At the end of last year, a team of academics were invited to Rojava, the Kurdish part of Northern Syria, to look at and advise the interim government there on matters such as education and health. Education academic Dr Rebecca Coles, of the University of Nottingham, has sent us this report of her visit, which shows the emphasis being put on education, even under the most dangerous and challenging conditions and how these very conditions are making it possible to try and build a new education for liberation:


Revolution in Rojava

The war being fought in Norther Syria, where the militias of the mostly Kurdish population are battling ISIS, has been in the news a lot recently. The radical transformations these people are making in the region, called Rojava, are less talked about. Since Syrian state forces were ejected from the region in July 2012, the new forces in the region have been seeking to replace a powerful state imposing “one flag, one language and one nation” with the coexistence of cross-cutting allegiances and identities. The question of the revolution, as people there call it, is “how to rule not with power but against power”. And success, they say, depends on education.

The academic delegation to the Cizire Canton of Rojava, that I was part of this December, met people of different professions who are re-learning their practice, often on a voluntary basis. Doctors are seeking not only to build a modern free healthcare system but also to collect and disseminate suppressed local knowledge about healing and change the conditions of life in general. They aim, they said, to build a way of life free of the separations - between people and between people and nature - that drive physical and mental illness. Academics want to orient education to ongoing social problems. They plan, they said, to abandon exams and destroy divides between teachers and students and between established disciplines. Since the revolution, the world has changed, they said, and new concepts and methods are needed to understand it.

Learning is immediately necessity for sustaining everyday life. Trapped between ISIS and Turkey’s embargo, in a region with little existent agricultural or industrial production (because its flat and fertile land was previously used by the Syrian state simply for the mono-cropping of wheat and the extraction of oil), Rojava’s self-organised co-ops are figuring out how to expand the farming of animals, to increase and diversify what is grown and to manufacture necessities such as flour and diesel.

There is now mass participation in structures of direct democracy which are part of a conscious effort to foster generalised political confidence. Everyone is encouraged to attend neighborhood assemblies, which deal with immediate practical problems that can be resolved locally and make demands of city-wide assemblies and the centralised administration of the whole region when they cannot. Life has changed most for women. Mixed political bodies must be 40% women and all elected and appointed co- representatives must include one woman. Women also have their own assemblies which run alongside mixed ones. Women and young people also have their own ‘academies’ and ‘houses’ where they discuss their lives and are taught, what we were told is, an alternative account of mythology, psychology, science and history.

Neighborhoods have their own local defense units but a centralised security body - the ‘Asayish’ - also exists and is another vehicle for mass adult education. Asayish training is taking place on a huge scale with the aspiration that everyone will receive it. Through education, the fighter teaching in one training centre told us, the aim is to finally abolish the Asayish altogether. The training, he told us, focusses not only on the use of weapons but also on the skills of “mediation”, on “ethics” and on the history of Kurdistan, imperialism, the psychological war waged by popular culture and the importance of education and self-critique. Such education also takes place in the militias.

In this way, education often takes place in large groups, in rows, and in situations of discipline and the transmission of pre-determinate knowledge and subjectivity. Popular education is caught between the revolution’s two needs: that the people of Rojava be intellectually emancipated, think independently and inventively and take part in the transformation of everyday life; and that people are united, coordinated and obedient enough to fight a war and build their own (non)state.

Formal education also continues. As part of the policy of avoiding outright war with the Syrian state, at least some teachers continue to receive salaries from the Syrian state. Teachers in schools are making reforms, introducing the repressed Kurdish language, for example. But they also plan to remain connected into international systems of examination so young people of the region can get qualifications. The relative priority that will be given to formal and radical popular education is a matter of walking the line between two dangers: that of the cultural isolation and poverty bought by cutting off the region from the wider world; and that of the reproduction of inequality and the state system bought about as formal education constitutes a middle class who play its games.

All this is a refreshing change from the usual situation today, in which education is the victim of spending cuts and conservative ideology. Despite pressures towards authoritarianism and class inequality, the revolution in Rojava is attempting to build a much-needed example of an education which is the agent of liberatory power.

Becky Coles