by Janet Biehl — In September 2022, Jina Amini, a Kurdish woman, was killed while in the custody of the Iranian “morality police.” Her death was a spark on tinder. People in Rojhelat and across Iran took to the streets, rallying under the Kurdish slogan “Women, Life, Liberty.” Their bravery filled people around the world with admiration and hope that the long-suffering Iranian people might finally break their chains.
The protests continue to this day, despite authorities who imprison, torture, blind, rape, and murder countless people, especially women, especially minority groups, especially Kurds.
The movement is deep-seated because the injustices in Iranian society are deep-seated and felt acutely every day, in every aspect of life. Under the rule of the mullahs, women’s lives are greatly restricted. Religious freedom is restricted. The human rights of ethnic minorities, including but not limited to Kurds, are consistently violated.
Hence the focus of the Jina movement is not on police brutality. On the contrary, it is a movement of women, Kurds and other minorities demanding their rights. Demands for rights converge into a broad civic argument. Even traditionally quiet layers of society have been politicized and have joined this common, countrywide platform to challenge the regime.
Of course, this movement, sparked by Kurds, aims to remove the mullahs from their current positions of supreme power. But by demanding human rights, the movement is challenging state power itself. Human rights for all cannot exist within the existing state structure; replacing one authoritarian ruler with another will change nothing. No authoritarian, by definition, could permit the achievement of human rights for all, nor would the theocracy’s religion tolerate it. The current system is not compatible with human rights.
For the achievement of rights, democracy is necessary. Hence, the Jina movement is inherently revolutionary.
To ensure the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, they need to be part of a democracy. To ensure that women have the same life opportunities as men, they need to be part of a democracy. To ensure equality under the law, the society must be a democracy. Hence, to achieve freedom, the Iranian people need democracy.
The ideology of Democratic Confederalism recognizes this unavoidable fact and makes it conscious. In this model, as proposed by Abdullah Öcalan, the management of society derives its power not from the government but from the values and participation of all peoples, so that it is self-managed. Democratic confederalism proposes to structure society as a self-managed democracy.
Democratic confederalism is an inclusive model: it is not limited to Kurds but encompasses every ethnicity, religion, and gender committed to achieving democratic communal existence. This unifying ideology advocates for the people to create this self-managed democracy from the bottom up.
In developing democratic confederalism, Abdullah Öcalan was influenced by the writings of Murray Bookchin, my late partner. Both of these ex-Marxist thinkers share in common a goal of assembly democracy, arising from the people and forming confederations in contrast to the oppressive state.
I remember that Bookchin, when he was alive and speaking and writing about this subject, had in mind that the oppressive state was the system of representative governments common in the West. He believed that people should govern themselves as citizens in assemblies, rather than handing over their power to elected representatives who travel to distant capitals to make decisions supposedly on their behalf. He urged citizens — including all minorities, including women — to reclaim their power and make decisions themselves, collectively.
He did not have in mind a brutally authoritarian regime like that of the mullahs in Iran. He was trying rather to create a more perfect form of democracy. He had no idea that his books might someday, indirectly, play a role in Iran. But he would be honored beyond words to think that they did.
Bookchin did not succeed in inspiring a revolution in the West, but his writings influenced a process of transformation in the Middle East, in Rojava. There, when the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2011, the Kurdish-led movement refused to choose between a dictator and radical Islamists. Instead, they went a “third way” and built a new self-government inspired by democratic confederalism. Today the remarkable achievements of the Rojava Revolution show what it is possible to achieve in the Middle East and beyond.
One crucial factor in the success of the Rojava Revolution was advance preparation. To achieve any victory, organizing is necessary. Starting around 2005 or 2006, Kurds in northern Syria decided on their ideology and began building democratic confederalist institutions, such as committees, associations, and assemblies. They did so, risking prison and torture, even under the worst of the Assad dictatorship. They were careful. They worked quietly. But they persisted. Then the big opportunity came in the summer of 2012, when the regime pulled out of Rojava to fight the Islamists in the south. By that time, they were ready. The democratic institutions that were already in place emerged into the sunlight. And once the sun shone on them, more democratic institutions grew and proliferated.
I believe that Kurds and their allies in Rojhelat and Iran understand the need for preparation.
Once Rojava was established with democratic institutions in place, the new society faced many challenges, as I witnessed when I visited in 2014 and 2015. One of the greatest was to prove to all ethnicities and religions that they were welcome to participate in the new system. The dictatorship had spent decades sowing distrust between ethnic groups, in a divide-and-conquer strategy. Its message to Arabs had been, “If the Kurds ever get into power, they will treat you as badly as we treated them.” So a whole legacy of mistrust, suspicion and racism existed, one the new society had to overcome.
But how would they accomplish that? First, the leaders of the new society consciously and deliberately refrained from taking revenge. They educated the people, in one academy after another, against the idea of payback. The other ethnicities noticed this hands-off, peaceful behavior. The self-administration invited them to participate, and once they began participating together, they built trust and elevated inclusiveness to a new level. In this way, the self-administration managed to break the cycle of revenge. Then, when the time came to defend Rojava against the Islamic State, the people of Rojava, including Arabs, understood that their futures were intertwined. YPG and YPJ fighters realized that in the heat of battle, they all depended on each other. The model of ethnic inclusion is one that the whole world should know about and admire.
The other challenge that the Rojava Revolution faced was to remove the authoritarian mentality. In the summer of 2012, many people there had experienced only dictatorship; they knew nothing of democratic lifeways, culture, and institutions. When I visited Rojava in 2014, people told me that their big problem was to eliminate the “dictator within,” the authoritarian mentality, and teach people how to trust and depend on each other while making decisions together.
It’s not easy — people don’t always agree, but democracy requires a certain self-restraint. Democracy is a culture as well as a set of institutions. Building it took a lot of persistent work, but when I visited again in 2019, people in Rojava were educated about democracy, just as they were inclusive about peoples.
I concluded that messages and education are crucial. I think the academies had much to do with teaching democratic culture.
I suspect that people in the Jina movement in Rojhelat know very well what democracy is and are doing what they can, under difficult circumstances, to implement democratic confederalism. Once your moment of freedom comes, I think you will find that among people outside your movement, the mentality is stuck in the “dictator within” that people in Rojava faced. It will then be necessary to educate patiently and build trust, as they did in Rojava.
Every day people in Iran face the problem that by taking action on what they believe, they risk imprisonment. Every day you have to choose whether to act on your beliefs or to be cautious and stay safe. I am not faced with that problem, so I can’t advise you what to do.
But I do believe that the Jina movement is a powerful one and that it has broad support in Iran, especially the cities, and that it will ultimately prevail against the mullahs.
The protests are strong, but revolutionary change will also require a crack in the ruling system, as what happened in Rojava. The Supreme Leader seems to be the main element balancing the forces within the regime, so it could happen when he dies. Perhaps then, infighting within the regime will erupt and prove to be uncontainable, cracks will appear, and the regime will have a moment of weakness that proves fatal as the resistance seizes the opportunity.
Your moment will arrive. The mullahs cannot rule forever. Once weakness is displayed, you will have your opportunity. Please know that all educated and enlightened people around the world support your democratic movement. We yearn to see the change you make in Rojhelat and in Iran, once you are free.
Once you are free, we yearn to watch your new democratic society thrive and flourish. We yearn to marvel as your people produce achievements in politics and governance, in education and culture, in medicine and science and technology, and more. I know that your society will stun the world with its brilliance, and that the rest of us will marvel. I can’t wait to see it.
Janet Biehl is the author of Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin (2015). She is the translator (German to English) of Knapp et al., Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan (2016). She recently created the graphic memoir Their Blood Got Mixed: Revolutionary Rojava and the War Against ISIS (2022).