In the Kurdish region of northeast Syria, a female-only ecological commune has sprung up as a place for women displaced by the Syrian revolution and the rise of the Islamic State. The cooperative is called Jinwar—Kurdish for “Women’s Land”—and it’s home to more than 30 women, many of whom were widowed in the fight against ISIS, and their children. In Jinwar, there is no central power figure; instead, there is a democratically-elected town council, and every month a different council member acts as the town’s leader. Men are allowed to visit only during specific hours, and they’re not allowed to stay overnight. Women of different religions and ethnicities live together in mud brick homes they built themselves, eat food they grow themselves, and teach each other English. There is a bakery and a store, where the women can sell handicrafts they make to people from other villages.
Together the women of Jinwar are working to build a life that is free of the constraints of patriarchy and capitalism. When 33-year-old Amira Muhammad’s husband, a soldier in the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, died fighting ISIS in 2017, she was left without an income or a place to live. Eventually she made her way to Jinwar, where she told The Independent last year, “Here they provide a lot of benefits like education for the kids, their living expenses. It is a nice village, most importantly, my kids like it.”
Having survived the rule of violent jihadists, the residents of Jinwar are attempting to build their own female utopia. It’s a wild feminist experiment in democratic communal living that’s happening in one of the most socially conservative regions in the world, and for nearly two years it seemed like it might actually work. But with Turkey’s ongoing military offensive against the Syrian Kurds, whom Turkey considers terrorists, the village has been under constant threat, and on Monday it was temporarily evacuated following heavy shelling.
Women have played a major role in resisting the spread of ISIS and working to create a democratic society in the wake of the Syrian uprising, which left the Kurdish region of Rojava with de facto autonomy. In July 2012, a handful of women founded Yekîtiya Star (now called Kongreya Star), an umbrella organization for Rojava’s many feminist collectives that strove to ensure the revolution embraced feminist principles. Yekîtiya Star worked with other groups to form democratically-run communes, provide self-defense training, and establish schools and a communal economic system. The People’s Protection Units, a portion of the largely Kurdish and Arab-led Syrian Democratic Forces that played a major role in driving out ISIS, is famously mixed-gender and boasts all-female brigades called the Women’s Protection Units. In 2017, five years after the democratic revolution, Kongreya Star decided to build Jinwar as a safe place for women seeking an egalitarian and self-sufficient way of life.
Now, that dream of a feminist utopia could come to an end. Trump’s support of the Turkish military offensive—which began in earnest last month—threatens not just Jinwar, but the entire autonomous Kurdish region in Syria, which has spent more than seven years attempting to build a free society. It is a blatant betrayal of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which the U.S. employed in the fight against ISIS, and will exacerbate an already enormous humanitarian crisis that has left millions displaced. It’s also a disaster for global security, as SDF troops are holding several thousand ISIS militants in makeshift jails roiling with extremism and violence. At least 750 “ISIS affiliates” have already escaped due to Turkish shelling.
In the face of Turkish occupation, the women of Jinwar are vowing to stand by what they have established, whatever the cost. “We cannot accept to lose what has been built up by so many,” they wrote on Facebook in October. “Let‘s defend each other against the attacks of the Turkish state and all other forms of patriarchal violence and oppression.”
A spokesman for Jinwar told me that the village is meant to serve “as an example of a solution to women’s issues and as an example of the alternative to a patriarchal system.” Jinwar and the feminist politics espoused by the direct democracy in Rojava are radical by any standard. They’re an example not just for other women in the Middle East, but also for women in the West who are fed up with patriarchy and capitalism, the twin engines that power modern America.
War is uniquely devastating to women. In Syria, ISIS used rape, kidnapping and forced marriage to exert their power. Now that the Islamic State has been pushed underground, the resulting refugee crisis is largely a crisis for women and children—they make up 75 percent of the Syrian refugee population. In Rojava, Jinwar was built as a refuge for them. “In the war conditions that we have been through, every woman suffered,” 30-year-old Fatma Emin told CNN in May. “Every woman was hurt. Every woman was lost, but Jinwar brought them together.”
Now, just as the women of Rojava have begun to heal after years of war, what may destroy Jinwar and the feminist principles it stands for won’t be its jihadist enemies but rather its U.S. allies.