By Rod Nordland
MANBIJ, Syria — Radwan, a 30-year-old Arab man, came with four male witnesses and a grievance with an ex-wife to a place called the Women’s House here in Manbij, in northern Syria.He had recently divorced his second wife, Amira, 17, and he wanted back the gold he had given her as a bride price, some 3 or 4 ounces at most — worth more than a few goats but less than a car.The five men sat down with Amira and her mother, Isra, in a circle of plastic chairs around a stove to discuss the matter, with the mediation of several officials from the Women’s House.
The conversation grew heated as Amira and her mother, who asked that the families’ last names be withheld to avoid a tribal backlash against them, refused to return the gold. When the Women’s House officials said that not only was Amira right to keep it, but that she was also entitled to a houseful of furniture in compensation for the divorce, Radwan began shouting.Chairs were knocked over and voices raised, but the female officials escorted the men out of the building, politely but firmly warning that the police would be summoned if they didn’t go quietly.Shilan Shermooz, administrator of the Women’s House, said the matter was not yet over. Once Radwan made the reparations, she said, they would send his case to court and see him prosecuted for beating and abusing Amira for the two weeks they were married. Radwan was also guilty of fraud, she said, because Amira agreed to the wedding not knowing he already had a wife and children.“The patriarchy really is over,” Shermooz said, sharing a laugh with two colleagues.In the Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria, a push for gender equality has given women like Shermooz significant power to enforce women’s rights. The authority wielded by women — in the police, the courts and the militias — is patterned on the gender egalitarian philosophy of the Kurds’ ideological leader, Abdullah Ocalan.The founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, Ocalan is serving a life sentence in Turkey on terrorism charges, and his organization is a designated terrorist organization according to the United States and the European Union. But his philosophy is widely popular among Kurds, particularly in northern Syria and eastern Turkey.
Six years of control of most of northern Syria have given the Kurds a chance to put into practice their gender reforms to an unprecedented degree, unhampered by interference from the Turkish government, which has cracked down on many of the women’s institutions in Kurdish-majority areas of Turkey.By law, every government institution in Kurdish-controlled Syria has a co-president or co-chairman of each sex, and most government boards and committees have to be equally mixed by gender as well — except for women’s institutions, which are led by only women.The Kurdish militias have separate Women’s Protection Units, or YPJ, which have been important partners with men’s units on the battlefield. When the Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-backed coalition, captured Raqqa from the Islamic State in October, the overall commander was a YPJ woman, Rojda Felat.“There are always men thinking that women are slaves, but when women are an armed force, men are scared of them,” said Arzu Demir, the Turkish author of a book on the YPJ militias.The Kurdish effort to enact gender equality has really been put to the test in places like Manbij, which is overwhelmingly Arab, and also conservative and tribal. The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces took control here about 18 months ago, in a campaign supported by U.S. Special Operations forces and air power. While the Manbij Military Council, which is now in charge, is a majority Arab force, the new government is organized on Ocalan’s revolutionary principles.Women were immediately given the right to divorce, previously a right reserved to men; to inherit property on an equal basis with men; and to keep their children and their homes in a marital breakup. Gone were long-observed Shariah law provisions that gave a woman’s testimony in court only half the weight of a man’s.Those changes were not without pushback. The Kurdish majority area of Kobani in Syria, for instance, outlawed the practice of men taking more than one wife. But when officials tried to apply that restriction to Manbij, anger from tribal leaders led to the granting of an exception.Still, the Women’s House in Manbij right away began aggressively counseling wives whose husbands married a second time that they could divorce, and walk away with the children, the house and half of any property. The result has been some 200 divorces in the past year, mostly in cases of polygamy and underage marriage, said Widat Hayat an Arab woman and a sociologist who heads the research department at the Women’s House. It is an unprecedented number.Many local men have found it difficult to reconcile the prosperity and stability the new government has brought with their own traditions.
Abdul Aziz al-Hassin, 45, an Arab shopkeeper who has 14 children, agrees that “a woman has the same rights as a man, she’s not a slave or a servant.” But he still intends to take a second wife, he said, because his current one, also 45, can no longer bear children. How will she react to that? “I won’t tell her,” he said. “It’s none of her business.”Attitudes like that die hard.
“When we opened the Women’s House, even we didn’t believe this was going to work here,” said Jihan Mustafa, one of the counselors who coach women on their rights, and help them through divorce, spousal abuse prosecutions and legal actions to force their husbands to better provide for their children. “Now as you see, it is always busy here.”At the Women’s House in Manbij, halls, waiting rooms and consultation rooms were crowded with men and women — with many of the men visibly angry.
Mustafa is a Kurd, as were the first women’s activists here, but now other members of the Women’s House are Arabs, and most of their clients are as well. Manbij is heavily Arab, with minorities of Kurds and others. “There is real acceptance for it, just 18 months after the liberation of Manbij,” she said.Acceptance is hardly universal, however, and many of those who are critical are also afraid to speak out publicly.
“To understand the current situation, think of ISIS, but at the other end of the spectrum,” said Abdul, 37, a teacher who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions from Kurdish officials. “They never stop trying to impose codes and teachings that contradict our cultural norms and conservative views,” he said. “And they insist on having a female presence in everything, which has made them hire unqualified females in posts they don’t know how to handle.”
Kurdish leaders are aware of the discontent, but say the changes they are bringing are long overdue and are gaining acceptance, especially among younger Arab women.“Most men don’t accept it, but we speak to women and try to make society understand why it is not good, for instance, to have more than one wife,” said Isam Abdul Qader, an Arab member of the Manbij Women’s Council, another organization that advocates women’s equality. It also sends teams of women door to door in neighborhoods and villages, where they ask to come in and explain to the women their new rights.“Many men don’t let us in at first,” said Hana Sharif, a Kurdish council member. “We just go back two or three times. Little by little, it is working.”
Maja al-Ali, 25, is an Arab woman member of the council who said the new local government has changed her life. “Before I just stayed in the house and I couldn’t even wake up in the morning,” she said. “Now I have character and a role in society. Now I get up in the morning, I have meetings and do things, and I love life now.”At the request of local women, the council has started a driving school for them. Recently, some women in Manbij have asked the women’s council to set up firearms courses to teach civilian women how to defend themselves.“It is about time,” Sharif said, “that we have all of our rights.”