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Hevrin Khalaf and the spirit of the democratic nation

  • October 24, 2019

Gender & Governmentality

Days after Turkey’s invasion of Rojava, Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf was assassinated. In this interview from last year, she shares her thoughts on the Rojava revolution.

My name is Hevrin, from Derik, a city in Rojava. I studied and lived there, but now my work is in Qamishlo. I studied civil engineering in Aleppo for five years and I completed my education in 2009. After working for the government for one year, the revolution started. This was in 2011.

My family deserves the credit for my participation in the Rojava revolution; they are patriotic and have been organized for years. They always took me to meetings and social events. In other words, I have never been far away from political organizing and have always had strong roots in our society.

This may be the case everywhere in the Middle East, but especially in Rojava there still exists a strong unity and solidarity among our people. Living together, or what we call ‘communal living’ is still alive and common today. I am also part of this communal society.

These were Hevrin Khalaf’s words in the spring of 2018 when I met her. On October 12, 2019, three days after Turkey launched its military offensive into northern Syria, she was brutally murdered. According to reports by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, she was dragged out of her car and shot in cold blood on the road. Her autopsy reveals she was shot, beaten with heavy objects and dragged by her hair until the skin on her scalp came off.

I do not know how many times I have listened to our interview recordings since I heard the horrible news of Hevrin’s death. She describes Rojava and her struggle with such pride. I wanted to hear these honorable words, because they also explain many of the reasons for the war against Rojava and Kurds. This interview is an attempt to bring justice to the brave work that Hevrin Khalaf did for her people and for the people of Rojava.

I met Hevrin Khalaf (Hevrîn Xelef, in Kurdish) in the spring of 2018 when she was the co-chair of the Ministry of Economy of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, better known as Rojava. The day before, she had lost her comrade Gerdo, with whom she had struggled together for many years; she was returning from Gerdo’s house in Tirbespîyê , and I remember when she called me to say that she was sorry for being late and that she was on her way.

A lifelong struggle

While I waited for Hevrin in the garden of the Ministry of Economy, sitting in the shadow of a tree, I chatted and smoked with the woman responsible for the Asayişa JIN, the women security forces in Rojava. She looked so strong and autonomous that when I saw the ring on her finger, I must admit I was a little surprised and asked her if she was married; “I’m married, but my husband works for the community security forces in another part of Rojava,” she said. A little embarrassed, she laughingly confessed: “We forgot that we were married once the revolution happened.”

Hevrîn Xelef. Photo via ANF News Agency

Women in Rojava have always sought to transform the revolution, which everyone knows as a women’s revolution, into a social revolution. Hevrin struggled for this all her life and was murdered while fighting for it.

I had already heard about the beauty and dignity of Hevrin, and indeed, when she arrived, her swollen eyes and sadness from crying for Gerdo could not hide her beauty, nor did her fatigue obstruct her hospitality; while greeting me, she immediately inquired if I was hungry and if I had something to eat.

During my stay in Rojava, I had no relations with money; every day I ate and drank tea in the communal kitchens of one of the many local institutions or civilian houses along the way. There, it was evident that money does not dominate all social relations. Sometimes the people in Rojava were making fun of me; joking that if I had come during the time of war and embargo, they would have only given me soup.

A society build around communes and assemblies

Along with the revolution, a social economy had been organized in Rojava. At the time of our meeting, Hevrin was a spokesperson and co-chair of the Ministry of Economy for over two years.

There are three important pillars for organizing a social economy. The first one is the economy for social needs, which unlike in a capitalist economy, is not focused on maximizing profit. The second pillar is ecology and the ecologically responsible production of society’s needs. The third pillar is the creation and control of a fair market. These three pillars are very important for the social economy, and we want to make these a reality.

Rojava is not only the territory where a revolution is taking place, it is also a territory where the idea of a revolution is being redefined. Rojava is the place where a social revolution is taking place; where the notion of the “classical revolution” — based on the idea of transforming society through the seizure of power — is rejected.

The Kurdish movement of Rojava refuses to take power; instead, it mobilizes in an organizational modality that forms a network of assemblies that allows the people to become the subjects of their decision-making processes, offering the principle of self-determination for autonomy. That is, the Kurds are rejecting the basic component of a state: its power to make and implement decisions from the top down.

In other words, unlike other parts of Syria, the Kurds are not just another armed faction, but a militant popular movement that promotes horizontal self-determination and autonomy by and for the people of northern Syria. As Hevrin explained:

We should understand the main difference between the revolution in the rest of Syria and the revolution in Rojava. Let me give you an example, last night there was a public gathering. There was a teacher from Deraa. You probably know the significance of Deraa as the spark that lit the fire of the Syrian revolution back in 2011.

However, it could not go further.

Yesterday he told us that in Deraa, after the city was liberated from the regime seven years ago, nothing else was done; no organization, no service, no administration. Only a group of soldiers arrived to rule. That means whoever has guns can has power there. Our most important difference is this.

The first thing that was done in Rojava, and later in the broader region of northern and eastern Syria after it was liberated from ISIS, was the establishment of regional cantonal assemblies in agreement with the people living there, as the subjects of their own decisions. The sanctioning of, or participation in these assemblies by armed forces, was banned by the social contract of Rojava and northern Syria.

The purpose of the popular assembly-based system in Rojava is to organize an anti-capitalist and autonomous model for a stateless, anti-patriarchal and ecological society. Democratic autonomy, which is organized around the commune, is not a political party organization or government, although it recognizes political parties. Communes and popular assemblies, which are the main bodies of societal organization, constitute a self-government.

The spirit of a democratic nation

Unlike ethnic and religious conflicts that have transformed the Middle East into a war zone, democratic autonomy is guaranteed by the communes for all institutions of autonomous government on the basis of a “democratic nation”.

It was evident from the tone of her voice that Hevrin had captured the spirit of the democratic nation, just like her Assyrian comrade Gerdo:

Ever since the movement began organizing itself, they [militants of the Kurdish movement] have been explaining the solution [democratic autonomy] with Öcalan’s prison writings. In his work, there is a solution for the entire Middle East and Rojava. So, the political solution is already there, we just need to implement it.

This is why, when overthrowing a system, that you need to replace what was previously there with an alternative vision. If you don’t have an alternative, what you’ve destroyed might turn into something worse.

In other words, when the revolution started and the state left with all of its institutions — it remained only in a few places — if we didn’t have our alternative system and if our people were not ready, it would have been impossible for us to achieve a real liberation by simply establishing institutions.

In order to build this alternative system, we started with Mala Gel [People’s Houses] and Mala JIN [Women’s Houses]. All the institutions of society were created separately. If our society is recognized, it is best known for the women’s organizations. So, when people talk about the revolution in Rojava, they call it the Şoreşa JIN [Women’s Revolution]. The women started by building the Women’s Houses whose aim was to organize the women’s movement.

They were formed to create the common mind of women and to emancipate them from the dark and deprived situations in which they often find themselves, and have them become the leaders of this social revolution. Because we know that when a woman becomes a leader, society becomes a leader with her and transforms itself. The freedom of women and society are interdependent.

When I joined the revolution, my first place was in the Nurî Dersîm academy, where the political formation of society took place. I worked there for a time. At that time, the autonomous government had been declared, but prior to that my comrades suggested that I should take part in it. After the declaration of the autonomous government, I became the co-chair of the Ministry of Energy.

We worked with mamoste Gerdo, whom we lost yesterday, for three months. We worked with heval Gerdo since day one of the autonomous government. Many times he would say: we started the struggle together, and we will finish it together. He was our Assyrian friend and a very good person. He was a very good person in terms of human morality.

When we would talk about the terms of the democratic nation, I always said to him: you were our first friend who understood the democratic nation even though it wasn’t an explicit part of our political program yet. Because he understood and realized this; it was part of his nature.

He came from the city of Tirbespîyê and in this city people were living together in peace, so I was observing his nature in his relationships with Arabs and Kurds, Muslims and Assyrians. He repeated many times: ‘Serok [honorary title of Abdullah Öcalan] made us aware of it, and so we are very comfortable with it. We didn’t know that as Assyrians we had such rights; we had forgotten about it, but now we know our cultural and political rights, thanks to his prison writings.’

Gerdo always said that we must defend the project of democratic autonomy. He did so very quietly, but we worked with the spirit of a democratic nation for more than four years together. He really had the spirit of the democratic nation.

If there is one good thing about this autonomous government, it is the unity of the people. An Assyrian works with the Kurds, a Kurd with the Arabs. This wasn’t something that could have been achieved easily. This alone is a revolution.

Transforming gender relations

Hevrin had learned from her mother to be strong and revolutionary. As such, she joined the resistance as soon as the revolution began and held various positions. When she was discussing the social economy with me, she said that she would no longer be involved in the economic dimension of the movement.

After the liberation of regions like Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, she was offered to be co-president of the Syrian Future Party (SFP), which aims to establish a social consensus for peace and to eliminate the hostility that was historically generated by the Ba’ath regime between Kurds and Arabs. She brought this up casually and I could tell that she did not want to quit her job organizing the social economy of Rojava and that she did not want to participate in the SFP, but that she would not reject the offer of her comrades.

She added that she felt that she had become intertwined with the people working in the economic area and that they had managed to solve many realistic problems together. However, given that many aligned Arab tribes had not accepted the system of co-presidency, she knew she had a responsibility to take her place in the party in order to fight until such a system was accepted.

The system of having a co-chair or co-spokesperson is a praxis that provides women and men equal rights of speech and decision-making and which can be seen in every institution and organizational structure of the Kurdish freedom movement and dates back to a decision taken by a Kurdish women’s organizations in the 1990s. It is the first praxis of this nature among freedom movements in the world. Hevrin said that the adoption of the co-chair system was not easy, and that it would be an ongoing struggle:

After the declaration of the autonomous government, women’s work has become more and more prominent. All institutions of the autonomous administration are paying special attention to women’s issues, but there is always one institution focused on women exclusively..We do not encourage that women’s issues should be prioritized over general ones, but we do insist that women’s issues are taken into account in every institution.

In order to rekindle the extinguished fire in the history of women, we must intervene and support women’s organizations in every way possible. Until when? Until women and men can work together equally.

For example, the co-presidency system is not accepted in many regions. It has not been sufficiently internalized, even in the many institutions that we have established since the start of the revolution. In other words, to see each other as co-chairs, to know that decisions should be taken together equally, is an idea and a practice that has not yet been fully implemented in our culture.

It works very well in some places, but remember that it is not possible to change a millennia-old mentality in just two years. For example, when we talk about co-chairs, they immediately tell us that this right is only a woman’s right. The co-chair system does not exist solely for women — because the nature of women’s work is to work collectively, it therefore also assures men’s rights. Women see the co-chair system as a way of working with men, in other words, women see the right to work together also as a men’s rights issue.

For example, when we talk about co-chairing in newly-liberated areas, there is a perception that we are doing something for women, but that is not the case; co-chairing is not just for women, it is also for men. It is true, for example, that the decision to apply the co-chair system everywhere was conceived in women’s organizational spaces and actions, but from the beginning we recognized that this system would not only be beneficial for women, but also for all people in northern Syria. So, everyone has the right to act with his or her comrade.

This type of system may be perceived like this at first because there is no other example of it in the world. Sometimes I am very surprised, for example, when my male friends say, ‘Okay, let’s not argue too much, there is a co-chair system and our female friends here should not be offended.’ When I heard this, I said ‘We must accept this system not because otherwise women might get offended, but so that men’s voices do not disappear in society.’

Co-presidency does not mean destroying men, it means transforming gender relations inside our institutions and society. In single-presidency systems, the president is either a man or a woman. Therefore, in order to achieve real transformation in autonomous government, it was necessary to decide on the co-chair system.

For example, when the autonomous government was declared, all ministries had a presidential system; one president and two vice-presidents; now there are two co-chairs and three vice-presidents. Not only in ministries, but in all institutions.

The co-chairing first started in the canton of Cizre, then Kobane and now this system has also begun in Afrin. However, of course the Afrin cantonal assembly had also worked with the a de facto co-chair system from the beginning. In fact, even this was strange, as an example the first president of the Cizre canton was a man: Abdulkerim Saruhan; in Kobane also a man: Enver Muslim; but in Afrin it was a woman: Hevi Mustafa. Hevi Mustafa had a male co-chair even though the autonomous government had not yet decided on the co-chair system yet. But because she was a woman, the co-chair system was adopted de facto. It wasn’t implemented there yet. So, this tells us is that if the president is a man, they can continue as a presidential system, but if the president is a woman, she is not allowed to be without a male co-chair.

I laughed, and she laughed too; in that moment I saw the beautiful smile of Hevrin that no doubt stays with everyone who had seen it.

Even after her death, the importance of her struggle was once again made clear: Hevrin was not recognized as co-chair of the Syrian Future Party establishment, but rather referred to as the party’s “secretary general.”

She was a woman who was a co-president in her daily practice; I have no doubt that she continued her struggle with this spirit of resistance until the day she was murdered.

Hevrin Khalaf was smiling in front of me as a co-chair; this was undoubtedly the victory smile I saw in the eyes and faces of all women in Rojava; this honorable smile that destroyed patriarchy. So defending Rojava means defending that honorable smile!

Azize Aslan

Azize Aslan is a PhD student in Sociology at Mexico. She is working on anti-capitalist movements and alternative economics.

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