Last week saw the coming and going of International Women’s Day – a day that went curiously under-reported here in the US. The silence with which the day passed was surprising precisely because the past year has been so remarkable in an opposite sense, bringing an upsurge not only in recognition of, but also in action against, gender-based harassment, oppression and inequality.
The #MeToo movement was but one manifestation of this welcome development. From January’s massive Women’s March – the largest single-day protest in American history – through scores of political and celebrity downfalls last summer and fall, to Steve Bannon’s admission last month that “this time is different” where white male overlordship is concerned, it is hard not to hope we’re approaching a new push to equality. Against that broader backdrop, the relative quiet about International Women’s Day was perhaps understandable. Not so, however, the deafening silence now greeting what’s poised to become the most violent attack against women and women’s equality in modern history.
Even as we in both Europe and North America congratulate ourselves on our street marches and hashtag activism, a violent autocrat – and putative US ally – has de facto invaded northern Syria and now threatens to crush an extraordinary exercise in applied feminism and egalitarian democracy just over his border. We refer to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his “Operation Olive Branch,” which at the time of this writing is nothing other than the indiscriminate shelling and bombing of heavily populated areas in Syrian Afrin.
Afrin is one of three contiguous Syrian cantons with majority Kurdish populations. Since the outbreak of civil unrest in Syria some seven years ago, these three cantons, collectively known as The Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (“DFNS”), or Rojava, have become both the chief seat of resistance to Islamic State (ISIS) and other violent sectarian militias, and the site of a remarkable experiment in religiously pluralist, gender- and ethnically-egalitarian, bottom-up democracy.
Every social institution of Rojava, from schools through hospitals to town councils, is co-presided over by both a popularly elected woman and a popularly elected man. Ethnic Kurds, Arabs, Syriac-Assyrians, Turkmen, Armenians, Circassians and Chechens make up this electorate. It is a population that has multiplied steadily as refugees fleeing the fighting of Syrian forces, the New Syrian Army, ISIS, al-Qaida and others have joined the Kurds – both for protection and to help build a better model of social, economic and political life than is found anywhere else in the Middle East, if not the world.
It’s also worth noting that the DFNS defense units – the YPG and the YPJ – have since 2014 been the only reliable US ally in the area. They, not we or anyone else, did the real work “on the ground” when it came to pushing ISIS out of Syria. (Understandably they now feel let down.)
These successes drew the lethal resentment of Erdogan and his followers. As Erdogan does everything possible to undo the great Turkish modernization of the 1920s and revive a theocratic, patriarchal and ethnically “clean” 21st century retread of the Ottoman Empire, the success of the Rojava experiment across his border acts as an irresistibly attractive counter-model and provocation – not only to oppressed Kurds in Turkey, but also to women across the whole Middle East and to proponents of equality and democracy worldwide.
It is not news by now that Erdogan aims to restore autocratic, sultan-style rule to Turkey; in contrast, the community government of DFNS insists upon bottom-up, federated “townhall” democracy. Erdogan seeks to restore his preferred form of Islam to the status of state religion; Rojava guards its religious pluralism. Erdogan seeks to “returkify” all Anatolia and surrounding areas; Rojava insists upon inter-ethnic equality. Erdogan acts to return women to “traditional” roles; Rojava puts women equally in charge with men at all levels of society.
How painfully this must sting Erdogan’s retrograde faux-masculinity – seeing armed women and men together, defeating squad after squad of Erdogan-sponsored theocrats trying to oust them from their own homes in Syria and Mesopotamia. Erdogan can’t beat them, so it seems that his army and air force must invade and obliterate them.
This (not the “fear of terrorists”) is why Erdogan now has set troops and jet fighter-bombers, together with local mercenary armies of dubious repute, to bombing and shelling the region. At the time of this writing it is only a matter of hours before Afrin’s main urban center – the city of the same name – will be under siege. Erdogan’s proxies have not proven up to the task – nor will his soldiers, unless they first pummel the city with high explosives just as they did Kurdish-majority cities in southeast Turkey two years ago, and just as did Erdogan’s moral predecessors in Srebrenica and Kosovo during the 1990s, and in Warsaw, Leningrad, Minsk, Smolensk and other cities 50 years earlier.
The enormity of the humanitarian catastrophe, not to mention that for democracy and for gender and ethnic equality, will be simply incalculable.
No civilized human being, and no one with the courage of their convictions, can stand idly by and ignore this atrocity-in-the-making as it begins to unfold. All of us who have joined or supported the #MeToo movement across Europe and North America have strong reason to support Afrin and, more broadly, Rojava. Likewise the millions of us who believe in real democracy and in ethnic and religious pluralism. If we really believe in these things, we must support them even at a slight remove from our own backyard, and we must act now, when they are most threatened and before it’s too late.
US President Donald Trump prides himself on his readiness to act “outside the box” and in doing so make progress where those before him have settled for stalemate. Doubtless he thinks this is why North Korea’s Kim Jong-un now talks of negotiating with the US on its nuclear ambitions. Whether that’s plausible or not, if Trump and his fellow “strongman” Russian President Vladimir Putin really are leaders, and if Nancy Pelosi, Diane Feinstein and the other pioneering feminists in Congress really are committed to the rights of women, they will act to assure Erdogan at once that he will either cease his attack upon Afrin or cease to be welcome in any civilized place.
They will – they must – seek to exhaust every conceivable diplomatic remedy first. But they will also make clear that, failing success by these means, they will act to ensure Afrin becomes, not Erdogan’s Srebrenica or Smolensk, but his Stalingrad.Jin Jiyan Azadi
(women, life, freedom).Robert Hockett is Edward Cornell Professor of Law and Cornell University. Anna-Sara Malmgren is assistant professor of philosophy at Stanford University.