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A Road Unforeseen: Women Fight the Islamic State

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“This is the book I’ve been waiting for—only it’s richer, deeper, and more intriguing than I could have imagined. A Road Unforeseen is a major contribution to our understanding of feminism and Islam, of women and the world, and gives me fresh hope for change.” —Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed and Living With a Wild God In war-torn northern Syria, a democratic “This is the book I’ve been waiting for—only it’s richer, deeper, and more intriguing than I could have imagined. A Road Unforeseen is a major contribution to our understanding of feminism and Islam, of women and the world, and gives me fresh hope for change.” —Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed and Living With a Wild God In war-torn northern Syria, a democratic society—based on secularism, ethnic inclusiveness, and gender equality—has won significant victories against the Islamic State, or Daesh, with women on the front lines as fierce warriors and leaders. A Road Unforeseen recounts the dramatic, underreported history of the Rojava Kurds, whose all-women militia was instrumental in the perilous mountaintop rescue of tens of thousands of civilians besieged in Iraq. Up to that point, the Islamic State had seemed invincible. Yet these women helped vanquish them, bringing the first half of the refugees to safety within twenty-four hours. Who are the revolutionary women of Rojava and what lessons can we learn from their heroic story? How does their political philosophy differ from that of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Islamic State, and Turkey? And will the politics of the twenty-first century be shaped by the opposition between these political models? Meredith Tax is a writer and political activist. Author, most recently, of Double Bind: The Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Left, and Universal Human Rights, she was founding president of Women’s WORLD, a global free speech network of feminist writers, and cofounder of the PEN American Center’s Women’s Committee and the International PEN Women Writers’ Committee. She is currently international board chair of the Centre for Secular Space and lives in New York.


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“This is the book I’ve been waiting for—only it’s richer, deeper, and more intriguing than I could have imagined. A Road Unforeseen is a major contribution to our understanding of feminism and Islam, of women and the world, and gives me fresh hope for change.” —Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed and Living With a Wild God In war-torn northern Syria, a democratic “This is the book I’ve been waiting for—only it’s richer, deeper, and more intriguing than I could have imagined. A Road Unforeseen is a major contribution to our understanding of feminism and Islam, of women and the world, and gives me fresh hope for change.” —Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed and Living With a Wild God In war-torn northern Syria, a democratic society—based on secularism, ethnic inclusiveness, and gender equality—has won significant victories against the Islamic State, or Daesh, with women on the front lines as fierce warriors and leaders. A Road Unforeseen recounts the dramatic, underreported history of the Rojava Kurds, whose all-women militia was instrumental in the perilous mountaintop rescue of tens of thousands of civilians besieged in Iraq. Up to that point, the Islamic State had seemed invincible. Yet these women helped vanquish them, bringing the first half of the refugees to safety within twenty-four hours. Who are the revolutionary women of Rojava and what lessons can we learn from their heroic story? How does their political philosophy differ from that of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Islamic State, and Turkey? And will the politics of the twenty-first century be shaped by the opposition between these political models? Meredith Tax is a writer and political activist. Author, most recently, of Double Bind: The Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Left, and Universal Human Rights, she was founding president of Women’s WORLD, a global free speech network of feminist writers, and cofounder of the PEN American Center’s Women’s Committee and the International PEN Women Writers’ Committee. She is currently international board chair of the Centre for Secular Space and lives in New York.

30 review for A Road Unforeseen: Women Fight the Islamic State

  1. 4 out of 5

    Magnus Godvik

    Probably the most captivating, nuanced, and yet critical account of the YPG/YPJ I’ve read so far. A brilliant example of how feminist scholarship can give us fresh perspectives and challenge hegemonic narratives. Tax moves beyond considering Ocalan’s in-prison conversion to Eco-anarchism, and traces the ideology of PYD back to the armed and non-armed struggles by Kurdish women in Turkey. Far from what the cover and title might lead you to belive, this is also far from revolutionary romanticism. Probably the most captivating, nuanced, and yet critical account of the YPG/YPJ I’ve read so far. A brilliant example of how feminist scholarship can give us fresh perspectives and challenge hegemonic narratives. Tax moves beyond considering Ocalan’s in-prison conversion to Eco-anarchism, and traces the ideology of PYD back to the armed and non-armed struggles by Kurdish women in Turkey. Far from what the cover and title might lead you to belive, this is also far from revolutionary romanticism. Tax makes no attempt to excuse or brush over how PKK long was a totalitarian guerilla army which deliberately targeted civilians. However she does think the organisation, and its sister organisation in Syria, has changed. Making democracy and gender equality its core values. Tax is hopeful for the potential of revolutionary change in Syria, particularly for liberating women. Although, having learned from the left’s embrace of North Vietnam and the Cultural Revolution, she asks us to proceed with caution.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Carol Douglas

    Are there women fighting the Islamic State? Yes, indeed. Brave Kurdish women in Rojava, a part of Syria you've probably never heard of. Meredith Tax, a longtime feminist activist and writer, has studied the Kurds, an embattled people without a homeland. They live in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. They have faced pogroms and severe discrimination in all those countries, mostly famously in Turkey. Tax traces the Kurds' history, especially since World War II. Several nations, especially Turkey, Are there women fighting the Islamic State? Yes, indeed. Brave Kurdish women in Rojava, a part of Syria you've probably never heard of. Meredith Tax, a longtime feminist activist and writer, has studied the Kurds, an embattled people without a homeland. They live in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. They have faced pogroms and severe discrimination in all those countries, mostly famously in Turkey. Tax traces the Kurds' history, especially since World War II. Several nations, especially Turkey, have tried to extinguish their language and culture. Saddam Hussein used chemical warfare against them. Only in recent years has the West begun to champion their cause. The most prominent center of Kurdish power is in northern Iraq, where the Kurdish government has been more stable than the rest of the country, though the central Iraqi government wants to keep them from controlling the oil in that area. The Kurds there have fought effectively against the Islamic State. But Tax says the Kurds in that area are controlled by tribalist, not so progressive families. She focuses on another group based in Syria. Several areas, most prominently Rojava, are communal societies following the teaching of Mohammed Ocalan, a Kurdish nationalist who is imprisoned by Turkey. Tax does not sugar-coat his history, which was bloody and dictatorial for many years when he characterized himself as a Marxist-Leninist. However, he underwent a conversion to anarchy and to the idea that women, not the working class, are the key to revolution. The Kurds who follow his teachings have strived for equality for women, and even have a women's army, which they say is necessary for equality. The Islamic State particularly hates them for that reason. These are the women who are fighting the Islamic State. Tax has interviewed many of the women and tells their story. She concedes that it's possible that "after the revolution" these women might face the fate of other women who have fought in other revolutions, but she believes they have a stronger base. Kurdish women have been oppressed by early forced marriage, FGM, and seclusion in the home. Rojava is trying to make a drastic change in that. I hope they succeed both in defeating the Islamic State and in bringing about gender equality.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Adam

    Rojava represents a secular, democratic, and feminist way forward in a region stereotyped by many as hopelessly backward. Normally when you hear the phrase "women fighting" it's followed up with bullshit like "breast cancer" or "for equal pay", but the Kurds are the real deal, with the all-women YPJ actually fighting the most insane death cult in the middle east. The book tells the history of the Kurds in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria from the Sykes-Picot treaty to the current war, with a particula Rojava represents a secular, democratic, and feminist way forward in a region stereotyped by many as hopelessly backward. Normally when you hear the phrase "women fighting" it's followed up with bullshit like "breast cancer" or "for equal pay", but the Kurds are the real deal, with the all-women YPJ actually fighting the most insane death cult in the middle east. The book tells the history of the Kurds in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria from the Sykes-Picot treaty to the current war, with a particular focus Rojava, where people are trying to do something new, and women are at the centre of it. (view spoiler)[By 2011, the Kurdish movement for democratic autonomy was strong enough to call a conference that brought a thousand people together in Diyarbakir. It elected a coordinating group and set up committees to focus on municipal government, religion, language, women, and youth. In cities where the elected officials were movement people, the government and the local democratic autonomy councils worked together to solve community problems. Much of the energy of these local councils went into restorative justice and conflict mediation. Since people had little faith in Turkish courts and were not permitted In cities where the elected officials were movement people, the government and the local democratic autonomy councils worked together to solve community problems. Much of the energy of these local councils went into restorative justice and conflict mediation. Since people had little faith in Turkish courts and were not permitted to speak Kurdish in state institutions, they preferred to bring their problems to the councils. A local activist described the process: “We work with conversation, dialogue, negotiation, and when necessary, criticism and self-criticism. When someone does something wrong, the party who perpetrated the harm has to make it up to the people he injured. We accomplish a lot that way. There’s no death penalty, we don’t put perpetrators in prison or penalize them financially. Instead, we use social isolation. Relationships with people freeze up, until the person acknowledges the mistake and corrects it. I was mayor for a year. . . . I’ve seen many cases of blood feuds and honor killings, for which the state has no solution. We stepped in and, because we better understood people’s sensitivities, we were able to solve the problem.”12 (hide spoiler)] (view spoiler)[By the end of 2012, the PYD had organized all three Rojava cantons. Feeling that the councils were too remote from the neighborhoods, they set up communes as the basic unit of administration and decision-making. An academic delegation visited Cizire canton in December 2014,39 and met with Cizire Co-chair Cinar Salih, who told them how the self-administration system worked: “Our system rests on the communes, made up of neighborhoods of 300 people. The communes have co-presidents [one male, one female], and there are co-presidents at all levels, from commune to canton administration. In each commune there are five or six different committees. Communes work in two ways. First, they resolve problems quickly and early—for example, a technical problem or a social one. Some jobs can be done in five minutes, but if you send it to the state, it gets caught in a bureaucracy. So we can solve issues quickly. The second way is political. If we speak about true democracy, decisions can’t be made from the top and go to the bottom, they have to be made at the bottom and then go up in degrees. There are also district councils and city councils, up to the canton. The principle is ‘few problems, many resolutions.’ So that the government doesn’t remain up in the air, we try to fill the bottom of it.”40 Eighteen communes made up a district, and the co-presidents of all of them were on the district people’s council, which also had directly-elected members. The councils decided on matters like garbage collection, heating oil distribution, land ownership, and cooperative enterprises. While all the communes and councils were at least 40 percent women, the PYD—in its determination to revolutionize traditional gender relations—also set up parallel autonomous women’s bodies at each level, including the highest level, the TEV-DEM. These determined policy on matters of particular concern to women, like forced marriages, honor killings, polygamy, sexual violence, and discrimination. Since domestic violence remained a problem, they also set up a system of shelters. If there was a conflict on an issue concerning women, the women’s councils were able to overrule the mixed councils.41 For people to be able to carry out this kind of self-administration, they had to learn how to think politically. “Democratic autonomy is about the long term,” Salih Muslim said. “It is about people understanding and exercising their rights. To get society to become politicized: that is the core of building democratic autonomy . . . You have to educate, twenty-four hours a day, to learn how to discuss, to learn how to decide collectively. You have to reject the idea that you have to wait for some leader to come and tell the people what to do, and instead learn to exercise self-rule as a collective practice.”42 (hide spoiler)] (view spoiler)[Many observed that the organizational culture of the PKK was skewed by a cult of personality. But while the party was probably as tightly controlled from the top as Ocalan could make it, the total control attributed to him was logistically impossible. Living in Damascus, he could not be reached by phone from most places in the mountains; commanders on the ground, including his brother Osman, had to make many decisions on their own. The idea that everything good in the PKK came from Ocalan is the corollary to the idea that everything bad that happened was caused by a traitor in the ranks. The flip side of idolatry is purges. Both overestimate the power of the individual. Despite the optimistic tone of many of the resolutions issued by the Fifth Congress, it was clear by 1995 that Ocalan was rethinking the question of the state and the whole nationalist project. Being a nation without a state was the problem Kurdish nationalists had been trying to overcome for decades. They had assumed the way forward was to have a nation-state of their own. By 1995, Ocalan had begun to think that this might be wrong. Such a state seemed to be forming next door in Iraq, under the protection of the US, but it was a conservative state dependent on oil and Turkey. What would this mean for the future of Kurdistan? The PKK had never seen Kurdishness primarily in ethnic terms. Their whole problem with Turkish nationalism was that it permitted only one culture and one language, ignoring the rich diversity of its people. The PKK was certainly not going to duplicate that mistake. The Fifth Congress program stated that “our national liberation struggle is the basis for unity for all disadvantaged groups adversely affected by Turkish colonialism, and in it they are able to find their own identity. Our party does not wish to lapse into a narrow form of nationalism, and our party views all the many cultures in Kurdistan as a richness; that’s why all cultures are to be guaranteed and supported in their cultural freedom.”55 But was it possible to have a state that wasn’t based on ethnic nationalism? Maybe something like Switzerland? Or was the whole idea of the nation-state outdated, an artifact of a previous period of development? Ocalan began to ponder on his people’s ancient history, before the rise of empires in the Fertile Crescent, thinking back to a time when women and men were equal and managed to govern themselves in small local units, defending themselves without the need for a state apparatus. Women, as the first subjugated group, were central to this rethinking, in which the Kurds assumed world-historical importance as early inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent.56 Ancient Mesopotamia, located in the rich agricultural delta between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, is often called “the cradle of civilization” because it is the place where human beings first settled down and became farmers rather than hunters and gatherers.57 Mesopotamia and Sumer, the southernmost region of Mesopotamia, are also where people first began to live in cities and develop a more complex and hierarchical mode of social organization than had previously existed. In the mythology of ancient Sumer, Ocalan traced the lineaments of patriarchy and the origins of the state. To him, Sumer was the site of original sin, the place of transition from a horizontal society based on kinship groups to a hierarchical state based on slavery. Under one of Mesopotamia’s early rulers, Sargon the Great, wrote Ocalan, “the slaughtering of people through a well-planned use of force, the appropriation of all their belongings and resources, the deportation of captives as slaves, and the creation of tiers of colonial dependence, became principal features of historical development.”58 In Ocalan’s vision, Kurdistan, the place of original sin, would become the place where the sin is reversed, and the long historical trajectory of war, suffering, and domination would be replaced by local self-management, direct democracy, gender equality, and fellowship between all its peoples. (hide spoiler)] (view spoiler)[The Rojava Women’s Council began implementing these goals by founding shelters for women who were being abused, where they could be physically safe and learn how to become economically self-sufficient. Workplaces that employed women were required to operate nurseries for babies and small children; women received three months’ paid maternity leave plus two hours off per day for nursing or childcare. Sewing workshops were set up for women in the refugee camps in Rojava so they could earn money.51 As women’s economic needs were given a central place in economic planning, so were their needs for justice and defense against violence. The asayish—the local police force largely made up of women—was seen as the main way to manage the need for peace and justice on the community level. One of its main tasks—framed in terms of self-defense—was dealing with cases of violence against women, including such issues as child marriage and polygamy, both illegal. The asayish proceeded on the basis of complaints, most of which came from housewives. An asayish member in Cizire explained that “as soon as a complaint is received, the force begins an investigation into the man in question and a process of one-on-one communication and support with the woman survivor.”52 In Turkey, women in the Kurdish youth movement—the Union of Patriotic Revolutionary Young Women (YDG-K)—had their own, somewhat more confrontational method of dealing with violence against women, as the Kurdish women’s news agency JINHA reported in September 2015: “For four years, C. A.’s husband I. A. has physically and psychologically abused her. C. A. then applied to the YDG-K. The women warned her husband several times to stop his behavior. The women of YDG-K then beat him until he promised that he would never abuse his wife. The women of YDG-K called on all women suffering from violence to apply to them, and noted that they struggle to protect their fellow women.”53 Asayish members in Rojava went through a training process that was primarily ideological. As described by Nazan Ustundag, it involved topics such as “women’s history and liberation, Middle Eastern history, the history of Kurdistan, the state, truth, and diplomacy. Far from being only conceptual, the lessons are also practical, involving enactments of life in nature and scarcity whereby students are brought to the outdoors and taught to live without electricity and food. Self-reflexivity and criticism constitute another important part of the lessons: people are invited to collectively contemplate their desires for power, revenge, and conformity. Once asayiş members take their posts, they are expected to perform an ethics of equality with people and not make themselves too present in their lives. There are a number of cases where complaints by the public led certain asayiş members to be punished. Punishment involves more education . . .”54 Here as in other areas of policy, the goal is not to set up a punishing quasi-state but to enable the community to reach for both justice and unity. (hide spoiler)]

  4. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    While it was an in depth history of terrorist groups in parts of the Middle East, very little of it was actually about women fighters. I feel like the title was quite misleading.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

    This was more of a history of the region than specifically on women fighting the IS, but it was an interesting and informative read nonetheless. The author is quite liberal, which is not an issue as long as you take everything with a critical eye as you should with all things. I learned a great deal and would recommend this book to those looking to learn more about the history of the Kurdish people and the IS.

  6. 5 out of 5

    モーリー

    I wanted to love this book, really very much. But it's poorly structured and jumps around a lot in time and place. Add that to the number of acronyms the author is already dealing with from all the Kurdish organizations, and it's not very readable. I persisted with it for 110 pages and it took me a long time to even get that far. I hope another book comes out on this topic in the future, or perhaps I'll revisit it down the road and try harder to finish, because I do want to learn about the situa I wanted to love this book, really very much. But it's poorly structured and jumps around a lot in time and place. Add that to the number of acronyms the author is already dealing with from all the Kurdish organizations, and it's not very readable. I persisted with it for 110 pages and it took me a long time to even get that far. I hope another book comes out on this topic in the future, or perhaps I'll revisit it down the road and try harder to finish, because I do want to learn about the situation of Kurdish women fighters.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Mairead

    The stories of people struggling for liberation are powerful and I enjoyed them. But there was nothing else to enjoy in this book. The political analyses was half-hearted and lacking. The claims of Rojava being the first and only revolutionary movement with women at the front is ahistorical and comical. The format is confusing and unfocused.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Chris

    This book is eye opening regarding the fight against ISIS/ISIL. It details just how much fortitude these Kurdish women have and realize that if they don't fight they will be wiped out by ISIL. The world needs more local people to take up arms against ISIL and the US needs to stop being the police force for the world. I highly recommend this book.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Josh Griffiths

    For a book supposedly about women fighters in Syria, this book has shocking little mention of women fighters.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Larry

    Stunning accounts of war torn Kurdistan and the problems faced by their people.

  11. 5 out of 5

    ann martino

  12. 5 out of 5

    Alice

  13. 4 out of 5

    Heidi

  14. 4 out of 5

    Ago Nicø

  15. 4 out of 5

    Jehona

  16. 4 out of 5

    C

  17. 5 out of 5

    Cbsd library

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jasmine

  19. 5 out of 5

    Ladonna

  20. 5 out of 5

    Eriq

  21. 5 out of 5

    Rhegliegm.Slc.Edu

  22. 4 out of 5

    mckinnoj

  23. 5 out of 5

    Carrie

  24. 4 out of 5

    Philip Lillies

  25. 4 out of 5

    Anna

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jason Merchant

  27. 4 out of 5

    Mikey Scire

    Meredith Tax's account of the developing revolution and social experiment in northern Syria is thorough and exceeds expectation. The juxtapositioning of Democratic Municupalism with Islamism and global capitalism, Tribalism with Democracy, and patriarchy with feminism is clear and forefront in this work. Just as well, the author makes clear of how these progressive policies developed and of how they came about in response to historic state-mandated repression of the Kurds, the alarming popularit Meredith Tax's account of the developing revolution and social experiment in northern Syria is thorough and exceeds expectation. The juxtapositioning of Democratic Municupalism with Islamism and global capitalism, Tribalism with Democracy, and patriarchy with feminism is clear and forefront in this work. Just as well, the author makes clear of how these progressive policies developed and of how they came about in response to historic state-mandated repression of the Kurds, the alarming popularity of Islamist movements, and of the reactionary conservativism which has developed across the Middle East since the 90s. I would highly recomend this work for anyone seeking to understand the Syrian Civil War, PKK, Rojava, or the Kurds generally. While this is an excellent introduction to the history and ideas of the PKK, the autonomous Canton of Rojava, Abdullah Ocallan, or of Democratic Municipalism it is not a complete or comprehensive account of any one of these topics. For all of those interested, I would suggest supplementing Tax's book with "Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women's Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan". There are many great books on these topics, but few make better primers than the two mentioned here.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Erin Buechele

  29. 4 out of 5

    Niltiac

  30. 5 out of 5

    Avery

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