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A decade into Kurdish autonomous rule, what changed for northeast Syria's women?

Since 2013, the province of Hasakah in northeastern Syria has been ruled by an autonomous administration guided by overtly feminist principles. Ten years later, what has changed for rural women? What challenges remain?
A woman dressed in traditional clothing poses for a picture while standing on a rock in the Mazqaft water reservoir in the countryside of the town of Qahtaniyah in Syria's northeastern Hasakah province close to the border with Turkey, during Syrian Kurdish celebrations on the second day of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, on March 21, 2021. (Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

QAMISHLI, Syria — Um Jamil describes herself as a fighter — not one that carries a weapon, but a determined spirit who struggled for the past 10 years to achieve her independence.

Raised in the countryside of Qamishli in northeastern Syria, Um Jamil spent most of her life “living simply, like any woman in the countryside.” She married a worker living in the city of Qamishli, and for many years they both struggled to raise their six children on his meager wages. “There wasn’t a single Syrian pound to spare, and I had to ask my husband for money every time I needed something,” she told Al-Monitor.

But in 2013, Um Jamil’s life took an unexpected turn. The Syrian government withdrew from Hasakah province, which came under the control of an autonomous government formed by a coalition of Arab, Assyrian and Kurdish parties led by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). In 2018, this coalition morphed into the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), which now controls most of the Syrian provinces of Hasakah, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor.

For Um Jamil, this sudden change in leadership marked a new beginning. Guided by overtly feminist views, the new administration and affiliated women's parties launched small-scale economic projects targeting women. In 2013, she joined a newly created women’s cooperative — a small business run by a group of women who produced, packaged and sold traditional foodstuff.

She felt empowered immediately. For the first time, the skills she learned as a farmer’s daughter — sowing, treating plants, harvesting — brought her an income. “I changed completely. I was in touch with women in many villages and towns. I got to travel. My personality got stronger,” Um Jamil said. “I became more confident and financially independent.”

Um Jamil’s experience was shared by dozens, if not hundreds, of other women in Hasakah province, where significant efforts have been made in recent years to increase women’s political and economic roles in society.

But not all women share this experience, particularly in rural regions where they have less access to education and jobs than in cities. And after 10 years under the rule of a nominally feminist government, many obstacles remain for rural women seeking economic empowerment.

A feminist policy

Over the past 10 years, the AANES and its predecessors have taken an unusually proactive stance toward gender equality, even enshrining women’s rights in the social contract that serves as its constitution.

Its approach is guided by principles theorized by Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed founder of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is widely considered the mothership of the Syrian PYD.

“Changing gender relations in society is at the core of the ideology of the PKK and the PYD, and women fought for these positions within the PKK for years,” Thomas Schmidinger, a political scientist specializing in contemporary Kurdish politics and history, and author of “Rojava: Revolution, War and the Future of Syria’s Kurds,” told Al-Monitor. “This feminism is definitely not just to please the West; it’s a very unique thing.”

The AANES’ social contract also states that all institutions must have a quota of at least 40% women. In practice, this translates into a system of co-chairmanship whereby all key positions in the administration are filled by a man and a woman.

“This system works relatively well, and they really have all important positions co-chaired by a man and a woman, although of course, it is difficult to determine whether the informal power of the woman is equal to the informal power of their male co-chair,” Schmidinger said.

Yet the relatively successful inclusion of women in institutions “does not automatically translate into a stronger position for women in society or the economy,” Schmidinger noted. This remains a big challenge today, particularly in rural areas where women tend to have less access to education, training opportunities and formal employment, and therefore less independence from their families and less ability to defend their rights.

Economic inclusion

To reach women in rural areas, the AANES runs an expanding network of cooperatives, which gather women around a shared economic project such as at a farm, factory or small business. One of the goals of this system is to create an independent source of income for women who rarely earn a salary from working on the family farm.

“Women have been working in agriculture for a long time with little pay,” Ronak Abdel Wahhab, an employee of the Cooperatives Bureau of Hasakah at the AANES’ Board of Economy (which acts as a ministry), told Al-Monitor. “One of our goals was to support women so that they may earn an income from their work.” Each cooperative is run collectively by a group ranging from a handful of women to a few dozen, who then share business profits.

This system worked well for Um Jamil, who felt her experience was valued for the first time. “The thing I’ll always remember about my experience in the cooperatives was that we were working with university-educated women who did not know how many square meters went into a dunum or what was the quality of the soil or how the agricultural cycles went,” Um Jamil recalled. “Meanwhile, as a rural woman, I knew everything related to agriculture and livestock.”

The first women-only cooperatives were established in 2013 onward by female activists and gradually integrated into the AANES. Today, women’s cooperatives in northeast Syria are managed either by the Kongreya Star, a confederation of women’s organizations that is close to the PYD, or by the AANES’ Ministry of Economy, which manages gender-mixed as well as women’s cooperatives. These two umbrella bodies provide organizational and material support to their respective networks of cooperatives, including vocational training, farmland, offices and funding for basic supplies needed to operate the project.

A limited impact

On the one hand, since their emergence in 2013, these cooperatives have enabled a few hundred women in rural areas to have an independent source of income, often for the first time. But on the other hand, their impact on the Syrian economy is limited.

“These cooperatives are undoubtedly very important for the individual women who are involved in them, because in many cases these women would not have any other chance to make an independent living,” Schmidinger said. “But it’s hard to measure their overall impact because it’s very hard to get numbers about the economy in the region. Meanwhile, the most relevant sectors of the economy — oil, for example — remain strongly male-dominated.”

The AANES’ Cooperatives Bureau of Hasakah, which runs 17 cooperatives in the province, including six women’s cooperatives, estimates that 300 women benefit from these projects. However, this number does not include the women’s cooperatives run by the Kongreya Star, whose impact is likely on the same scale. Most are built around small-scale projects that only employ a few dozen women, like bakeries and small sewing factories — a setup that is also characteristic of many NGO-led women’s empowerment projects.

One of the goals of the cooperatives system, according to Abdel Wahhab of the AANES’ Cooperatives Bureau, was “to liberate rural women from customs and traditions.” Ten years on, this goal is far from achieved in Hasakah and the rest of northeast Syria under the control of the AANES. “Although women now have the chance to get the support of the administration in case of a conflict with their family, for example, 90% of the population still abide by the same gender relations they had before the establishment of the Autonomous Administration,” Schmidinger said.

Still, the various measures introduced under the AANES have opened new opportunities for women overall and may have stoked women’s desires for further economic emancipation. “Over the past 10 years, women have been breaking the barriers of tradition,” Abdel Wahhab said. “Their desire to access work and economic opportunities is increasingly explicit.”

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