Last November, I had the opportunity to visit northeast Syria for the first time since 2011. This was the first visit since Kurdish political parties took control of the Al Jazeera region in 2013. Across northeast Syria, local authorities have established a system of governance based on a democratic ethnic inclusive model, which promotes equal rights for women, freedom of religion and participation of all groups regardless of ethnicity, religion or gender. The Kurdish Autonomous Administration has adopted a social contract that encourages women to participate at all levels of decision making and protects women from violence and discrimination. These developments in northeast Syria have been described as a revolution in the international media -- women have been seen joining the armed struggle and fighting the Islamic State (IS).
Since 2013, PAX has been working closely in this region with youth organizations which promote dialogue and close collaboration among youth belonging to diverse ethnic and religious communities to ensure participation and inclusivity in local decision-making processes. During my recent visit, I had the opportunity to witness the situation on the ground as well as see its partners work.
Meeting the partners
In the city of Qamishli, along the Turkish border, two youth organizations have recently opened community centres, offering diverse opportunities for young people to gain awareness and skills. The PEL-Civil Waves and DOZ centres offer courses to young people aimed at developing their knowledge and improve their chances to get work, but also provide a place where they can engage in dialogue on controversial issues. PAX was able to visit the centres, meet staff members and volunteers and get to know the youth who have taken part in activities in cities such as Hassake, Derrick, Derbesiye or Maabade. (They travelled to Qamishli to meet with me). I also attended a series of activities, including a lecture on violence against women, a dialogue with local authorities, and a celebration of the diverse musical traditions. I also had the opportunity for an in depth discussion with a number of young people about obstacles they face regarding to education, emigration and forced conscription. (The Autonomous Administration requires all men born after 1985 to join the military forces for two years.)
Northeast Syria is home to diverse ethnic and religious communities including Kurds, Arabs, Christians, Yezidis, etc. Although the Autonomous Administration has made numerous claims that its project seeks to ensure participation and inclusion of all communities, decision-making power remains in the hands of the Kurdish leadership. Educational policies which included the introduction of a new school curriculum and which made Kurdish the official language have also exacerbated tensions among community groups. As a result, diverse community groups feel marginalized. Some minority and Arab communities have grown wary of the Kurdish hegemony and have refused to be governed by the Autonomous Administration. In certain parts of the cities of Qamishli and Hassake, this means that Kurdish forces are not welcome and militias allied with the Assad Regime provide security. Interaction at the community level is characterized by mis-trust. This is why PAX and its partners are working to build bridges among youth from various communities to strengthen the social fabric and address existing prejudices and discrimination towards the different community groups.
Women stand out
A dual leadership system has been put in place within the Autonomous Administration to ensure the equal participation of women. This means that ministries and directorates are led by a man and a woman, ensuring that women participate in decision-making. Many young women have been given the opportunity to hold high level positions. When meeting with local authorities, it was refreshing to interact with young women who were more open to discuss issues linked to civil society and environment than were the older men who hold similar positions. Women are also well represented among the security forces, standing at checkpoints and securing official buildings in city centres. One woman standing guard outside a government directorate in Qamishli said, “Many young men left because they don’t want to join the armed forces. But it’s our responsibility, we have to protect ourselves. One woman fighting equals 100 men!”
Numerous slogans painted on the walls in the street promote the idea of freedom for women and women’s rights that constitute the basis of a democracy. They seek to raise awareness among a community that is still heavily influenced by patriarchal norms and traditions, and which is struggling to keep pace with the innovative concepts promoted by the social contract adopted by the Autonomous Administration.
Having access to northeast Syria provides the chance for PAX to collaborate more closely with its partners and better understand the reality on the ground. PAX will continue to provide support to youth organizations working across northeast Syria to promote a positive role for youth in addressing prejudice and discrimination.
For security reasons, the author prefers to remain anonymous