In Rojava, in Syrian Kurdistan, the Mesopotamian University of Social Sciences in Qamislo and, above all, the Women’s University of Rimelan challenge the traditional way of conceiving the transmission of knowledge. The students are not only young people, but also adults, even grandmothers and grandfathers. Some are already graduates, others are illiterate, all have knowledge to share. The teachers are not necessarily specialised teachers; they are people whose life experience has given them ideas that they can share. Here they study, among other things, the language and history of the Kurdish people, starting with the history of women, since jineolojî, or “women’s science”, has a history spanning decades. Students choose a specific social problem, then research and write a thesis on how to solve it: learning is always practical as well as theoretical and oriented towards serving a social good. Exams at these universities do not measure knowledge, they are more like a review, a dialogue. Indeed, education in Rojava is not about “passing a degree and getting rich”. Similarly, the academy does not seek to develop professionalism, but to cultivate the whole person.

By Janet Biehl – Comune-info

After the outbreak of the Syrian civil war and the withdrawal of Syrian government forces from western Kurdistan, the Kurds in that region had a unique opportunity to assert their autonomy. Although threatened by the expansion of the Islamic State from Iraq, and the surplus of fighting from Syria, the Kurdish revolutionary movement almost immediately declared the supremacy of the new autonomous institutions, a political model known as ‘democratic confederalism’, which aims to guarantee the democratic self-management of a stateless society.

Once the autonomous institutions were established, the need for a new type of education was paramount. It is not that the people of Western Kurdistan lack education: high school graduation rates were and are very high, as I and the rest of an academic delegation learned during our visit. But education was crucial to creating the revolutionary culture in which they could thrive. It affected not only children and youth, but also adults, even the elderly.

As Aldar Xelîl, a member of the Tev-Dem council, i.e., the political coalition governing the autonomous region of Rojava, explained to us, the political project in Rojava “is not just about regime change, but about creating a mentality that brings revolution to society”. Dorîn Akîf, who teaches at two universities in Rojava, agrees: “We have to change the perception,” he told us, “Because now the mentality is very important for the revolution. Education is crucial for us.

The first problem the revolution faced was the language to be used in education. For 40 years under Assad, Kurdish children had to learn and study in Arabic. The Kurdish language was forbidden in public life; teaching it was illegal and could be punished by imprisonment and even torture. So, when the Syrian Kurds took the communities into their own hands, they immediately planned education in the Kurdish language. The first of these schools to open was the Sehîd school in Fewzî, in the canton of Efrîn, followed by one in Kobanê and another in Cizîrê. In August 2014, in Cizîrê alone there were 670 schools with 3,000 teachers teaching Kurdish language courses to 49,000 pupils.

The Mesopotamian University of Qamislo

In early December, our delegation visited the first and only institution of higher education, the Mesopotamian University of Social Sciences in Qamislo. The Assad regime had not allowed any such institution in the Kurdish areas; this one opened in September 2014 and is still largely under construction. Teaching and discussions take place mainly in Kurdish, although sources are often in Arabic, as many essential texts have not yet been translated.

One of the challenges facing the university, several members of the administration and faculty told us, is that people in northeastern Syria think they have to go abroad to get a good education. “We want to change this idea,” said one faculty member, “we don’t want people to feel inferior because of where they live. There is a lot of knowledge and wisdom in the Middle East, and we are trying to discover it. A lot of things that have happened in history have happened here.

The school year consists of three terms and each term lasts three to four months, ranging from subject overview to specialisation and final projects. The curriculum includes mainly history and sociology.

Why these subjects? They are essential, we were told. During the regime, “our existence [as Kurds] was contested. We try to show that we exist and that we have made many sacrifices along the way… We see ourselves as part of history, as subjects of history”. Education aims to “reveal the histories of peoples that have been denied… to create a new life to overcome the years and centuries of thought slavery that have been imposed on peoples”. Basically, its purpose is “to write a new history”.

The sociology curriculum takes a critical stance against 20th century positivism and seeks instead to develop a new alternative social science for the 21st century, what Abdullah Öcalan, the now imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), calls the “sociology of freedom”. For their final project, students choose a specific social problem, research it and write a thesis on how to solve it. Thus, learning is both practical and theoretical and aims to serve a social good.

Indeed, education in Rojava is not about “getting rich and making a career”. Similarly, the academy does not seek to develop professionalism, but to cultivate the whole person. “We believe that the human being is an organism, but it cannot be cut into pieces, separated into different sciences,” one teacher told us. “A person can be a writer or a poet and also be interested in economics, because the human being is part of the whole of life”.

Unlike conventional Western approaches, the academy’s pedagogy rejects the one-way transmission of facts. In fact, it does not strictly separate teachers and students. Teachers learn from students and vice versa; ideally, through intersubjective discourse, they arrive at shared conclusions.

Teachers are not necessarily specialised teachers; they are people whose life experience has given them insights that they can impart. One teacher, for example, tells folktales once a week. They told us: “We want teachers to help us understand the meaning of life”. “We focus on making meaning out of things, being able to interpret and comment on them and also to analyse them”.

Students take exams, but they do not measure knowledge and are more of a review, a dialogue. And the teachers themselves are subject to the students’ evaluation. A student can say: “You didn’t explain it very well”. A teacher who is criticised has to go over the subject with the pupil until they both feel that they have understood each other.

Women’s University in Rimelan

The Yekitiya Star Women’s University (the name of a women’s organisation) takes the approach to education further than the Mesopotamian University. Our delegation also visited it in early December.

Founded in 2012, its aim is to educate female revolutionary cadres, so naturally the emphasis on ideology is more pronounced. Over the past 30 years, Professor Dorîn Akîf told us, women have been involved in the Kurdish liberation movement, first as fighters and then in women’s institutions. Three years ago, Kurdish women created the jineolojî, or “women’s science”, which they see as the culmination of that decades-long experience.

At Rimelan University, students are first given an overview of jineolojî, “the kind of knowledge that was stolen from women” and which they can now recover. “We try to overcome the non-existence of women in history. We try to understand how concepts are produced and reproduced within existing social relations, and then we elaborate our own idea. We want to establish a true interpretation of history, examining the role of women and making them visible in history”.

The jineolojî, Dorîn Akîf told us, sees women as “the main protagonists of the economy, and the economy as the main activity of women… Capitalist modernity defines the economy as the main responsibility of men. But we say that this is not true, that always and everywhere women are the main protagonists of the economy”. Because of this fundamental contradiction, Dorîn argues, capitalist modernity will eventually be defeated.

The way people interpret history influences the way they act, which is why ‘we talk about pre-human social organisation. We also examine how the state has appeared historically and how the concept has been constructed,” Akîf added. However, power and the state are not the same thing. “Power is everywhere, but the state is not everywhere. Power can operate in different ways. Power, for example, is present in the democracy of ordinary people, which has nothing to do with the state.

Jineolojî considers the quintessence of woman to be democracy. The Star Academy instructs students (mainly women) in civic education in Rojava. “We study political mechanisms, women’s parliaments, women’s communes and general [mixed] parliaments, mixed communes, neighbourhood parliaments. Here in Rojava we have always had mixed and women-only parliaments. In the mixed parliaments, women’s representation is 40 per cent, and there is always a female co-chair to ensure equality.

As at the University of Mesopotamia, students at Star University are taught to see themselves as citizens, with “the power to discuss and build… There is no teacher and student. The session is based on the exchange of experiences”. “The students range from teenagers to grandmothers. Some are university graduates and others are illiterate. Everyone has knowledge, has the truth in their life, and all knowledge is fundamental for us… The older woman has experience. An 18-year-old woman is the spirit, she is the new generation that represents the future”.

Each programme ends with a final session called a platform, in which each student poses and says how she will participate in Rojava’s democracy: will she join an organisation or the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), or participate in a women’s council? What kind of responsibilities will she take on?

We asked Dorîn about the university’s teachings on gender (a word that does not exist in Kurdish). Our dream,” she said, “is that women’s participation and the construction of society by women will change men and that a new kind of masculinity will emerge. The concepts of male and female have no biological basis: we are against this idea. We define gender as masculine and masculinity in relation to power and hegemony. Of course, we believe that gender is manufactured by society. She further explained. “The problem of women is not only women’s problem: it is embedded in society, so the exclusion of women is a societal problem. So, we have to redefine women and society together and at the same time. The problem of women’s freedom is the problem of society’s freedom”.

She went on to quote Öcalan’s phrase, “Kill the man”, which has become a slogan meaning that “the masculine man must change”. Also, according to Dorin, the colonised subjectivity of women, or femininity, must be eliminated. The social ambition embodied by the university is to overcome domination and hegemonic power and “create an egalitarian common life”.

The original article can be found here