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The Kurdish woman building a feminist democracy and fighting Isis at the same time

The leader of the most revolutionary women’s rights movement in the world talks to The Independent about how her ideals have found a home in the middle of the war on Isis

Female co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Union Party in Rojava, Asya Abdullah, addresses the New World Summit in Oslo City Hall on November 26, 2016 Jonas Staal/New World Summit

Female co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Union Party in Rojava, Asya Abdullah, addresses the New World Summit in Oslo City Hall on November 26, 2016 Jonas Staal/New World Summit

Asya Abdullah is not a polished politician. She speaks slowly and deliberately in Kurmanji in a tone which suggests she has had to practise her material many times.

But despite the reserved and careful exterior, Abdullah is one of the most radical and effective revolutionaries in the world today.

In the chaos of Syria’s civil war, the country’s Kurdish population has seized the chance to wrest their own destiny from the hands of others.

Long marginalised by the Baathist regime in Damascus, after repelling government forces in 2012 Syria’s Kurds have managed to carve out a relatively peaceful and stable new societal order based in Rojava in the north, flourishing despite the presence of enemies such as Isis on all sides.

Abdullah has been a driving force in the battle for Kurdish freedom – but as the female co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Union Party, elected alongside male representative Salih Muslim in 2010, it is her particular role to safeguard women’s liberation.

“The hallmark of a free and democratic life is a free woman,” she said in her keynote speech at the Rojava New World Embassy in Oslo at the end of November.

“Isis would like to reduce women to slaves and body parts. We show them they’re wrong. We can do anything.”

The Rojava experiment is unlike any other. Coalitions between the local Assyrian, Arab and Kurdish populations have created a small society by and large run on the principles of a communal economy, harmony with the environment, and self governance.

It is also hard to conceive just how radically the Kurdish administration has overturned the existing state structures in Syria by putting women’s emancipation at the forefront of the the sociopolitical agenda.

Women in Rojava have equal status in property law, forced and underage marriage has been banned, quotas for women and ethnic groups ensure representation at all levels of politics – and of course, the armed women’s fighting units, known as the YPJ, have played a central role in the liberation of towns such as Kobani and Manbij.

What the Kurds broadly want, despite some infighting and extreme pushback from neighbouring Turkey, is ‘stateless democracy’ – the idea that in a federalised Syria, their autonomy can be maintained on a local level, with a focus on ‘bottom up’ power and little to no interference from the state.

“We never played princesses as little girls,” a 30-year-old YPG fighter jokes (Diego Cupolo)

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