From Familien på Gilje to the Syrian Kurdish women’s struggle for autonomy
How does a book written about the lives of young women in rural Norway in the 1840s reach across time and connect with the armed struggle of Kurdish women in northeast Syria today?
Text by Pinar Tank
In the novel, Familien på Gilje, Jonas Lie tells the story of a family living in a mountain village whose economic difficulties and social position require suitable partners for the three sisters, Thinka, Thea, and Inger-Johanna. All are pressured to make difficult choices brought about by family and societal expectations. Thinka consents to her family’s wishes and marries well but unhappily. Thea remains a spinster, living with her sister. The third sister, Inger-Johanna, the heroine of the novel, is prevented from pursuing her romantic interest, the young student Grip. She rebels and breaks off the wedding with Captain Rønnow, a man of good social standing approved of by her family. Forfeiting love, Inger-Johanna pursues a career in teaching. In so doing, she breaks with the expectations of her family and turns her back on an advantageous position in society.
Similarly, the themes of women’s freedom and will to determine their own lives are being played out in the ongoing revolutionary struggle in Syria’s northeast – as far away as imaginable from the mountains of Gilje. The Syrian war has created an opportunity for Kurds to establish autonomy in this area popularly known as Rojava. The Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), a military unit made up of female fighters, have been critical in the battle to take control of this area. Global interest in their cause rose dramatically in 2014 after the female fighters played an important role in the decisive strategic victory in Kobane. The contrast between their engagement on the battlefield and the repressive gender ideology of ISIS captured media attention – not least because to be killed by a female fighter was considered so dishonorable for ISIS fighters that it would prevent their entry into paradise. The resistance against patriarchy has a long history within the Kurdish movement. It is embedded in the Kurdish slogan “Jin, Jiyan, Azadî” (Woman, Life, Freedom) which originally stems from the Kurdish women's movement and was used by the Women’s Protection Units in the war against ISIS. It has more recently become a rallying cry for women protesting the right to decide over their own bodies and more broadly, their own futures.
An underlying theme of Jonas Lie’s novel is the courage of individual choices in an environment where women’s choices are limited. The theme of oppression, both personal and political, and the efforts to counter it is reflected in the struggles of the women’s movement in Rojava. Since the start of the Syrian war, Kurdish women have left their families to join the Democratic Union Party (PYD) who govern in northeast Syria. These are young women who want to determine the trajectory of their own lives – with or without the support of their families. In doing so, many break with the norms set for young Kurdish women coming from traditional backgrounds. Instead, these women choose to become part of a larger revolutionary movement whose ideology aims to reform gender relations. The revolution is both on the battlefield where the women take their place alongside men, but also in the classroom. Education becomes an important tool for changing social relations. Similarly, in the book, Inger-Johanna chooses teaching as a respectable alternative to societal pressures. It is also an arena through which she can spread the progressive ideas learned through her doomed relationship with the schoolteacher Grip.
In the book, the mountains serve as a symbolic backdrop. Nature is juxtaposed against culture, and it provides a refuge in which Inger-Johanna can develop as an individual. As portrayed in the realist novels of the time, the individual is represented by nature and society by culture. The struggle illustrated in the book is therefore one between the individual and society. It is in the mountains of Gilje, away from the constraints of civilisation and through her conversations with Grip, that Inger-Johanna finds the space to discover her true self.
For Kurdish women, the mountains are the site of freedom where they can shape their own lives. Mountains have always had a special place in Kurdish national culture for the sanctuary they provide, best illustrated by the popular proverb stating that Kurds have “no friends but the mountains”. As a minority people in the Middle East, Kurds have often been at the mercy of larger states and faithless allies. The proverb highlights the Kurdish sense of abandonment and betrayal brought on by their history. However, since 2012 when Syrian government forces withdrew from heavily Kurdish areas in northern Syria, the Kurds have worked to establish governance structures in northeast Syria. These efforts culminated in 2016, when they founded a de facto administration in the Rojava region which was later named the Autonomous Areas of Northern and Eastern Syria (AANES).
The Syrian Kurdish autonomy project is deeply ideological and emerges from the writings of Abdullah Öcalan, the Kurdish leader of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK is ideologically and organically linked to the Syria-based PYD which was established in 2003. The PKK is an outlawed party in Turkey and, as a result, Öcalan has been incarcerated on the island of Imrali since 1999. It is from his prison cell that Öcalan has written a blueprint for a revolutionary project based on an ideology named “democratic confederalism”.
Democratic confederalism is a form of grass-roots governance that has been adopted in Rojava (AANES). The ideology is based on local autonomy and rejects nationhood based on the state. For followers of the ideology, the state is seen as inherently oppressive. This is an idea that is understandably appealing to Kurds who have never been unified along national lines and have been oppressed by national states. An important pillar of the ideology in the Rojava region is women’s liberation and inclusion in governance. “Jineolojî”, or women’s science, as it is called, is taught in schools as well as forming a part of military training. Jineolojî aims to restore women’s central role in Kurdish society by rediscovering women’s histories. The ideology is also put into practice in local government, where a minimum of 40% of decision-making participants on all administrative levels in society have to be women. The roles given to women in society and in the military also shape the attitudes of men. It is therefore no surprise that women have been at the vanguard of this movement.
Then, as now, the radical and progressive ideas of a woman’s right to control her own destiny resonate in both the exhibition "My life! My choice?" and the book "Familien på Gilje" despite their distinct geographies, dissimilar social contexts and the time that separates them.
Pinar Tank is Senior advisor and at Prio (Peace Research Institute) in Oslo.
Tanks research is consentrated around Turkish internal- and foreignpolicy, with emphazis on Turkish relations in the Middle East.