Women’s participation a precondition for Syrian democracy, says high-ranking Kurdish politician

Fouzah Youssef is currently one of the highest-ranking politicians in the de facto autonomous, Kurdish-majority territories spanning much of northern Syria. In a country ranked third to last on the Global Gender Gap Index, this an unusual position for a woman to hold. Changing this reality, Youssef says, is an essential step towards democracy in Syria.

“The liberation of our society is entirely connected to the freedom of women,” she tells Syria Direct’s Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim.

Since 2016, Youssef has held the position of co-president of the Executive Committee of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), a body that administers Jazira and Kobani cantons in northeastern Syria and oversees local councils in Manbij and Raqqa city.

Governance in the DFNS is dominated by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has close ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, and shares the political vision of the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan. Ocalan envisions a confederal democratic society where decision-making power is exercised by local communities. An important component in his political philosophy is the liberation of women.

Youssef’s motivation for getting involved in politics is deeply rooted in her experience as a woman and as a Kurd in Syriatwo identities that, in her view, are deeply intertwined.

Fouzah Youssef votes in elections of the Martyr Rehan Commune in Qamishli in September 2017. Photo courtesy of Ronahi TV.

“Women and Kurds have both been marginalized in our society,” she says. “Women are a second-class sex, while Kurds are second-class citizens.”

This week, Syria Direct is exploring the different roles Syria’s women take on in working for peace at an international and community level. In this third installment, Youssef argues that the participation of women in politics is a crucial component in establishing a peaceful, inclusive, and democratic society in a multi-ethnic context such as that of Syria.

“Depending politically on one pattern, one gender and one vision will ultimately lead to fascism,” she says.

Q: How did you first become involved in politics?

I got into politics at university, then became involved with political parties after that. When I first started, I was driven towards emotional politics. It was my reaction to the abusive practices that Kurdish people were subjected to.

I didn’t have a very deep political awareness, but with time I learned about different forms of politics. I learned that there are politics that serve women and the people, and then there are politics that serve those in power. [I realized] that there was a need for a new direction and a new vision. There is a need for community-based politics free of any kind of monopoly. Politics must be connected to morals, social values and democracy.

Q: What were your motivations when you first started?

I had two motivations: the Kurdish issue and women’s freedom.

As a Kurd, I have been denied my identity and deprived of my rights. Under the rule of the Baath regime in Syria, my mother tongue, identity, symbols, culture and political rights were all forbidden. Every day—at home, in the street, at school—I felt I was a second-class citizen, or even no citizen at all. We were marginalized and constantly afraid of being arrested.

Our society was feudal, viewing a woman as the property of a man, as an illiterate person who possesses no will.  [Seeing] the women of my village suffering from violence, injustice and oppression on a daily basis motivated me to search for a different way of life and find a way of changing this reality. In political work, I found a way out.

Women and Kurds have both been marginalized in our society. In Syria, women are a second-class sex, while Kurds are second-class citizens. Women are subjected to violence by men, while Kurds are subjected to oppression and violence by government institutions. Women are not equal to men in many regards, such as the right to property and inheritance. Kurds [historically were] not equal to Arabs, with no right to learn their own language, own property, or study certain fields such as politics, journalism and the military. [Ed.: While there is a long history of state discrimination against Syrian Kurds, new laws and curricula have been established in the territories ruled by the Self-Administration in recent years.]

Women who are not intellectually liberated or organized cannot build a free society and nation, and women without a nation and identity cannot be free. The liberation of our society is entirely connected to the freedom of women.

Q: What are the challenges to including women in politics, based on your past experience and current role in the Self-Administration?

Women who want to participate in politics face many challenges. In our society, working in politics is considered a job for men only. A woman participating in politics, is like a woman entering a men’s café. This is not accepted.

There is no culture of women participating in politics. As a result, women suffer from a lack of self-confidence because the environment around them makes them feel inadequate and unworthy of playing this role.

In addition to this the women, when entering the political arena, wouldn’t have equal opportunities as men. Men could make mistakes and then correct them. But for women, the first mistake would be the last.  This leads to a permanent fear of failure, which I, like all women, have lived.

In [Kurdish-led northern Syria], many of these difficulties have to a large extent been overcome over the past seven years. Of course, this wasn’t easy.

Fouzah Youssef explains election system at press conference in August 8, 2017. Photo courtesy of Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).

Thousands of young women have sacrificed themselves, serving in the YPJ [Ed.: the Women’s Protection Units, part of the military wing of the PYD] and fighting against Daesh and other kinds of terrorism. Their great resistance impacted the traditional mindset that was prevalent in Kurdish society in particular and among the people of northern Syria in general.

Before, women didn’t get governing positions. [People] looked down on women as though they were only allowed to work at home and bear children. However, after women entered the field of politics, and especially after the implementation of the co-presidency system, the prevailing view [of women] started to change. [Ed.: In the Self-Administration, governing positions are shared between one man and one woman.]

Women proved that they were successful, and that some of them were even more deserving [of leadership roles] than the men. This led to a change in the traditional mindset surrounding women’s rights.

[In our area,] politics is no longer a domain monopolized by men, but rather [a kind of] social work that is available to both sexes without discrimination.

Q: In your opinion what is the importance of having women participate in politics in relation to the future of Syria?

The Syrian revolution was mainly caused by [a desire] to change the existing reality. Complaints weren’t directed against individuals, but rather against an administrative system that didn’t realize the freedoms and rights of the Syrian society and its components.

The new system in Syria must be democratic above all else, and therefore women’s participation in establishing this system is a must. Depending politically on one pattern, one gender and one vision will ultimately lead to fascism.

The effective participation of women in establishing a new system in Syria implies transcending one-sided politics monopolized by men. It would mean the participation of more half of society in political decision making. This is very important in order to develop a democratic culture.

[We need] a vision that transcends nationalism, religious intolerance, sexism and every form of intolerance that doesn’t serve the Syrian society.

Women did not play a part, effectively, in the politics of ideological, religious and sectarian intolerance that we were used to. [I believe] women are more flexible than men when it comes to dealing with diversity. They are more inclined to transcend the classic model of politics, and they can play an important role in establishing a political reality that serves the democracy and respects the ethnic, religious, sectarian and linguistic diversity that characterizes Syria.

Q: What can be done to increase women’s participation?

It is important to change the internal structures of political parties and to open up the field to women. [The Self-Administration has] mandated a 50 percent quota [for women], so now the political parties have to fill this. But we need to transfer this from electoral law to the culture and morals in the society, as a first step.

Furthermore, I think that the role of the media carries great significance in encouraging women [to participate in politics]. Raising political and cultural awareness is important in order to encourage women to enter this domain. Education is also important, and a curriculum must be developed that raises awareness about women’s role in building society, as well as the importance of their participation in the decision-making process and forming our future.

Alice Al Maleh

Alice Al Maleh holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from University of Copenhagen. She has studied Arabic independently since 2013 and most recently with Sijal Institute in 2017-2018.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.