Reflections on Kurdish Democracy, Religion and Women’s Rights

Ebril, Kurdistan (TKP– The Kurdish Project had the opportunity to interview Jeffry Ruigendijk, a Dutch photographer and videographer who has traveled to Syria and Iraq to document the battle against ISIS, as well as the Kurds’ effort to create an increasingly democratic society that is tolerant of religion and women’s rights. Jeffry has been published on many news outlets, and you can watch his compelling Kurdish demo reel on Vimeo, and see a selection of his photos on his personal website.

The Kurdish Project: Please share/describe your background. Which parts of Kurdistan have you traveled to? How would you compare Kurdistan to other parts of the world/Middle East?

Jeffry Ruigendijk: I’ve been in Syria two times, in December 2012 and April 2013, for three weeks each. I recently returned from Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. In Syria, I was in Kurdish territory, but at the time they had a truce with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and with Jabhat Al Nusra, so the territory was divided in some places. What really struck me in Syrian Kurdistan was the way they used the crisis to change their own society for the better. They were building a whole government structure there that had been prepared for a long time, in theory, and when I was there they were taking the first steps of putting it into effect.

I visited Baghdad last year when ISIS started their advance. The difference with other parts of the Middle East is that the Kurds are very western-minded. Kurdistan in Iraq is a conservative Islamic society in many places, but with a very western open outlook. What also struck me is that there is no street crime in Kurdistan, no theft, just a beautiful country with great people.

TKP: What initially compelled you to go to Kurdistan? What did you find?

JR: I got the idea of going to Kurdistan when I was working as a photographer in a Dutch government building in 2012. One day I met a Kurdish family protesting outside. I asked them what their protest was about and they explained that the world was forgetting about the Kurds and Kurdistan amidst the rest of the Syrian conflict.

This was in the first year of the war, and there was no attention for the Kurdish dilemma at all — in fact, most people in Europe did not even know that Syria had a Kurdish area. I asked the family if they had any connections in Syria, and they introduced me to some people. These folks helped prepare my trip and my flight to Turkey. Once in Turkey, I got smuggled over the border into Syrian Kurdistan and was welcomed by the Kurdish YPG, or People’s Protection Units.

The YPG showed me the military components of their lives, the battle with the FSA and Jabhat Al Nusra, and they also showed me the political side of their lives — what surprised me were their extreme feminist views and their blueprint for a society, a structure that they were preparing to implement. It was very interesting.

When I went to Iraqi Kurdistan two years later, I had already learned a lot about the differences between Kurdish territories. I knew the philosophy of government was different in Iraqi Kurdistan. I expected to have a hard time as a journalist because Iraqi Kurdistan does not rank well in the press freedom rankings.

But what I found was that it was extremely easy to get around the country, to get access to Peshmerga units and political and military leaders. It’s extremely open to foreign journalists and very easy to make stories on the conflict. More so than in Syrian Kurdistan even. By now the PYD in Rojava has built a very tight process of controlling the journalists in their territory, so I was very pleased to find that the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan was different. I have not written any stories on the national politics of Iraqi Kurdistan, and cannot speak for local journalists, but for foreign journalists, it is a great place.

TKP: What was it like getting in and out of Kurdistan?

JR: Getting into Iraqi Kurdistan is very easy, you book a flight and land in the safety of Erbil. Getting an extension on your visa is not that hard either — I worked there for 5 months without much trouble. Getting around, getting access to the right people is also very easy.

Getting into Syrian Kurdistan was a lot harder. The first time I went, in December 2012, I got smuggled over the border with two other journalists. We had to climb barbed wire, cross a minefield, climb more barbed wire — all the while conscious of the watchtowers of the Turkish army, who play a very dubious role in this war.

The second time I entered Syrian Kurdistan, in April 2013, was by slipping through an Free Syrian Army (FSA) controlled border crossing. I was with Annabell van den Berghe, a writer who publishes a lot on the Kurds and the Middle East, and the Turks would not let us cross, so we mingled with a big group of people crossing and found ourselves on the other side five minutes later.

We spent some time with the FSA who then dropped us off with the YPG. The FSA and YPG men even shook hands when they met each other to deliver us, very bizarre, as they had been fighting many battles against each other.

TKP: What was the most interesting place that you visited?

JR: The front lines are always interesting. Hearing the stories of the men who are fighting, the life they had before the war, seeing how they cope with the danger and the losses. I realized there is this culture in Kurdistan of dying for your country, which goes back generations and generations and it has somehow become a fact of life and everybody accepts it. Every family has been refugees at some point, every family has lost loved ones in some of the wars or genocides.

TKP: What was the most emotional place that you visited?

JR: The most emotionally moving places were the refugee camps, where you can witness, first hand, the consequences of war to the innocent. I met a 15 year oldYazidi boy whose mother died in his arms on Sinjar mountain. He had seen his uncle pass by in a car and asked for help, but his uncle drove leaving his mother to die. The Yazidi boy had taken up the fatherly role as they had no one left, he was a child and a strong men at the same time. He refused any help from the uncle, as the uncle had been the reason for his mother’s death. He’s the kid that cries in my video reel, the other kids are his brothers. It brought tears to my eyes.

TKP: What was the air of religious tolerance in Kurdistan, at all?

JR: I lived in the Christian part of Erbil, which is filled with Assyrian churches. It was interesting seeing how Christianity is practiced in the Middle East, and how it differs from Europe and the rest of the world.

The Christianity practiced in Assyrian churches is different in many ways from Europe. Where I come from, in Holland, the majority of Christians are Protestants. There are no saints, no statues — Protestants claim to have brought Christianity back to it’s essence. But when you visit the birthplace of Christianity in the Middle East, you find a whole different version of the religion.

Of course, Christianity has also been divided in many different forms in the Middle East, but you can still see the form it had before it travelled to in Europe, how it got adapted there, how it went to the USA where it also has it’s own specific flavour and how cultures try to fit it into their own society by changing little things.

Our house in Erbil had a giant statue of Mary in the living room, there were pictures of saints in every cupboard and drawer, religious paintings on all walls. The religious devotion was almost hip.

It was also very interesting to learn about the Yezidi religion, to meet the Yzidi people and to see how this ancient religion is still alive, despite the numerous genocides that are thematic throughout the Yezidi’s history. The Yezidi call this the 73rd genocide I believe.

In general, religion is serious business in the Middle East and no matter what religion people practice, it becomes the most important thing in their life, it’s what they identify with and what shapes their decisions.

Compared to other places in the Middle East there is a lot of religious tolerance in Iraqi Kurdistan. There are many people of different religions living peacefully together all over.

TKP: What was the air of equality for women, if at all?

JR: We all know the images of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) fighting in Syria, but this is only one of the ways in which women are seen in Syrian Kurdistan. The whole fledgling Kurdish government structure of Rojava is being built on equality. The land is divided in cantons, regions that have a form of direct democracy. All government organisations have a 40-40-20 rule, which means that 40% of the elected are women, 40% are men and the remaining 20% can be either male or female. Women have the same rights as men on every level of society, they also have the right to divorce, to part of the shared property etc. The theory was starting to be put in practice when I was there and it looked promising.

While feminism is booming in Syrian Kurdistan, women in Iraqi Kurdistan are almost invisible. Equality for women is a real problem in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the key obstacles I think are strong cultural and religious traditions that forbid women from partaking in society in the Middle East.

Kurdish YPG fighters Image Source: free kurdistan, Flickr, Creative Commons

Kurdish YPG fighters
Image Source: free kurdistan, Flickr, Creative Commons

In Iraqi Kurdistan, the political system is more conservative, with two very big political parties that rule in a traditional way. Because of the ISIS threat there is a strong aversion against radical Islamist preachers and political parties, but the system is not allowing for a change in women’s rights like it is in Syria. However, the women in Iraqi Kurdistan are aware of the equality in Syrian Kurdistan, and according to a few feminists I met in Iraqi Kurdistan, it is beneficial to this movement next door in Syrian Kurdistan.

The feminist journalists I met worked for Zhin Magazine, and lived inSulaymaniyah, one of the most liberal cities in Iraqi Kurdistan. It was amazing to see their courage — they are basically taking on a whole society with a very small group of women. They get death threats, they get frowned upon wherever they go but they still manage to muscle their way into parliamentary meetings and other male dominated places. They live a constant fight, and by comparison, their battle for women’s rights makes western feminism look totally meek and spoilt.

TKP: What is the state of democracy in Kurdistan?

JR: The new Kurdish system of TEVDEM (Movement for a Democratic Society) in Syria (and the political equivalent in Turkish Kurdistan) is not a religious system, but rather a theory of political equality and democracy for anyone, regardless of religion or gender.

The PYD is the most powerful political player in Syrian Kurdistan and their system does not allow for religious leaders to be above their law of equality. Culturally they are changing the traditions and at this point no one can challenge their system. The war does not allow for that, times are tough and people need to stick together. It would be interesting to see if TEVDEM can survive after the war and if the system proves to be as idealistic as it sounds. But at least the Kurds are trying and so far, for the women, the change has been nothing but positive.

TKP: What are one or two little known facts about the Kurds that the world should know?

JR: The world should know that the Kurds have been made many false promises by the West in the past. They have been promised independence several times, but instead have gotten genocides. In all 4 Kurdish territories there have been genocides — and no people should have to live under the rule of a regime/country that has treated them that inhumane.

Kurdish independence should be a very big point on the agenda of the coalition, no matter what economical or political consequences that could have for the west. We owe it to the Kurds.

The world should also know that Iraqi Kurdistan and Iranian Kurdistan are extremely beautiful. The landscape, the old parts of the cities, the culture, the people. It’s totally worth a holiday and, believe it or not, is a lot safer than many places in Europe.

Watch Jeffry’s demo reel from Kurdistan below:

Demo Reel Jeffry Ruigendijk from Jeffry Ruigendijk on Vimeo.

Originally published by The Kurdish Project.