Every day, the activists from an organization called Shawishka meet in a small apartment in one of the neighbourhoods of Qamishli, a majority Kurdish city in Syria’s Hassaka Governorate, to come up with new projects to empower women.
Shawishka is less than a year old and its projects are modest, but it’s one of many local, grassroots organizations that have sprung up in Kurdish regions of Syria over the past two years. These organizations, which have flourished since the effective withdrawal of the Syrian government, are a testament to the Kurdish desire for self-determination and the relative stability on the ground here compared to other parts of Syria.
Qamishli and the surrounding area are controlled by the Popular Protection Units (known by their Kurdish acronym YPG) which are loyal to the PKK-affiliated Kurdish PYD party. These units run the police stations and oversee the functioning of most government institutions. The presence of the Syrian government forces is limited to a security building in the middle of the city and they have no authority on the ground.
On April 12, 2013, clashes broke out in Qamishli between the opposition fighters and government forces when the former attempted to take control of the airport, which is located on the outskirts of the city. But as of the writing of this report, the fighting does not appear to have had a deep impact on living conditions in the city.
Many young Kurds have taken advantage of their newfound freedom to launch civil society initiatives, many of which have begun to fill the vacuum caused by the withdrawal or weakening of many of the government’s institutions. Organizations have been formed to work on a variety of issues, from human rights to developing economic opportunities for women to protecting the environment, and even working to strengthen the Kurdish press.
Shawishka calls itself an “independent social organization” that strives to help women “socially, culturally and economically,” according to its founding mission statement. The organization is named for the goddess of love in the Kingdom of Mitanni, which ruled parts of Mesopotamia and Asia Minor from the13th to the 16th centuries B.C., and to which many Kurds trace the origin of their culture and civilization.
The Shawishka association works to provide free health care to women and empower them artistically and economically by offering workshops in sewing and embroidery, theatre, music, as well as language courses in Kurdish, French and English. The organization also offers psychological and social counselling to teenagers and organizes weekly lectures on cultural and social topics.
Sheikha Ibrahim, a Shawishka member, said that what distinguishes this association from others is its “work on the ground.”
“We are trying very hard to get rid of [empty statements] and go down to the street to provide what we can,” she said, emphasizing the group’s political independence.
The Rooni Foundation for Kurdish Women, which was founded in 2012, has also taken an active role in efforts to improve women’s lives in Qamishli.
The head of the foundation, Rajaa Rashkou, explained that Rooni means “light” in Kurdish. The body works toward the advancement of women intellectually, culturally and socially, through the establishment of social, medical and cultural seminars and lectures. It also works to improve the education of women and young people through language courses in Kurdish, English and French.
“In light of the current circumstances and psychological pressure, which affect everyone, we are working on providing psychological support to women and children,” Rashkou told The Damascus Bureau.
She went on to say that the foundation is focused on helping “marginalized groups that suffer from poverty, ignorance and injustice, as well as the simple woman who is often overlooked and among those most in need of education and awareness of her rights, as well as women who are heads of households.”
Evin Mahmoud, a member of the Centre for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria, whose headquarters is in Qamishli and operates in several areas controlled by the opposition, considers the emergence of many new associations in areas where Kurds form a majority to be a sign of a healthy society.
“[Our society has moved] out of a state of tyranny and suppression of freedoms to one of openness,” she said. “It is natural for someone to look for their place in the community.”
Due to the need to improve the Kurdish media in Syria, Kurdish reporters in Qamishli established a union for Kurdish reporters in Syria. Lawand Hussein, head of the union, says the idea of this independent institution emerged when the founders saw that Kurdish journalists lacked a professional support network. Hussein hopes that the new union will unite Kurdish media professionals, especially “in the midst of the Syrian revolution, which will turn public life upside down.”
The constraints faced by nascent civil society organizations, according to Hussein, include efforts by Kurdish political parties to impose themselves on these new bodies.
“Parties’ interventions in the affairs of civic organizations only caused them to multiply,” he said, adding that “the presence of supporters of different parties within those institutions contributed to their splintering.”
Hussein went on to say that the new, independent initiatives differ from the social organizations associated with traditional Kurdish political parties. While the Union of Kurdish Journalists includes members who are active in the Kurdish parties, they abide by a “code of honour” that obliges them to keep their politics separate from their professional work.
“Since our founding conference we decided not to join any political group in order to preserve the independence of the union,” said Hussein. “Civic organizations prove their independence by their actions.”