Knowing that there were and still are alternatives to patriarchal and capitalist domination opens up new options for political action …
by Andrea Benario, June 2018
“Countless pottery shards litter the ground. With stones carefully worked into tools and building elements, ancient clay walls testify to different eras of life. I step tentatively, because I do not want to injure the goddesses who rest here, or destroy their works … Every time I look at the gir hills or visit historic sites in Rojava, I am overwhelmed by these ambiguous feelings: an awed shudder at the great deeds that have been performed here, but also melancholy and sadness at the ignorance and plunder that these witnesses to human history saw.”
From Afrin to Dêrik, from Serê Kaniyê and Kobanê to Manbij, Raqqa and Abu Kemal, foosteps of two women’s revolutions trace the landscapes of Rojava and northern Syria. Through studies and research in various locations in northern Syria, the Jineolojî Academy is working to assemble and visualize facts and knowledge about the first women’s revolution. For these stories and histories of women, who report about exploitation-free and communal forms of society, were and continue to be denied by mainstream history writers, either ignored or dismissed as “unscientific.” But we consider knowledge and the awareness of the existence of nonstate-nonpatriarchal cultures to widen the horizon of our imagination. To bring about the women’s revolution in the 21st century, we must first challenge the patriarchal, colonialist truths and smash religious and positivist dogmas. Only in this way can we regain stolen knowledge and expropriated values, and defend and build new ones.
Know your history so you can better understand the present and shape your future …
The fourteen thousand hills that poke up from the plains of Upper Mesopotamia (1) are witnesses to nearly fourteen thousand years of human history, and also their products. These hills, called gir in Kurdish and til in Arabic, were created not by geological forces but by human labor in building settlements, by decay, and then by rebuilding on the ruins of previous settlements. Til Halaf and Girê Fexêriyê (near Serê Kaniyê), Til Hemokar (near Til Koçer), Girê Mozan (Orkêş, near Amûdê), Til Çuwêra (near Mabrûka), Girê Leylan (close to Tirbesipî), Til Birak, Til Bêder and Girê Biderî (near Hesekê), Girê Sor (in Kobanê canton), Girê Endarê and Girê Cindirêsê (in Afrin canton) are a few of the thousands of hills that are conglomerates of different eras and civilizations. Their layers testify to the creative power of women and to cycles of construction, destruction, and rebuilding. The destructive phases of this spiral have sometimes been driven by natural forces such as climate change, sandstorms, or drought, but mostly ruling powers, campaigns of conquest, and colonial occupations have driven people to abandon the settlements, or expelled them, or caused them to flee or uprooted them. But they returned to these places again and again—after decades, centuries, even millennia—and built new villages and towns on the foundations of old settlements buried under sand and soil. So the hills grew taller, layer by layer, and each civilization gave the places new names. Today some places are known by five or six different names in different languages from different eras. Their original names are mostly forgotten. Today this spiral of creative power, destruction, and revival is recurring in the context of the revolutionary construction in Rojava and the devastating reality of World War III in the Middle East,
The attacks and occupation policies of the imperial powers, of IS and the Turkish army, that began with the Iraq war, were guided not only by military force and political-economic goals. In the last 15 years, they have shaken not only the political status quo in the Middle East but also the growing social structures. At the same time, these wars are being used as propaganda campaigns with the aim of establishing “new truths.” It is a way of legitimizing hegemonic claims and destroying the historic social structures that could pose a threat to the respective power interests. The United States and Russia use this strategy to try to enforce their respective “New World Orders,” as do “Islamic State” and Erdogan’s “Neo-Ottoman Empire.” As different and contradictory as these expansion projects and their authors may seem at first glance, their aims and methods are strikingly similar. Through patriarchal violence, femicide, and cultural genocide, they aim to break the integrity of the women, individuals and societies in the Middle East, in order to exploit them in servcie of their capitalist power interests.
The cradle of humanity
To understand why in the Middle East particular women and historical-cultural values have become targets of colonial attack, we must a closer look at the “Gir” and “Til” mentioned earlier. The earliest village foundations rest at the bases of these hills along the Tigris, Xabur, Euphrates, and Awrîn rivers and their tributaries in the early Neolithic. Archaeological finds—including a variety of mother goddess sculptures, temples and symbols—show that women played a central role in the process of settlement, which was associated with the development of agriculture and livestock and the establishment of communal lifeways. The first settlements date to the 12th millennium BCE and comprised round mud houses. Common fire and storage locations in central squares indicate that work, production and consumption were organized collectively.
In addition to new modes of production and material development, a strong spiritual culture and collective values prominently marked the coexistence of the people in the region. The tradition of burying the dead under the floors of houses expressed an understanding of the unity of life and death, the soul and body, the world and the universe, nature and humanity. This understanding is also reflected in the symbolism of drawings, stone carvings, and ceramics, and in the architecture of the mud houses. The regional peoples’ strong ideological cohesion is illustrated, among other things, by the fact that each year the residents of Girê Sor (Til Ahmar) embarked on the 200 km journey to Xirabreşk (2) to participate in the central ceremonies memorializing their ancestors.(3) In the 10th millennium BCE people from the whole Euphrates region gathered for celebrations in the impressive temple complex. The huge stone monuments, whose arrangement is reminiscent of the system of the universe, are products of masterful work and collective power. We can assume that these structures were built as the result of shared conviction and appreciation, because no signs of slavery or forced labor exist from this time. This also applies to the first cities built in the 9th millennium in places such as Til Mureybet, Til Halula and Girê Sor along the Euphrates.(4)
Contrary to the widespread belief that the first cities emerged as patriarchal-hierarchical city-states among the Sumerians in Lower Mesopotamia, cities existed thousand of years earlier, in Upper Mesopotamia (5), where excavations have revealed no buildings or signs pointing to a central hierarchical governance. The cultural life in these cities—also referred to as matriarchal culture (6)—was based on communal social, economic, spiritual and cultural institutions. The Neolithic goddess temples, many of them dedicated to the goddess Ishtar-Innana, had a different structure and meaning from the ziggurats of the Sumerian priests, which were built later as prototypes of state rule. The first goddess temples were not places of accumulated power and property, but places of (re-) distribution and management of products, the cultural exchange of knowledge and education, of artistic and craft skills, of medical and technical inventions. Exchanges and trade linked the cities of Mesopotamia to a confederal network of autonomous settlements that rapidly spread spiritual, cultural and technological advances, enriching human care and life.
Images of women
In this context, in the period 6000-5300 BCE, the Halaf culture developed in northern Mesopotamia. It is named after the hill Til Halaf, located on the river Xabur, near the present city of Serê Kaniye. It is considered the “first find” for the sun-dried and fired ceramics that became known as a hallmark of Halaf culture. When the clay was fired, copper was also discovered and processed as a by-product of the firing process. Halaf ceramics consist of vessels and clay figurines in simple shapes and colors as well as a variety of artistically decorated, finely processed ceramic products. These items were not simply commodities. Events and stories painted on clay plates, pots, and tablets in red, black or white, in diverse patterns and shapes, were preserved from oblivion. Images of lions, ox horns, snakes, birds and fish as well as female figurines considered symbols of goddesses, were among the main motifs of this historiography. So was the double-ax labrys, worn in portraits of the goddess Ishtar, which in the 6th century BCE became a symbol of the Amazons in the Mediterranean and Black Sea region.
Female clay figurines, embracing their breasts with both arms, women with large bellies and thighs dating back to the Halaf period, allude to the esteem and aesthetics associated with the bodies of women. In contrast to patriarchal portrayals of women as accessories and sex objects, these female figures embody woman as an independent being, as the sacred source and energy of life and community. Fertility, mental and physical creativity formed a unity. The cylinder seals found at many Halaf sites, such as Urkesh (Girê Mozan), which were the hallmark of more complex administrative and trade structures, show that women played central roles in political and economic life. These images tell of the diverse meaning and creativity that women imparted to social life in this epoch. Significantly, these are not representations of women but embody self-portrayals by women in their own time. Pottery was woman’s art. As the Soviet archaeologist P. N. Tretyakov, among others, has noted, the shapes of the fingerprints on various products indicate that women made Neolithic pottery.(7)
Equally significant, images of the goddess Ishtar, found in various layers of the gir in many places in Mesopotamia, express different aspects of the goddess: sometimes we see her as fertility and creativity symbolizing the primeval mother, sometimes she is riding on a lion, armed with bow and arrow, a fighting authority defending her values.
Traces of women’s creativity and the accompanying profound social development, known as the “Neolithic Revolution,” traverse the entire Fertile Crescent area along the Zagros and Taurus mountains, from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. The cultures of various Mesopotamian peoples have preserved values and symbols of this women’s culture in their collective social memory. They represent a common heritage that today forms the basis of community life and the driving force of women in building Democratic Confederalism in Northern Syria.
The present is an expression of history and social memory
Knowledge and awareness of women’s history in the Middle East—as well as in other parts of the world—may seem esoteric, but this story is omnipresent. Many places in Rojava are named after women. Among the sacred sites or villages bearing women’s names are Şikefta Qîzikan (Girl’s Cave), Newala Qîzikan (Girl’s Valley), Kevirê Bûkê (Bride’s Stone), Girê Jindiresse (Spinning Woman’s Hill), Girê Selma (Selma’s Hill) and Ziyareta Porsa Xatûn (the holy grave of Porsa Xatun), to name just a few. Even if today many residents no longer know who the namesake was or what they did, many of their traditions, customs, stories and personalities reflect the values of Neolithic women’s culture and communal life: joy, pain, and necessities of life are shared with neighbors, family members, and in society. Everyone facilitates the grief and work of a family in the event of a death, and everyone provides community services to guests, the sick, and the poor in the neighborhood as a matter of course. Those who feel no responsibility and show no empathy do not enjoy a social reputation. The culture of the gift—that is, giving without expecting anything in return—and feeling joy from it is a tradition that contradicts capitalist ownership and consumerism and could be preserved today. Villages and neighborhoods in various communities celebrate weddings and traditional festivals together, like the Kurdish New Year Newroz, the Yazidi spring festival Çarşema Sor, the Assyrian spring festival Akîto, the Christian Easter, and the Islamic sacrificial feast. On these days, neighbors and acquaintances visit each other’s families and meetinghouses in their respective communities.
Tribal culture as the historical basis of Democratic Confederalism
In tribal culture and village life in northern Syria, communal values and lifeways are still alive today. Today tribal culture—to enforce the monopoly of the modern state—is often defamed as “backward” and “feudal,” but the origin of tribal structures dates back to matrilineal clans. The Kurdish word for tribe, eşîr, is interpreted as yên ku heman şîrê dayika hev vexwarine, or “those who have drunk milk from the same mother.” Mesopotamian tribal culture has its roots in the federal clans of the Hurrians, the democratic administrative structures of the Mitanni, and the multicultural and multilingual federation of the kingdoms of Komagena, which long ensured a peaceful and united for the region’s various peoples. Large tribal confederations known as “Kurdish tribes,” such as As Barazî or Millan, had as members not only Kurdish Muslim tribes but also Arab, Turkmen, Kurdish-Yazidi, and Alevi tribes; the confederations were a model of self-government based on common ethical and political values. They included local village councils, where people discussed everyday affairs and solved problems, meeting in the odayên gund, which also served as a shelter. For example, people from other communities who were threatened by blood feuds or otherwise in need of could find help and advice here. Cases that could not be resolved in the village councils were added to the agenda of the councils of elders, or şêwra eşîr û gundan. Through discussions and consultations on social issues, history, culture, and ethical values were passed from one generation to the next and common principles were developed. To solve existential problems and settle disputes, the advice of wise, older women in particular was sought. The community attached great value and respect to their understanding of justice and to their foresight stemming from life-experience.
Women and men worked together in agriculture, which was organized in the villages as a communal, collective economy, like a cooperative. Produce such as wheat, rye, lentils, caraway, and chickpeas was stored in community depots (bênder), and its distribution was also organized collectively. Always a share was set aside for poor and needy families. People from the villages of Kobanê report that until about 40 years ago, money played no significant role in their lives. Trading and sharing were part of life’s natural ethos. The appreciation of handicrafts, in whose patterns women wove their stories and desires, as well as appreciation of the earth and agricultural harvests is still reflected in various customs today. For example, with cereals, rice, lentils, chickpeas, among other foodstuffs fill glasses placed on gravesites. This tradition recalls the Neolithic belief in the unity of life and death, earth and people, and high valuation of work and its products.
About 30 years ago, with the progressive urbanization of life and the development of markets in the city centers, however, communal solidarity was increasingly. As one woman said, “When money and property entered our lives, they caused unrest and stirred up problems among the people.”(8)
Resistance of goddess culture to colonialism and wars of state civilization
Starting in the 5th millennium BCE, the hierarchically patriarchal Sumerian El Obeid colonies spread, and various colonial rulers tried to blur, expropriate, and erase the traces of goddess culture step by step. They confiscated the achievements, means of production, land, and knowledge of Neolithic society. They transformed the progress and resources created for the benefit of communities into instruments of power and enslaved their creators.
Various colonial regimes pursued this strategy of patriarchal counterrevolution. Colonialism was accompanied by uprooting, alienation and heteronomy, by cultural genocide and femicide. From the expansion of the Assyrian empire, to the campaigns of Alexander the Great, to the Hellenistic and Roman occupations, to the Sassanid and Byzantine empires, to the campaigns of the Islamic caliphates of the Omer and the Abbasids, to the European crusades and the invasion of Mongol armies, to the 300-year-long Ottoman empire, to French colonial rule, to the present war of hegemonic powers and their deputies in Syria, foreign powers endeavored to extinguish and appropriate traces of women’s history. By means of this strategy, using massacres, destruction, rape, robbery and assimilation, they intended to eradicate women’s self-awareness and firmly cement the “patriarchal truth” of women’s inferiority and dependency. By depriving women and societies of their historical memory, they would bleach out their identities.
From the nineteenth century until the Syrian war began in 2011, various research teams from hegemonic states such as Germany, France, United States, Great Britain, Italy, Russia, Japan and France carried out archeological excavations in Mesopotamia. They extracted the knowledge and wealth hidden beneath these hills and took them away to strange places. The colonial rulers used the local people as laborers and wayfinders during their expeditions and raids. The German orientalist Max Oppenheim was one of those who kidnapped the goddesses from Til Halaf and brought them into the cold museums of Europe, cynically calling the goddess his “bride.” It is still privately owned by the Oppenheim Foundation. Other pirated items are exhibited as nameless “female figurines” in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, the Louvre in Paris, and the British Museum in London. They are bereft of their names, their places of origin, and their people, who were plunged into suffering and poverty by war, looting, and exploitation.
Following upon the colonial raids by imperialist states in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Ba’athist regime brought a new wave of destruction to the values of women’s culture. By building dams near Tischrin and Tebqa, it flooded the most ancient Neolithic settlements, such as Til Mureybet, Ebu Hureyra, Til Halula, and Girê Sor. Flooding from the Assad Reservoir inundated archaeological sites and destroyed evidence for the egalitarian societies in the Neolithic, but it also wiped out the historical knowledge of the local population. Forced population shifts robbed people—especially women—of their socio-historical roots and natural lifeways. Demographic transfers and assimilation were deployed to safeguard the omnipotence of the state, Arab nationalist ideology, and patriarchal rule.
The second decade of the 21st century has seen a renewed wave of destruction, with the goal of wiping out the last remaining traces of women’s culture. Fascist-patriarchal forces such as the IS, al-Nusra, and the Turkish army specifically have chosen products and sites of Neolithic culture in the Fertile Crescent as targets for their genocide. Not by coincidence, the Al-Nusra gangs, supported by Turkey’s AKP regime, first bombarded the center of the Neolithic Til-Halaf culture in Sere Kaniyê. Nor can it be considered a coincidence that the murderous gangs of IS primarily occupied cities of the goddess culture and wanted to make them centers of their “caliphate.” These included, for example, Mosul, the city of the goddess Semiramis; Manbij, the holy city of the goddess Atargatis, and Palmyra, the World Heritage city of Queen Zenobia. The siege of Kobanê canton and the occupation of Jarabulus encompassed the geographical reach of Carchemish civilization, whose founder was the goddess Kubaba. The IS’s systematic genocide and femicide of the Yazidis in Şengal also sought to eradicate a culture of social memory that for centuries had protect its faith and its communal traditions that rested on an appreciation of nature and of people against state oppression.
Defending Afrin means defending the women’s revolution
The Turkish army’s recent attacks on the canton of Afrin, which began on January 20, 2018, and its occupation, follow the same pattern. Traces of Neolithic women’s culture, the goddess Ishtar, and the Hurrian queen Puduhepa are everywhere in Efrin’s culture, geography, and archaeological sites. They were the historical foundations of democratic self-government, the self-confidence of women, and the power of resistance to fascist occupation.
By destroying and plundering treasures of the Neolithic era, patriarchal states and fascist forces strive to demolish all evidence of the first women’s revolution in Mesopotamia and thus the roots of women’s culture and ethical-political society. These forces want to prevent the second women’s revolution, which has gained ever more social momentum in the wake of the revolution in Rojava, from arising and spreading over the earth. This was evident, again, in the Turkish army’s attacks on Afrin: it is no coincidence that the Turkish state and hegemonic powers targeted Afrin for their war of occupation, since every spot, every mountain, tells a story of women’s culture and the coexistence of diverse peoples and religious communities. On the sixth day of the attacks, the Turkish air force bombarded the Ishtar Temple in Ain Dara, deliberately smashing with World War III bombs a World Heritage Site in the cradle of humanity. The people of the region considerd the huge footprints visible on the stone floor of this 3,000-year-old temple to be a sign of the ubiquitous goddess Ishtar. Today they lie buried under the rubble of ancient ornaments, columns, and statues.
Until the day when the people at risk of physical genocide were forced to leave the city, a life of communal solidarity was firmly rooted in the culture of Afrin. In the village of Zehra, all villagers prepared their meals together and ate and spent Thursdays together. In the village of Şeytana, where women shared many stories of women’s resistance, women worked together every day in agriculture collectives. Women in the village of Ruta in Mabata Province, they said, had developed their own language, which only women understand. Asked where this language came from and why they used it, a Ruta resident responded with a self-confident smile, “So that we can protect ourselves against the power of men!”(9)
The women of Afrin have preserved the goddesses’ resistance culture under conditions of war and siege. In an ancient narrative from Sumerian mythology, the goddess Innana fiercely defended her 104 me—the achievements and values of the Neolithic Age—against the male god Enki’s attempt to expropriate and abuse them for his own power. So too did the women of Afrin, reject the Turkish occupation of their towns and villages and refuse to leave until the very end. The god Enki temporarily managed to snatch away the 104 me, but we must not forget that Innana finally managed to win back the stolen values and return them to their homeland through a relentless and determined struggle. In this sense, the women of Afrin in Şehba today continue their resistance to the Turkish occupation, and against colonial and fascist attacks, with the aim of liberating their hometowns from the occupation and returning to them.
Knowing the history of women’s revolutions and patriarchal counterrevolutions can help us think in different ways. This is the prerequisite for demolishing the patriarchal and neoliberal thought constructions that would have us believe that men are “naturally superior” and that there is no alternative to the dominant system of state and capital.
By learning from our history, reinterpreting and understanding it, we gain new horizons. Knowing that there have been and still are alternatives to patriarchal and capitalist domination opens up new policy options for shaping our present and future.
The Kongreya Star Women’s Congress has launched the Women Rise Up for Afrin international solidarity campaign, so that women all over the world can help defend and spread the second women’s revolution. It calls on women to become aware of our local and global history, to build on the knowledge and experience of communal societies, and to start creating alternatives in the here and now. At the same time, it calls on women to strengthen our self-defense and alliances against feminicide and fascism. By liberating ourselves from the omnipotence of patriarchal, colonialist truths, we will find ways to resolutely oppose imperialist war and exploitation and transform our solidarity with the women of Efrin into tangible achievements in our common fight to free Afrin from Turkish occupation and to bring to account the war criminals, the looters, and their bosses.
And one day the abducted goddesses of Mesopotamia will be freed from the cold halls of European museums and returned to the warmth of their Mother Earth. There they will become witnesses to the revolution of their descendants that they inspired.
This article originally appeared in Kurdistan Report (June 2018). Translated from German by Janet Biehl.
- Located between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, extending along the present Syrian-Turkish border; also known as Rojava (West Kurdistan).
- Göbekli Tepe, near Riha (Urfa) in North Kurdistan.
- See the work of the French archaeologist Danielle Stordeur.
- These historic sites were flooded by the construction of the Assad dams in the 1980s and ‘90s.
- Located between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in southern Iraq.
- See Heide Göttner-Abendroth, In the Beginning the Mothers.
- Elaine Morgan, The Myth of the Weak Gender (1989), p. 193.
- Report on Preliminary Findings of a Sociological Field Study on the History and Presence of Women in Rojava; presented by the Jineolojî Academy at the 1st Jineolojî Conference in Northern Syria, January 2018.