part of the larger struggle for a better humanity.
The fight for Saudi Women’s rights is just one of the many fights that exist in the Arab world. Across the Middle East, women undergo their own struggle against oppression, whether it be from the totalitarian forces of ISIS to the theocratic imams of Iran, each one battles for freedom. In each case, there are those who have no personal stake in an issue, but choose to take the side of the victim and aid them in their struggle. Being motivated by a fire that burns within, these humans take up Bertrand Russell’s injunction to ‘Remember your humanity and forget the rest’. Refusing to be spectators of injustice and doing what they can to help. Reminding those facing oppression to continue to raise their voices, as silence is what gives tyranny power. Never forget the power of words.
The government of Saudi Arabia cannot ignore forever its populace’s voices.
Though it may try to, it will not win.
Saudi Women are too strong for that.
Never forget that.
Artwork: Ms Saffaa’s art for the #StopEnslavingSaudiWomen movement
Written By: Anthony Avice Du Buisson (11/12/2016)
-Aisha’s story: http://philosophyismagic.com/a-womans-struggle-aishas-story/
I do not care anymore for this life.
I have become empty inside, as a result of the abuse around me.
Everyone is against me and accuse me of doing sexual things that I have not done!
They make me out to be an oppressor, but it is they who support an oppressor!
When I was nine years old, my father sexually abused me. But I didn’t stay quiet, and I told my mother about what he did to me. It was the worst thing that I did, as he only became angrier and acted crazy. He expected me to be quiet, but I refused! Mother told me to tell her if anyone touched you inappropriately, then I had to always speak up. I never expected it to be my father!
As a result of me speaking up, he became very abusive to me. He would deliberately scare me and try to kill me, but my mother would stand in his way and she would threaten him that she would tell everybody about what he did to me. I was only a child and I would not sleep for some nights because I was afraid of him as he always threatens to kill me. He would tell me, “by god I will nail your head to the floor!” When we moved to another house I was relieved to find the room me and my sisters shared had a lock. I started locking the door each night but he would still threaten me that he would insert a gun from the window and shoot me from there. I spent nights sleeping in the corners of the room so the gun wouldn’t reach me. Why does he do this?
I want to understand why this happened to me? I’m a person who hasn’t done anything wrong, I was a ‘model’ girl. I did what I was supposed to do, from prayer to listen to my mother. As the years went on, he continue to deny me things. He tied to prevent me from going to school, but I would go each year and felt involved in a constant fight! Some days I was afraid he would see me and hit me infront of my friends. When I would come off the bus, he would slap me. Even my bus driver tried to stop him. These efforts were in vain, as he would continue to humiliate me and abuse me by telling how he wants to take me out of school.
He wouldn’t give me an allowance even. Everything I owned were hand me downs from my sisters and mother since I was a child. I used to wear my brother’s shoes at school because he was the only one who was close to my age at the time and I remember the girls in school would make fun of me since they were boys’ shoes. Even my name he put it in his company so he can prevent me from supporting myself (I never understood why he did this.) He refuses to support me and doesn’t allow me to support myself. I don’t know what to do with myself. I’m experiencing severe depression. I’m always thinking about suicide, especially in the last couple of months. But I always think about my mother and my siblings and I don’t want to leave them alone.
He doesn’t even allow me to go to the hospital. I have asthma, and a many time I get severe attacks where I can’t breathe and my mother tells him take her to the hospital but he would say No, let her die. I want her to.
My father is just despicable. He’s the worst person ever.
He would lock me up in my room for days. My mother would bring me food from the window. Even the bathroom, I would only go when he’s not in the house and if he’s back I could never go in. I would avoid drinking anything so that I don’t need to go.
He’s always helping everyone, even some of his friends’ daughters so that one would believe us. When I call the police after he hits me they would ask me, what did you do? Then they would give me numbers to call none of which I get a response. So I lose hope.
When I called human rights, they called him and he lied to them and told them that he loves me and cares about what’s best for me and that he needs me at home and the worker believed him. He’s a liar. And when the worker called me again to make sure, my father threatened my mother, that if I don’t shut up he’s going to get an official form that proved I’m crazy and that they would take me forcibly to a mental institute.
By god everything I told you is nothing compared to what he’s done to me. I literally want to die. He’s not allowing me to live. He intervenes and prevent me from everything even what I wear. I dreamt of being a teacher. Or to just live a normal life like every other girl. God has gave him many things. He has many foundations under his name. Sometimes I feel that god is unjust. This oppressive man who’s stopping my life and future is just so blessed.
[Brief Note: Here is just one of the many stories that I receive from Saudi Women about Male Guardianship, which is a system that limits Women’s rights within Saudi Arabia. For security reasons, I have had to change the real name of this woman to ‘Aisha’, allowing her anonymity but also allowing her to speak about her story. Aisha’s story is just one of the many personal accounts of what women within KSA have to go through. This story will be included in a later article that I will post in November.]
“My name is Aisha.
I am a 23 years old Woman who comes from the Kingdom Of Saudi Arabia.
Before I tell of my experiences living here, I wish to say just one sentence and I want you to read this sentence carefully, “When you are born a girl in KSA, you will feel that the only crime that you have committed is being born into the wrong sex.” Let me explain why it is a crime to be a Girl in KSA.
Since I was five years old, I knew what the difference was between a girl and a boy. You see, I have a brother. When I was five years old, I was arguing with my brother who was at the time three years old. The argument was over food. I told my brother to not throw food on the floor, unless he did not want to eat it—it is wrong to otherwise. However, my brother did not listen to me and continued to throw food on the floor. It was in that moment that my father entered the room, after hearing me arguing with my brother. He beat me with his hands. Why did he do this? Because my brother was a boy and can do what he wants, and I am a girl and have to respect whatever my brother does, even when he is wrong. I remember having to cry in my grandmother’s room after that; it was so wrong.
As I grew, I noticed more and more the differences in the way that my parents treated me, as opposed to how they treated my other sibling brothers. Boys could go out with their friends, but I could not. Boys could take money and go out freely, but I could not. Boys could sleep where they wanted, but I could not. I noticed that whenever my brothers went out with friends, they never had to be accompanied by my father. However, whenever I went out, I had to be accompanied by either my brothers or my father. I felt like a prisoner who had to be accompanied, 24/7, by guard—all for being born into the wrong sex. It is not my fault for being born a girl by my mother.
When I asked my mother about why my brothers could get to do more things than me, she told me that it was because they were better than me. In other words, boys are better than girls; brothers are better than daughters. She told me that I was nothing without a male. “Your brothers can drive and bring things that we need, but girls cannot.” I felt so much shame when she told me this. I felt that I was nothing. I felt that I was cursed. The very fact that my mother could say that as if it were nothing, made me feel so helpless.
As the years went on, more and more beatings occurred by my father, and even by my brothers. It was only when I graduated from high school that I decided to change this. I decided to do all that I can to be independent. To show my family that even if I am girl, I can do many things that boys can do. I can still be a successful person, even without their support. When I told them that I wanted to study medicine or nursing at college, they laughed at me. My father and mother did not believe that I could be successful at this. However, I did not care about them, because they mean nothing for me. I believed in myself. The next day, I registered into my local university; however, I still have to give my father all the money the university pays for me to allow me to study, because if I refuse, then he will not allow me to study and will beat me.
First year of nursing was so difficult. I had to learn English language, because my course was mainly taught in English. None of my parents are educated and my father did not allow me to have a private teacher, even when I offered to use my own money. He cared more about money than he does about me. However, despite the difficulties brought before me, I managed to persevere and I worked hard to learn English, as well as complete my nursing course. I did all things to achieve high grades and it paid off. For once, I felt so happy. I did achieve some form of small victory. I graduated from nursing college with very high grades and I wanted to study abroad. I wanted to get a scholarship, but my father said “no”. He said it so easily. I felt that I lost hope. I became pessimistic; all my dreams destroyed, because my Male guardian said “No”.
Now I feel, whenever I wake and whenever I sleep, as if my body does not have a soul. I cannot study, I cannot work, I cannot Marry, I cannot go to the hospital, I cannot pay anything, I cannot visit friends without a Male Guardian. I am a slave that is forced to be chained for life. Some of my friends have accepted this reality, but I do not want to accept it. I want to break my chains and break my bondage. I want to breathe freely. I want to be free. I want to live my own life; be my own person. All because I am a woman.
Now you know what I meant by, “When you are born a girl in KSA, you will feel that the only crime that you have committed is being born into the wrong sex.” I am forced to love someone I hate. However, I am not the only one. There are many like me in my country. Many women who suffer as I do. We want our freedom from this tyranny. We want the Male Guardian system to end.
This is my wish.
My name is Aisha.
I am just another woman who lives in KSA.”
#StopEnslavingSaudiWomen is a social media movement that aims to raise awareness of the suffering of Saudi Women under the Male Guardianship system. The campaign aims at ending Oppressive laws towards women and granting them rights. Please be sure to raise awareness about the movement with friends, family members and others. Raising Awareness helps in the long run.
Story sent by: Aisha
Blurb written by: Anthony Avice Du Buisson