‘Science of Women’ Classes Take on the Patriarchy in Kurdish-Held Northeast Syria
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.
AL-HASAKAH, Syria—On a sweltering summer day in a military academy just outside al-Hasakah, male fighters grumbled over a mandatory class called “Jineology,” or “the science of women.” They’d already spent several days learning the basics of women’s history and mythology as well as about the damaging effects of patriarchy in their region.
All 102 assembled men were members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of militias in northeast Syria supported by the United States and led by the Kurds, a stateless people indigenous to the Middle East. The jineology class was part of an 18-week academy that would also include military training. Most of the men were Arab and came from conservative communities. The lecturer, who went by the tough-sounding name “Roken 23 Doshka,” a nod to the Soviet-era machine gun, was a woman.
As Doshka spoke to the class, some of the men nodded off. One male fighter complained that after a woman he knew had joined an all-female militia, she’d cut her hair short, which was considered shameful in the Arab community. Then Dilbrin Rumailan, a young fighter with jet-black hair and a confident manner, raised his hand to say the classes had already changed his thinking.
“Before, I didn’t agree if my sister wanted to leave the house because I saw how the girls were getting out and how they were behaving,” Rumailan said, adding that he didn’t let his wife visit her family for longer than an hour at a time. “But now, I see that even the woman has a life, an ideology, and her own independent personality. … I realize I misbehaved and offended her.”
Although not everyone has been as receptive as Rumailan to the teachings of jineology, the courses have continued to spread across the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). The self-governing, Kurdish-majority region, roughly the size of Denmark, emerged out of the chaos of the Syrian civil war. It declared itself democratic, egalitarian, and feminist, and the philosophy of jineology is core to the Kurds’ social revolution.
Jineology—whose name is a combination of “jin,” the Kurdish word for “woman,” and the Greek word “logos,” which means “word” or “reason”—is not only required learning for most of the SDF’s 100,000 members. Courses are also expanding at the college and master’s degree levels as well as in high schools for the first time this year. No one seems to know how many jineology institutes or courses exist, but it is now being taught in at least eight cities across northeast Syria, from Derik (also known as al-Malikiyah) in the north to Deir al-Zour in the south, from Kobani in the west to Qamishli in the east.
The proliferation of jineology courses comes three years after the SDF declared “total” victory over the Islamic State in Syria, with crucial battles won against the Islamist militants by the all-female militia, the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), which is part of the SDF.
That victory gave the Kurdish-led forces undisputed control over northeast Syria, but it also meant the decline of support from international allies who no longer needed their help in fighting the Islamic State. That change has made AANES far more vulnerable to longtime, outsized enemies, such as Turkey, which the Kurds have been at war with for decades and whose drone strikes on military targets in AANES are an ongoing problem. In late May, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened a new military incursion into northeast Syria.
Despite its shaky future, the Kurds have continued their efforts to transform patriarchal attitudes in the region. The area has long been governed by honor-based tribal and religious codes that have allowed for forced and child marriages, domestic and sexual violence, polygamy, and other harmful practices.
To combat these customs, the Kurds’ ideological leader, Abdullah Ocalan—who famously said, “A country can’t be free unless the women are free”—has been a prominent advocate for the teachings of jineology. Cynics point out that radical gender equality has also meant doubling the recruitment potential for Kurdish-led militias; the YPJ is currently 5,000 women strong, according to SDF commander Newroz Ahmed. Kurdish military forces have also included minors in their ranks: A United Nations report last year found the recruitment and/or use of 119 minors in the Kurdish-led forces in the span of roughly a year. (Ahmed said many girls “come to us and say they want to join, and we refuse them.”)
Safaa Noori, a 35-year-old YPJ fighter with long black hair tied back in a messy braid, said she joined the YPJ in 2019 after hearing about its fight for women’s rights, a radical notion to her at the time. She said she was married off at age 13 to a man 30 years her senior with multiple wives, who locked her in their mud house whenever he left home and beat her when she didn’t prepare meals adequately. “Because I was only 13, I couldn’t even cook an egg for him,” Noori said. “All the neighbors would hear me screaming.”
The marriage only lasted two years before she fled home to live with her family in Deir al-Zour; they were later displaced to al-Hasakah. Since joining the militia in 2019, Noori has studied jineology in two training sessions. She learned that many early cultures were matriarchal until about 5,000 years ago, when power shifted into men’s hands (an idea many Western historians contest). “But the most important thing I learned in jineology is how to get rid of the masculine mentality, which has been planted in [men’s] mind[s] by the Ba’ath Party,” Noori said, citing the party of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Although the AANES banned child marriage after taking control of the region, Noori said the practice remains prevalent in her village, where “a woman is still prevented from going to school; she has no character and cannot even express herself.” But seeing women bear arms has slowly begun to change attitudes, as have the foundational ideas of jineology, she said.
Not all students of jineology in northeast Syria are militia members. Roz Abdulbaki Ali, a 22-year-old college graduate in a hot pink blouse with a soft, insistent voice who studied jineology at the University of Rojava in Qamishli, said the course began with philosophy and history. She learned “how to recognize and rely on myself as a woman,” she said, and how women have been treated by different religions, including negative depictions of women in the Quran, the Torah, and the Bible.
But then, the jineology classes did something new: They taught Ali and the other students physical self-defense, including boxing and knife-wielding, and gave them weapons training, including several days of shooting lessons with live bullets in a nearby village.
“We are doing this because we are in a war zone, and we don’t know when there will be fighting,” Ali said. But the change also raises questions about whether the YPJ plans to use jineology courses as a recruiting tool, which would become more urgent if the Turkish incursion happens.
Ali said she is not planning to become a fighter unless needed. Instead, she plans to get a master’s degree in jineology so she can teach the subject to others. She once dreamed of getting married but said it’s no longer her focus. “After studying jineology, my dreams are no longer related to marriage, the house, and the man,” she said.
The course didn’t have the same impact on her classmates, many of whom Ali said dropped out to get married or were wed immediately after graduation due to parental pressure. Newroz Sabah Sheikmus, a professor of jineology at the University of Rojava, confirmed dropouts are an ongoing problem: “The parents don’t want their daughters to study this kind of [women’s] science,” Sheikmus said. Last year, four of Sheikmus’s 15 female students didn’t complete the course.
But jineology is now being taught at a younger age—to boys—and it’s compulsory. Zachariah Ahmad Haider, an 18-year-old student at the all-boys Arabstan high school in Qamishli, is taking jineology this year along with physics, chemistry, and English. He’s part of the first crop of high school students in northeast Syria to do so. Haider said not all of his friends were thrilled to have to study women.
“Some of the fellow students say, ‘Why don’t they read about us when we have to read about them?’” Haidar said, who paused often to think before speaking. “But I don’t agree with my friends because without women, there is no life. They are the ones that give birth and build society. Or that is what I’ve been taught in school.”
Additional reporting was conducted by Solin Muhammed Amin and Obeid Sheikhi.