Dr. Hawzhin Azeez speaks on the Rojava Revolution and beyond in this brand new interview.
by Katarina Pavičić-Ivelja
It cannot be ignored that various modes of silencing often times experienced by members of the excluded and exploited or any other persons seen as a possible threat to the current ‘order’ and perceived as a disruption of the status quo become more evident with each passing day. The aforementioned attempts at silencing any voices daring to speak against the existing system riddled by inexcusable inequalities are nothing more than yet another aspect through which the efforts to preserve the imbalanced power dynamics between the privileged oppressor/colonizer and the marginalized oppressed/colonized manifests.
While in the virtual world ones’ voices are being taken away by persistent blocking of known activists’ accounts on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram under the excuse of ‘violating guidelines,’ in the real world the grueling efforts to maintain the status quo take a much more sinister turn through legal persecutions of activists, extrajudicial detentions and even lynching in order to prevent the voices of the oppressed from ever reaching out, organizing and solidarizing.
The feminist struggle against patriarchy, the Yellow Vest protests in France, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Kurdish freedom movement, as well as the entirety of the Rojava revolution (together with the recent controversial pullout of the US army from north Syrian territory) can all serve as examples of this power dynamic and the resistance against it – albeit each in its own way – but, in regards to the reactions their very existence elicits, also serve as a call for reexamination of what truly constitutes liberation, solidarity and decolonization. For true liberation to be possible, revolutionary thought must be rid of the privileged ‘default’ status often times appointed to Western ideologies thus allowing for even the colonization of non-western thought. It must consider movements as they are – within their own, realistic circumstances. And above all, it must realize the importance of informed, self-critical and selfless solidarity – solidarity that does not expect anything in return, solidarity that does not involve agency and becoming ‘the voice of the voiceless,’ but simply involves stepping aside in order for the voices of the ‘voiceless’ to be heard in public/media spaces.
As such, the topics of struggle against oppression, decolonization, anticapitalism, revolutionary movements and ultimately liberation are universal and relevant to all striving towards change, regardless of their whereabouts and immediate circumstances.
About these and other relevant issues I spoke to the Kurdish academic, activist, poet and feminist Dr. Hawzhin Azeez – the creator of The Middle Eastern Feminist and Hawzhin.press. As is stated on her website, “her experiences as a child refugee (from South Kurdistan), amidst homelessness, poverty, statelessness, and immense loses within her family and community due to their resistance through the Kurdish Peshmerga, continue to be the foundation of her political perspective and ideology. Motivated by the desire towards promotion of peace and stability, she has been driven to locate alternatives to the neoliberal capitalist state interventionist methods of peace-building and democracy promotion.”
The topics on which she publishes range from Abdullah Öcalan’s Democratic Confederalism, Kurdish liberation, the YPG-YPJ to Colonialism, Imperialism, gender based oppression and more, due to which she has herself been subject to the aforementioned attempts at silencing through persistent unjustified censoring and disabling of social media accounts in order to diminish the activists’ presence and reach.
On your webpage Hawzhin.press you cover a very diverse array of topics concerning marginalization and oppression from a very interesting anti-colonialist perspective that differs greatly from the ‘fetishization of struggle’ so often seen in the media. Could you tell our readers more about what first prompted you to start writing in such manner? Why are such topics specifically important in the present moment?
I am deeply influenced by the concept of intersectionality, a theory that was first proposed by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw who, speaking as a Black woman, noted the ways in which different identity markers such as class, gender, sexuality, race and so on intersect each other in the daily lived experiences of oppression.
At the same time, my own experiences of living through the wars and oppressions as a Kurdish woman, as a member of a stateless, dispossessed, deeply oppressed minority has informed my subjectivity, internalization of politics and its subsequent expression. Too often the revolutions of developing societies have been subject to elitist, academic Eurocentric interpretations and voices. Our activism, our ideologies of liberation, our efforts for collective liberation have always been colored, analyzed and informed by this white-centric gaze turned upon us.
Additionally, I am a strong believer in speaking and breaking the traditional patriarchal boundaries imposed on us as women. Women within stateless, dispossessed societies face added barriers of taboo, silencing and erasure. For this reason it is doubly important, and doubly difficult, to speak our truths, to own our spaces, to share our stories and to claim loudly and unashamedly the right of expression. Surviving in a largely traditional and patriarchal society struggling with its oppression and liberation, expression is existence for women for not only do we face the oppression of the states we reside within but also the men within our societies too. If expression is existence than by that token, for us Kurdish women, speaking is a deep act of revolutionary self-love and feminist solidarity. When I speak, while being deeply aware of my relative privilege, I see myself speaking for the women who are unable to speak, for those silenced and for those struggling to break the yoke of shame and taboo infused silence surrounding them. Just as intersectionality provides us with a self-critical and reflective lens to analyze intersecting oppressions within our lives and societies, it can also help to inform us of the ways in which we can use our privileges to provide and create platforms towards awareness raising, solidarity and revolutionary practices.
Deeply influenced by such works Aime Cesaire’s “Discourse on Colonialism”, Albert Memmi’s “The Colonizer and the Colonized”, and of course Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth”, I do not believe that any analysis of the plight of the oppressed of so called post-colonial societies can be understood without a deep understanding of the politico-historical contexts that informs the realities of our lives, and the associated oppression that we live today.
There is of course, much tension, in writing and speaking about subjects that are deeply politically complex that require a strong theoretical grasp to be able to analyze sufficiently while still retaining the capacity to communicate easily to an audience that may have a generalized understanding of our lives. For this reason, poetry and a certain level of flare and eloquence is a necessity of the burden we carry as academic-activists to reach as many, educate as many and move as many towards empathy towards our causes. But most essentially, the need to speak against a barrage of ongoing injustices imposed on us as Kurds and as women became so unbearable that it demanded an outlet. This outlet initially emerged as the Facebook page I created called The Middle Eastern Feminist, but from there grew with the Rojava Revolution and its struggles.
It can be argued that the aforementioned ‘fetishization of struggle’ was, and still often is, most evident in the context of the Rojava revolution – which was throughout recent years often either presented in a rather sensationalist and shallow ‘YPJ vs ISIS’ manner or incorporated into an idealized ‘armchair leftist’ narrative. In your opinion, what is the underlying cause of such perception of non-Western movements as ‘curiosities’ of sorts?
Following the end of the Cold War and the bi-polar world, the Western arguments such as Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” and Fukuyama’s “End of History” have added an additional layer to the Orientalization of Eastern movements. This layer is infused with an internalized certainty of the Eurocentric neoliberal, capitalist system which views all other alternatives as inferior and lacking in conviction. The marriage of Orientalisation to the idea that neoliberal capitalism is the end point is something which is deeply internalized by Western leftists. I have repeatedly seen, in the international left, troubling and problematic trends of White privilege and racism, even in the most well-meaning and sympathetic of activists that places the burden of correcting and speaking up internally within our liberation. Specifically as Kurdish women, when we point out these problematic practices towards us and our oppression and liberation movements we are faced, by these very Leftists with condescension, tone policing and outright silencing.
We are seen as curiosities because we are inherently seen as incapable of creating complex ideological narratives of our liberation. The West, of course, wants the solution to our oppression imposed by their hands to come within their tool box of ideologies. We are seen as incapable of creating revolutionary movements disconnected and separate from their own Eurocentric experiences of revolutions and liberation. This Orientalisation of our liberation, this Othering and Thingification of our revolutions is something that the international left must, urgently address within itself. This practice continues to create ideological barriers, limiting our connection with each other and prevents us from transcending our differences and finding common ground.
A crucial point that needs addressing is the specific militant activism and bravery of the YPJ in the fight against ISIS and contrasting it with that of armchair activism of the Left. This is largely as a result of the neoliberal capitalist system’s deliberate promotion of political apathy as a form of disempowering individuals. This disempowerment is deeply conflicting and confusing within a society so heavily based on hyper-individualism. If the individual is the be all and end all of Eurocentric society and if one’s vote, one’s voice is so clearly irrelevant- and we’ve seen this bluntly recently in Trump’s America and the deep feeling of demoralization across Europe etc. – then there is a crippling of the spirit and psyche of the individual. In contrast, Eastern Ideologies such as that of Democratic Confederalism in Rojava for instance caters to the notion of the collective good by re-empowering the individual and encouraging feelings of mutual civil responsibility and solidarity.
The YPJ fight, for instance, because she is fighting for herself, but also for the thousands of other women like herself who has faced daily acts of silencing, shame and oppression. She fights within her society, but also towards external forces such as capitalism or patriarchy expressed through ISIS for instance. Her burden is double, but informed by a complex understanding of history, identity, capitalism and patriarchy.
Another important point is that within societies such as Rojava, a deeply agricultural and underdeveloped society technology and online activism is a relatively new process, but also has little impact on the form of oppression’s that people face. Technology and the information revolution, through such mediums as Facebook and Twitter have allowed us to easily reach thousands if not millions of viewers that we can easily influence with the click of a button. But the downside to this is that it has also bred the “keyboard warrior” psychology within the Left to the point that many activists barely leave their house and engage in very little street protests and activism. Owning the streets, taking back the streets of our cities and being physically present and seen is essential to activism. This is why such trends as The Women’s March, which attracted tens of thousands of women and allies marching was seen as such a phenomena in the Western world. The recent Yellow Vest movement was also a powerful representation of collective physical action against the oppression of the state.
In contrast, in a place like Rojava protests, mass action, and direct participation and involvement not only within the political, but also ideological education are an essential part of the political society there. These types of collective physical action are an essential and integral element of the politics of resistance within Rojava society. It serves to not only increase the intra communal bonds within society, increasing feelings of mutual empathy and solidarity, but also as a strong show of unity to the outside world in a region and a nation known and often marked by its internal disunity. Such actions are breaking the colonization process, the internalization of disunity that has been so integral to our continued oppression and serve as creating a counter colonial narrative of community and individual ethics.
I speak against the fetishization of our struggles because while we are orientalised, thingified and othered, we are also feminized and infantilized. Our Revolutionary women specifically have added an additional layer of exoticization and sexualization of our struggle as Kurds. By rejecting that fetishization of our struggle, by speaking and owning, sometimes forcibly reclaiming spaces of speaking and correcting Eurocentric analysis of our revolution, I see us pointedly rejecting orientalisation, and reclaiming a lost agency.
Numerous indigenous or generally non-white freedom struggles other than the Rojava revolution also do not manage to avoid being subjected to analysis under heavy scrutiny of what you refer to as the Western gaze. Could you elaborate more on what constitutes the Western gaze and its impact?
The Western Gaze is an analytical lens, an encompassing and informing colonial mentality by which non-white struggles are seen and analyzed. It is the hegemonization of white narratives and subjectivity. Just as women we face the Male gaze by which the subjectivity and existence of women is defined from the patriarchal male perspective, just as queer and Trans people are viewed from a cis-normative heterosexual lens, so are the struggles of People of Color viewed from the Western Gaze.
Naturally this white gaze is problematic because it views our liberation movements from a very specific and limited perspective which is far removed from the actual experiences and realities of people of color. As Kurds for instance, Western academics, often men, have been the ones to voice how we feel, how we respond, how we think. Our struggles for liberation have therefore been analyzed with a set of analytical tools that are limited in capturing the entirety and complexity of our lived experiences. The Western gaze loves the simplification of issues into ‘them vs. us’, ‘with us or against us’ mentality. For this reason the Israel-Palestine issue is a perfect example of over simplification and polarization loved by the western gaze. Yet, because of the inherent limitations within the analytical repertoire of the White Gaze there is much misunderstanding and often simplification of our liberation struggles in unhelpful ways. One such glaring example is the ongoing discourse about the “terrorist Kurd” and the ongoing comparisons and linkages of the YPG-YPJ forces to the PKK movement. The Western Gaze with its associated institutionalized power and privileges has led to the necessity of highlighting the liberation struggle of the Kurds as being influenced and internalizing the colonial impacts and borders. It fails to see the interlinked and connected nature of multiple, separate and yet reinforcing liberation movements and narratives.
Our lives are far more complex than the over simplified White Gaze wishes to see. For this very reason, the solution to our liberation is far more complex and difficult than the White Gaze can comprehend or be prepared to understand.
How would you comment on the fact that even in a ‘well-meaning’ context (such as is the case of over-idealization of the Rojava revolution and the Kurdish struggle in Western leftist circles), the bias of the privileged still remains more than evident by demanding from the oppressed to construct a struggle that abides to the norms and resources of the privileged, subsequently condemning every deviation from what is, from the privileged standpoint, considered a ‘pure revolution’, ‘the perfect victim’, ‘a true fighter’ etc.?
This deviation from Eurocentric visions of ‘appropriate’ revolution has been a serious issue for Rojava. Firstly, the Eurocentric western mentality, including within the revolutionary and leftist movements, envisions the solution to the oppressions of the wretched of the earth to come within their ideological and hegemonic world views. This is why the supposed ‘contradictions’ of Rojava in being anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist and yet coordinating with imperialist forces on the ground against ISIS and other Jihadist forces was so perplexing for the Western leftist audience. This was so unacceptable and shocking that Rojava has lost much support and solidarity from the privileged Left. The privileged Left should not moralize or criticize the survival mechanism and choices of the oppressed, especially when it has largely failed to do the necessary work to educate itself as to the incredibly complex multilayered and intersectional oppressions that the Kurds experience.
The idea of the “pure revolution” or the “true revolutionary fighter” are aspects of the Eurocentric hegemonic mentality which needs to neatly compartmentalize and categorize movements, peoples, and responses to oppressions. But the lives and therefore the survival responses of the oppressed, precisely because it does not have the privileged luxury of fitting into neat Western categories, involves multifaceted, perhaps contradictory revolutionary and even counter revolutionary actions. Most international leftists have also internalized the neo-liberal concept of western capitalist democracy which still functions within a mantle of ‘rule-of-law’ as we saw recently within the Yellow Vest movement within France. In these contexts mass civil disobedience was enough to reverse the actions of the state. But this rule of law based relationship between the masses and the state does not exist in such societies as Syria or Iraq where the oppressed must resort to extreme or alternative forms of action to generate change. Much of the Western rhetoric of the liberation of the oppressed follows the notion of appealing to the conscience of the oppressor. But again this is a privilege not afforded to most dispossessed and marginalized groups within non-western contexts.
My focus is that there should be less attention on defining appropriate responses within deeply troubling and conflicting situations facing the oppressed and that the attention and focus should always be on supporting the oppressed to achieve liberation within their means. For instance, last week’s shock announcement by Trump to leave Rojava caused Turkey to immediately announce its intention to invade and “bury” the Kurds, especially the YPG-YPJ fighters. This announcement led to much criticism towards the Kurds for coordinating and relying on the US imperialist system. Yet there was little actual analysis as to why the Kurds made the decision to engage with the US on that level. The historical context, the lack of international support from any regimes, lack of even solidarity from the Left, being landlocked by regimes and terrorist organizations deeply dedicated to the literal eradication of the Kurds, lack of weaponry and self-defense mechanism and a number of other economic, political and historical issues were all erased and glossed over as if the past has no impact on the current actions of the oppressed. As if history has no impact. As if history does not even exist. Yet for us, history lives. History breathes in the terror of the 4am knock on our doors, it lives in the heart of the parents with disappeared children, in the veins of the youth escaping to the safety of the mountains to gain the necessary education to liberate their people, it lives in the hard existential crises that the oppressed face regularly as Rojava faced only a few months ago when Turkey attacked the Afrin region with its ragtag ISIS and jihadists; it lives in the anxiety of the Kurds and our psychology, it lives in the ongoing intergenerational trauma that we carry; it lives in the graveyards that continue to grow bigger by the day only to be bombed to pieces by our oppressors. History is alive for us, and there is no escaping her wrath which continues to bring about cyclical typhoons of mass displacement, massacres, escaping bombs in the middle of the night and searching for the remains of our dead children in the rubbles of our destroyed lives.
It is quite possible to argue that the aforementioned concepts of privilege bias, the Western gaze and ‘the fetishization of struggle’ are nothing other than tools enabling further colonization of the already colonized, tools designed to colonize even thoughts and ideologies. What can be done to effectively combat this type of colonization?
I spoke of the need for the oppressed to have the courage to speak up. In Rojava, the creation of an alternative radical democratic, anarcho-feminist ideology that perhaps challenged the dominance of the Marxist-Leninist liberation model was an act of decolonization- if only the Western Left was to start viewing it as such. Not only do we have to decolonize from the impact of the Western neo-colonialists and neo-imperialists but we have the added burden of disentangling and decolonizing the international Left as well. Our consistent arguments for ending the fetishization of our struggles has been a deep act of revolutionary decolonization. It has been a demand for an alternative voice, an alternative vision of liberation based on the specific historical and ongoing oppressions that we experience. It is one in which we reject the neat compartmentalization of our lives, our histories, and our responses. It is in fact a revolution not only against western imperialist and hegemonic ideologies but also against the international left with its puritanical adherence to strict ideological praxis.
We have been speaking for years now about this alternative. We have built institutions and civil society movements around it. We have engaged in ongoing ideological education, self-criticism, self-reflection, reviewing failures and successes. The role of the international Left is to listen, ask questions and reanalyze its own foundational biases and internalized ideological prejudices. We have shown that an alternative to the Capitalism vs. Marxist model exists. We have spoken and lived and died by that ideology. And yet the Western Left remains within its bubble of privilege and continues to demand of the oppressed to reform itself, placing conditional caveats to expressions of solidarity, or rather holding solidarity hostage as a prerequisite to force us to fit within their frameworks of ideology and understanding. We have refused, consumed mostly by the ongoing existential crises that we face daily, and because the model of Democratic Confederalism has proven to work for eradicating the specific oppressions that we were facing.
The onus is now on the privileged to do the work of meeting us half way, and to understand our position, our oppression, our contexts and our liberation psychology and politics of resistance.
Aside from traditional forms of political and social analysis, you also tend to use political poetry that expresses anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist attitudes, advocates for gender equality, condemns xenophobia, educates on the Kurdish struggle etc. Is there any special reason why you specifically chose poetry to convey such ideas?
Poetry was a medium that came to me suddenly and expectantly. It was the natural stage of development in my writing and in learning to speak up and about the taboo issues and topics that we face as either Kurdish women, or as the oppressed.
I always found a natural home in reading the works of Eduardo Galeano, Paulo Freire, Audre Lord, Cesaire among others and seeing the beautiful, lyrical styles of writing with their use of poetry and prose as a means of better expressing their revolutionary thoughts had a deep impact on me. I never set out to consciously write poetry. It was a gift that naturally emerged as I embraced the power of my pen and voice. It has been deeply therapeutic in breaking internal barriers of self-doubt and anxiety in speaking and challenging established norms. For instance, The Girl with the Unpronounceable Name is a love letter to myself in my struggle of duel identity of a Kurdish woman living in the West and struggling to keep her difficultly pronounced name and hence identity or resisting the pressure and finding self-love and liberation in my difficult name and identity. The poem Terrors of Your Mind was my way of expressing my depression and anxiety, especially as a woman within a deeply oppressed community where mental illness is still so very taboo for us.
So poetry was another way in which I found I could organize my feelings of hope, anger, rage, hopelessness, love and solidarity. I found that poetry also resonated with a different audience or encouraged a different way of looking at the Kurdish issue or oppression from the standardized form of academic writing. Poetry is by nature a subversive and revolutionary medium. It challenges and reformulates established academic and formal writing norms.
But most importantly, poetry is for me, it is an act of radical self-care. It is my way of sorting out my internal conflicts and feelings. My poetry is self-reflective journaling. I never write with a specific audience in mind, nor do I actively try to write poetry. I feel that to actively write poetry is to lose the organic expressive power of words and emotions that emerge within my poetry. I let my feelings of anger, sadness and rage over injustices be the inspiration that guide my pen across the page.
What is also interesting is that in your writing you do not shy away from criticizing solidarity movements and ‘allies’ to the oppressed. Specifically, you refer to the often present blindness towards the existing unbalanced power dynamics between the mostly privileged allies and the marginalized. In which way does uncritically operating within the framework of said dynamics influence (de)marginalization and the struggle against oppression? How to form a productive alliance?
The issue of appropriate solidarity is very crucial to the survival of revolutionary movements and liberation of struggling peoples. The representation of appropriate solidarity can amplify and resonate issues across the world in mere minutes. For instance, the level of support for the Palestinian cause has reached an incredibly high level, where every illegal action and violence imposed by the Israeli government goes viral within minutes thanks to the power of social media used by allies and solidarity groups. As Kurds despite the long history of vast and unimaginable oppression experienced by us, our cause has only really reached a global audience in the past four years as a result of the historical fight against ISIS in Kobane city. The Kurdish issue, its complex historical and political context relative to the Israel vs. Palestine issue makes solidarity with the Kurdish issue one that is not so simple. From accusations to being imperialist puppets, to lack of unity across the four regions, to the contrasting ideological visions within the Barzani image of Kurdistan to that of the Abdullah Öcalan idea of Democratic Confederalism. However, no one said that solidarity with the deeply oppressed and marginalized is an easy task. The onus is on the solidarity groups and allies to do the necessary work of learning and unlearning required to provide appropriate solidarity and support.
Of course, the Kurds have internalized a deep fear of silencing and erasure that has been the norm for our cause to date so we often see any form of solidarity as a good thing. We have yet to reach a point where we can be critical of the type of solidarity we receive, or criticize actions that may not be serving our cause as Kurds. The predominant idea that any solidarity and attention is better than nothing prevails. This mentality has led to problematic representations of solidarity that, in my view, contributes to the added burden of activists correcting and educating outsiders. Solidarity should not come at the cost of silencing internal voices, especially the voices of Kurdish women. Appropriate solidarity amplifies Kurdish voices, creates platforms for it, hands the microphone over to it, steps back and listens to it, engages in constant critical self-reflection. Solidarity is not about the activist providing solidarity, not about how he sees the issues faced by the Kurds, not how he interprets and analyzes the oppressions he has never personally experienced. Appropriate solidarity defends the oppressed against the ignorance of outsiders and takes on the education burden, but it also knows when to be silent, listen and learn when insider activists speak.
Productive solidarity is informed solidarity. It is a solidarity that is aware of historical contexts and oppressions. It is one that is self-educating and self-critical. It is one that intimately aware of power structures and balances particularly between allies and the Kurds. It is a bottoms up form of activism where the voices of the oppressed, those who have actually been bombed and displaced, those who have lost families and loved ones, those who are stateless and homeless lead the struggle; and the solidarity movements prop up and amplify those voices. It never speaks over, it never erases or silences. It always emerges from a place of deep love and solidarity with the oppressed and therefore is never self-serving, nor can afford the luxury of ego when called out on problematic behavior.
Do you have any other message you would like to share with our readers?
Revolutions are the cry of the oppressed. But revolutions may not look neat and follow specific formulas as history has demonstrated. This does not make the resistance being presented as less revolutionary, it simply points to the existence of alternative models that could perhaps add to the existing repertoire of current forms of liberation models for the oppressed.
By that token we all have a responsibility to support such movements, to educate ourselves, challenge our internalized biases and reflect on what such alternative revolutionary movements can teach us about our own societies and how we can address oppressions within our own communities.
Additionally, Ideology matters. Ideology informs our lives, leads to the bombs that fall on us, to the destruction of our villages, the invasion of our cities and the resistance movements that it breeds in return. Ideology matters. It governs our lives from the expression of our identity, to the expression and denial of our culture, languages and colors. Ideology lives. And it is the prerogative of the oppressed to reformulate it, revise it, challenge it, dissect it and create an all new ideology that fits the contexts of their lives. This is a revolutionary act against the supremacy of Eurocentric ideological hegemony.
And so just as much as it determines our oppression, it also determines our liberation, our resistance, our hope for a different world, a more equal and just world. Perhaps these statements seem utopian and idealistic in an overtly neoliberal, nihilistic and capitalist world that no longer knows or recognizes the meaning of ethics or human rights. But if hope does not live in the heart of the revolutionary, and if she does not feed it daily, minute by minute; if the revolutionary does not water the seeds of hope in their heart than what is there to strive for?
Rojava has taught us that hope is the foundation of any revolution. That hope breeds courage, in the face of insurmountable odds. Hope waters the seeds of our revolutionary love and desire. If we have hope we are human, we live, we breathe and we can struggle another day, another moment for all that which is worth living and dying for. But this also requires informed, educated solidarity, especially from women I would emphasize towards our cause. If hope is the water that feeds the seed of revolutionary politics, than solidarity is the soil that nurtures it.