The Mesopotamian Social Sciences Academy campus. Photo: Janet Biehl
Following the outbreak of civil war in Syria and the withdrawal of Syrian government forces from western Kurdistan, the Kurdish people in this region were presented with an unparallelled opportunity to assert their autonomy. Although threatened by the expansion from Iraq of the Islamic State and by the overspill of fighting from Syria, the Kurdish revolutionary movement almost immediately declared the primacy of new self‑governing institutions, a political model known as ‘democratic confederalism’, which aims to secure the democratic self‑management of society without the state.
Once self-governing institutions were established, the need for a new kind of education was paramount. Not that the people of western Kurdistan were uneducated – high school graduation rates were and are very high there, as I and the rest of an academic delegation learned during our visit. But education was crucial to creating the revolutionary culture in which the new institutions could thrive. It is a matter not for children and youths alone but for adults as well, even the elderly.
As Aldar Xelîl, a member of the council of Tev-Dem, the political coalition governing the autonomous region of Rojava, explained to us, Rojava’s political project is ‘not just about changing the regime but creating a mentality to bring the revolution to society. It’s a revolution for society.’ Dorîn Akîf, who teaches at two academies in Rojava, agreed: ‘Perception has to be changed,’ she told us, ‘because mentality is so important for our revolution now. Education is crucial for us.’
The first issue that the revolution had to confront was the language of instruction. For four decades under the Assad regime, Kurdish children had to learn Arabic and study in Arabic. The Kurdish language was banned from public life; teaching it was illegal and could be punished by imprisonment and even torture. So when the Syrian Kurds took their communities into their own hands, they immediately set up Kurdish language instruction. The first such school to open was ehîd Fewzî’s School in Efrîn canton, followed by one each in Kobanê and Cizîrê. By August 2014, Cizîrê alone had 670 schools, with 3,000 teachers offering Kurdish-language courses to 49,000 students.
In early December our delegation visited Rojava’s first and only institution of higher education, the Mesopotamian Social Sciences Academy in Qamislo. The Assad regime had permitted no such institutions in the Kurdish areas; this one opened in September 2014 and is still very much under construction. Teaching and discussions are mostly in Kurdish, although the sources are often in Arabic, since many essential texts have not yet been translated.
One challenge the academy faces, several members of the administration and faculty told us, is that people in north‑eastern Syria think they have to go abroad to get a good education. ‘We want to change that,’ said one instructor. ‘We don’t want people to feel inferior about where they live. In the Middle East there is a huge amount of knowledge and wisdom, and we are trying to uncover it. Many things that have happened in history happened here.’
The school year consists of three terms, each lasting three to four months, progressing from overviews of subjects to specialisation to final projects. The curriculum comprises mainly history and sociology.
Why those subjects? They are crucial, we were told. Under the regime, ‘our existence [as Kurds] was disputed. We are trying to show that we exist and have made many sacrifices along the way. . . . We consider ourselves part of history, subjects of history.’ The instruction seeks to ‘uncover histories of peoples that have been denied, . . . to create a new life to overcome the years and centuries of enslavement of thought that have been imposed on people.’ Ultimately, its purpose is ‘to write a new history.’
The sociology curriculum takes a critical stance towards 20th-century positivism and instead seeks to develop a new, alternative social science for the 21st century – what Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), calls ‘sociology of freedom’. For their final projects, students choose a particular social problem, then research it and write a thesis on how to resolve it. So the learning is practical as well as intellectual, and intended to serve a social good.
Indeed, education in Rojava is not about ‘building a career and getting rich’. Rather, academy students are taught to ‘ask themselves how to enrich society’. Similarly, the academy seeks not to develop professionalism but to cultivate the well-rounded person. ‘We believe humans are organisms, they can’t be cut up into parts, separated into sciences,’ an instructor told us. ‘One can be a writer or a poet and also be interested in economy, because human beings are part of all life.’
Unlike conventional western approaches, the academy’s pedagogy rejects the unidirectional transmission of facts. Indeed, it doesn’t strictly separate teachers and students. Teachers learn from students and vice versa; ideally, through inter-subjective discourse, they come to shared conclusions.
Nor are the instructors necessarily specialist teachers; they are people whose life experience has given them insights that they can impart. One teacher, for example, recounts folk tales once a week. ‘We want teachers to help us understand the meaning of life,’ we were told. ‘We focus on giving things meaning, being able to interpret and comment as well as analyse.’
Students take exams, but those exams don’t measure knowledge – they are ‘more like reminders, like dialogues’. And teachers themselves are subject to evaluation by students. ‘You did not explain this very well,’ a student can say. A teacher who is criticised has to talk out the issue with the student until they both feel they understand each other.
The women’s Yekitiya Star Academy in Rimelan pushes the educational approach of the Mesopotamian Academy further. Our delegation visited this too in early December.
Founded in 2012, its purpose is to educate female revolutionary cadres, so naturally its emphasis on ideology is more pronounced. Over the past 30 years, instructor Dorîn Akîf told us, women participated in the Kurdish freedom movement, first as fighters, then in women’s institutions. Three years ago Kurdish women produced jineolojî, or ‘women’s science’, which they regard as the culmination of that decades-long experience.
At the academy in Rimelan, students are first given a general overview of jineolojî, ‘the kind of knowledge that was stolen from women’ and that women today can recover. ‘We are trying to overcome women’s non-existence in history. We try to understand how concepts are produced and reproduced within existing social relations, then we come up with our own understanding. We want to establish a true interpretation of history by looking at the role of women and making women visible in history.’
Jineolojî, said Dorîn Akîf, considers women to be ‘the main actor in economy, and economy as the main activity of women . . . Capitalist modernity defines economy as man’s primary responsibility. But we say this is not true, that always and everywhere women are the main actors in the economy.’ Because of this basic contradiction, she argues, capitalist modernity will eventually be overcome.
The way people interpret history affects the way they act, so ‘we talk about pre-Sumerian social organisation. We also look how the state emerged historically and how the concept has been constructed,’ Akîf added. But power and the state are not the same. ‘Power is everywhere, but the state is not everywhere. Power can operate in different ways.’ Power, for example, is present in grassroots democracy, which has nothing to do with the state.
Jineolojî regards women as quintessentially democratic. The Star Academy educates students (who are still mostly women) in Rojavan civics. ‘We look at the political mechanisms – women’s parliaments, women’s communes; and the general [mixed] parliaments, general communes, neighbourhood parliaments. Here in Rojava we always have both mixed ones and women’s exclusive ones. In the mixed ones, the representation of women is 40 per cent, plus there is always a co-presidency to ensure equality.’
As at the Mesopotamian Academy, students at the Star Academy are taught to see themselves as citizens, with ‘the power to discuss and construct . . . There is no teacher and student. The session is built on sharing experiences.’ Students range from teenagers to great-grandmothers. ‘Some have graduated from universities, and some are illiterate. Each has knowledge, has truth in their life, and all knowledge is crucial for us . . . The older woman has experience. A woman at 18 is spirit, the new generation, representing the future.’
Every programme culminates in a final session called the platform. Here each student stands and says how she will participate in Rojava’s democracy. Will she join an organisation, or the women’s protection units, the YPJ, or participate in a women’s council? What kind of responsibility she will take?
We queried Dorîn about the academy’s teachings on gender (a word that does not exist in Kurdish). ‘Our dream,’ she said, ‘is that women’s participating and building society will change men, a new kind of masculinity will emerge. Concepts of men and women aren’t biologistic – we’re against that. We define gender as masculine and masculinity in connection with power and hegemony. Of course we believe that gender is socially constructed.’
Moreover, she explained, the ‘woman problem’ isn’t solely the province of women: ‘It’s embedded in society, so women’s exclusion is society’s problem. So we have to redefine women, life, and society all together at the same time. The problem of women’s freedom is the problem of society’s freedom.’
She went on to cite a phrase from Öcalan, ‘Kill the man’, which has become a watchword, meaning ‘the masculine man has to change’. Equally, she said, women’s colonised subjectivity, or femininity, must be killed. The social ambition embodied by the academy is to overcome domination and hegemonic power and ‘create an equal life together’.
Janet Biehl is an independent writer, artist and translator. She is the author of Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin, forthcoming from Oxford University Press. This article originally appeared in a longer form on www.biehlonbookchin.com.
The Mesopotamian Academy has launched an appeal for books, with the aim to establish a multilingual library. For more information visit the ‘Donate a book to Mesopotamia Academy’ Facebook page