This summer’s news has featured stories about as far from the usual “silly season” frivolity as it is possible to imagine. Gaza, Ukraine, Iraq, Ferguson, Ebola… Between people protesting against systemic racism in the US, a deadly disease spreading across West Africa and terrorists beheading people as they take over swathes of land in Syria and Iraq, the world seems to have become a far scarier place in the past few months.
Among all of this doom and gloom are there any glimmers of hope? Well, I have found one possible example in the Middle East: the Syrian Kurds, who have established themselves as one of the most effective and democratic forces in the region. Unlike their Iraqi and Turkish comrades they do not have a history of armed resistance but since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011 they have expertly exploited the nation’s power vacuum.
The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Women’s Protection Unit (both offshoots of the PKK, an organisation that remains on the US’s terror list) are playing a leading role in fighting both Syrian government forces and the Islamic State. Earlier this year they formed three Kurdish cantons (Cizire, Kobani and Afrin) that remain part of Syria but are legally and politically autonomous.
Within these cantons the PYD-led interim administration has formed councils akin to ministries, courts and a police force, and introduced a new democratic constitution based on equality and religious freedom. The PYD has introduced a 40 per cent quota for women’s participation in all government bodies. Some have been elected to lead the new cantons.
The fact that women have been involved in creating this system while others fight alongside the men has been ignored by much of the media. The only two times that Syrian Kurds found themselves in the limelight was when they helped US and Iraqi-Peshmerga forces save the Yazidis from the Sinjar mountains, and when Iraqi refugees found shelter in PYD-run camps.
The Syrian Kurds are better organised than the Peshmerga because they have been defending their territory for three years and due to them having been trained by the PKK. This explains why the Syrian Kurds receive neither praise nor weapons from the US or the EU – because the PKK is on the US’s terror list so all of its offshoots will also be considered as terrorist organisations. Neither Turkey nor the EU or the US has any interest in changing this.
But while the fighting in the region rages on, the three Kurdish enclaves in Syria (where a woman’s life counts as much as a man’s) provide me with a little hope – a welcome ray of light in an otherwise bleak landscape.
Isabel Käser is associate producer for Monocle 24.