Debbie Bookchin: 'Women’s movement in Bakur and Rojava has made historic advances for the rights of women'
First published at Mezopotamya Ajansi.
Stating that PKK Leader Abdullah Öcalan's words, “without freedom of women, society cannot be free”, further a deeper understanding of what a true revolution must entail, Journalist Debbie Bookchin said: “In Rojava, everywhere I went I saw the enormous beauty of a society in which women are empowered to rule their own lives.”
In these days when we are witnessing the destruction that nation-states based on plunder and rent are inflicted upon the peoples, discussions on the construction of the new continue. It ended with the implementation of PKK Leader Abdullah Öcalan's Democratic Confederalism theory in Rojava, where the same discussions were held.
We talked to Debbie Bookchin, an American journalist and writer, who said for Rojava: “I have seen with my own eyes what Democratic Confederalism can change when put into practice”.
Debbie Bookchin told about the ideas and philosophy of Abdullah Öcalan, the libertarian model of women in Rojava and her thoughts on freedom of women on March 8 International Women's day.
You follow the writings of Öcalan closely. What impressed you the most in the writings and ideas of Öcalan?
One of the things that impresses me most about Abdullah Öcalan’s writing is his historical – and importantly – his dialectical way of thinking. By looking at the whole of human history, Öcalan understands that there are certain latent social potentialities that have not yet come into being but that should, in a rational society, come into being. Unlike Marx’s dialectical materialism, Öcalan is not deterministic, but rather in the Hegelian sense he sees being as always in the process of becoming, and therefore looks at human history for its potential to be liberatory for all human beings. His approach to democratic modernity and to the liberation of women is grounded in this dialectical way of thinking and offers great insight into current social structures and to what a future society could look like. And it therefore also contains an optimism, which I appreciate deeply. As he concludes so eloquently in this passage from his last volume, “There is no limit to desire and hope, and there is no serious obstacle to achieving it except for the individual himself. All it takes is a glimpse of societal honor and a glimpse of love and reason to achieve it!”
What effect did the thoughts of Öcalan on the freedom of women have or have had in our life? If you were to divide your life into two, before and after meeting Öcalan what would you say?
Öcalan took this to a new level in understanding the extent to which women are at the receiving end of a patriarchal system that enslaves them physically, psychologically, and emotionally such that they are denied their subjectivity in every aspect of life.
No one in history has centered the oppression of women quite the way Öcalan has done. My own father wrote a great deal about domination and hierarchy, including the oppression of women. But Öcalan took this to a new level in understanding the extent to which women are at the receiving end of a patriarchal system that enslaves them physically, psychologically, and emotionally such that they are denied their subjectivity in every aspect of life. I think that before reading Öcalan, I understood this on a theoretical level but that afterwards I felt it on a visceral level in a way I never did before. And his claim that society cannot be free until women are free goes against a longstanding tradition within socialism that women’s problems can wait until “after the revolution” and furthers a deeper understanding of what a true revolution must entail.
A women-led system was established in Rojava guided by the ideas of Öcalan who often references your father Murray Bookchin. You went to Rojava too. What is there about women in the established system? Is it possible to say that there is a system where women live freely?
Before I answer the question about Rojava, I want to say something about my father and Öcalan. Like Mr. Öcalan, my father was always first and foremost a revolutionary, and he was never an academic, because even though he wrote 25 books and gave lectures, he did not rise through the university system or ever even attend college. So through much of his life, academics – who are in many ways the gatekeepers of ideas – did not give him credit for his original thinking about ecological problems being rooted in social problems, the need for a direct confederal democracy and the need for an ecological ethics based on a dialectical approach to human history. Indeed, different pieces of my father’s philosophy were often stolen without credit and put to use in more mundane ways, such as simplistic idea of “small is beautiful,” to give one example, which is based on his more sweeping ideas about the need for decentralization of cities and ecological practices as part of the rejection of capitalism and the complete restructuring of society. That has changed in the last 20 years thanks largely to Mr. Öcalan. Obviously, Mr. Öcalan has read many books and been influenced by many thinkers. But he has acknowledged that he was especially influenced by my father’s ideas, and he has always given my father credit for these ideas, which speaks to the extraordinary intellectual honesty and honor of Mr. Öcalan. It also has enticed a whole new generation of young people to engage with my father’s ideas. For this generosity of intellect and spirit, I will be forever grateful to Mr. Öcalan.
And to briefly answer your question about women in Rojava. Before I visited Rojava, I knew that I would find a place where women would be playing a powerful role in political and economic life, a role unlike anything anywhere else in the world. But even so, nothing prepared me for just how empowered the women of Rojava have become – and not just Kurdish women, but women of every ethnicity. From my conversations with the women at the Kobane Kongra Star Academy, to the women of Jinwar, to YPJ spokeswoman commander Nusrin Abdullah and her colleagues, to the wise women of Mala Jin, and too many others to name, everywhere I went I saw the enormous beauty of a society in which women are empowered to rule their own lives. Obviously, as long as we live under the nation state—which is the enforcer of violence in every aspect of life – it will be impossible for any of us to really live freely. But in Rojava the world has an example of what it would mean for the female half of the human race to be able to fully realize itself not just for the good of women but for all society. I wish everyone could see it with their own eyes.
In one of your interviews, you said about Rojava, “Because I saw with my own eyes what Democratic Confederalism can change when it is put into practice.” What examples did you come across that made you think so?
I truly believe that Öcalan is correct in understanding that this kind of direct, assembly-based democratic organization is essential to dismantle the power of the nation-state and to create a more ecological, free society.
I believe that a very precious relationship forms between the individual and the commune under democratic confederalism. As the individual becomes increasingly engaged in the political life of the community through face-to-face meetings and discussions with fellow residents of the commune, simply through the everyday dynamic of discussion, debate, and making collective decisions a process occurs in which the individual organically becomes a more ethical human being. Aristotle believed that ordinary citizens participating in the political life of the polis resulted in a kind of “character building” that occurs as people embrace their moral obligation to help guide their communities. This in turns strengthens the assembly and the democratic process. So there is a kind of dialectic between the individual and the assembly that transforms both of them. This is what makes democratic confederalism so exciting to me: its radical potential to transform the individual and society. And I saw this at work in Rojava in which ordinary people took on responsibilities in their local assemblies for things like coordinating with the health agencies, women’s councils, defense etc.
In the United States, there have been small glimpses of this form of organizing, for example, during the Occupy and alterglobalization movements. But the important task of creating assemblies in every neighborhood and town, as has been done in Rojava and in Bakur in the past, has not been embraced by the American left. And so we are stuck here with the same state-oriented representative democracy which disempowers people in their everyday lives. This has been a huge failing of the American and European left. Indeed, you could argue that the reactionary, conservative forces have spent more time on the local level organizing people effectively than the progressive left has, and that our left politics has largely failed because of this.
But even in Rojava, it takes an ongoing commitment to realize the full potential of direct, assembly democracy. And it’s hard when you are fighting ISIS, or being shelled by the Turkish state, to think about your relationship to revolutionary structures like the directly democratic politics involved in participating in local councils and the commune administration. But I hope that despite the many obstacles, the people of Rojava will find ways to strengthen participation in the commune governing structures and increase their authority as a counter-power to more centralized forms of governing. I truly believe that Öcalan is correct in understanding that this kind of direct, assembly-based democratic organization is essential to dismantle the power of the nation-state and to create a more ecological, free society.
How wide is the sphere of influence of the women’s libertarian system established in Rojava in 2023? Is it possible to say that it is effective and talked about all over the world? What are your impressions?
The women’s model in Rojava has certainly reached all corners of the world. I know this from the many people who write to me from around the globe. The Kurdish movement has done a tremendous job educating people about this model, including through conferences in Europe and countries in the global south. And of course, much of the western world became aware of the Kurdish women’s movement through the Women’s Protection Units and their heroic fight against ISIS. What is still lacking, however, is an appreciation of the importance of the Kurdish women’s movement by liberal feminists who claim to support women’s liberation. My home country, the US, is terribly myopic when it comes to international struggles. And even people who claim to be fighting for women’s rights and social justice, are often ignorant of the immense struggle and sacrifice that the women of Rojava and Bakur have made. Even worse, the knee-jerk “anti-militarist” and “anti-imperialist” American and European left has too often abandoned its sisters and brothers in struggle for their own self-determination simply because they would rather criticize them for accepting limited military support by the U.S. So I would like to see more people in the American left appreciate the struggle that has been endured by the women of Rojava, especially since Turkey’s invasion of Afrin and other regions, and be more vocal in condemning Turkish President Erdogan and Assad and in supporting U.S intervention where possible to prevent a greater imperial force – Turkey – from trying to crush the Rojava revolution.
We have witnessed that Öcalan’s philosophy of “Women, life and freedom” is the motto of salvation for the Iranian peoples today. Why was this slogan so effective?
“Women, life, freedom,” is a powerful expression that neatly summarizes the goals of the Kurdish women’s movement as first expressed by Abdullah Öcalan in 1993, so it is easy to see why it was embraced by Iranian protesters. It is unfortunate, however, that the media has done such a poor job in neglecting to explain that the expression “Zan, Zindagi, Azadi” in Persian comes from the original Kurdish “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi,” just as they have often neglected to mention that the Kurdish woman beaten to death by the Iranian morality police Mahsa Amini also had a Kurdish name – Jina, and that the movement that was sparked by her murder is the offspring of activism by Kurdish activists in Rojhelat. It seems to be an ongoing battle to remind the public that these kinds of liberatory movements don’t just appear out of nowhere, but are the result of many decades of education and struggle and that the struggle of the Kurdish people should not be made invisible.
Öcalan is still in isolation. Freedom for Öcalan campaigns also continue. Why is the freedom of Öcalan important for women and peoples?
Even just a couple of weeks ago, Cemil Bayik announced the PKK would adopt a unilateral ceasefire on humanitarian grounds because of the horrific suffering caused by the earthquake.There is only one person who can negotiate for the Kurdish people on a lasting peace: Abdullah Öcalan. And no one should have to do it from a prison cell.
It is simply grotesque that Abdullah Öcalan, has been held in solitary confinement for so many of the 24 years since he was abducted in 1999. For purely humanitarian reasons, he should be released. But his release is also essential for the broader stability of the region. After nearly 40 years of military struggle, it is clear that there can be no military solution to the Kurdish question – even a representative from the Biden Administration’s State Department acknowledged this a few months ago. That means that there has to be peace negotiations. The PKK has repeatedly shown its willingness to engage in peace talks. Even just a couple of weeks ago, Cemil Bayik announced the PKK would adopt a unilateral ceasefire on humanitarian grounds because of the horrific suffering caused by the earthquake. This follows his opinion piece in the Washington Post urging international actors to become involved in shepherding a negotiated peace between the Turkish state and the PKK. There is only one person who can negotiate for the Kurdish people on a lasting peace: Abdullah Öcalan. And no one should have to do it from a prison cell. Like Nelson Mandela, he must be freed and acknowledged as the voice of the Kurdish people. A negotiated peace of this sort would have ramifications across the entire region: in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. It would bring stability to the broader Middle East and halt Turkey’s imperialist adventures which strengthen ISIS and put women at risk both in the areas occupied by Turkey’s jihadi proxies, like Afrin, and in Turkey itself, where women have such a low status in society. It is an absolute imperative, and the time is past due, for this initiative to begin and for Turkey’s NATO partners to make it happen, beginning with the Freedom of Öcalan.
Finally, what would you like to say to the women of Turkey and Kurdistan, where tens of thousands of people lost their lives in disasters caused by ecological destruction, rent and profit on March 8?
The women of all four parts of Kurdistan have suffered unimaginable violence at the hands of the state: from the ecological violence caused by Turkey’s construction of dams and destruction of forests in Bakur, to the unjust imprisonment of HDP and other political leaders, to the rape and kidnapping of women in jihadi-controlled regions of Rojava and the appalling oppression of women in Rojhelat. Yet, in spite of this and at great cost, the women’s movement in Bakur and Rojava has made historic advances for the rights of women and set an example for the entire world. I know that the women’s movement will continue to inspire us with its commitment to education, empowerment, and freedom. On International Women’s Day, my wish is for the forward-thinking ideas and practices of the Kurdish women’s movement in Bakur and Rojava to flower in the rest of the world.