Here, I discuss how claims of Kurdish marginality inform the dominant discourse in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and who benefits from this framing.
Feminist standpoint theory privileges marginalised voices as epistemologically advantageous as ‘outsiders from within’ (Hill-Collins 1986). Within the AANES, competing claims of marginality beg the question: Who gets to speak from the margin? How do experiences of subordination lend legitimacy to political projects? What are material consequences of such a discourse? I argue that in the case of the Kurdish-led AANES, a self-understanding by those in power of being marginalised informs practices and institutions thereby (re)producing power relations that result in new inequalities and exclusion.
Much of the existing literature praises the AANES as a non-hegemonic, non-statist radical democratic experiment and a solution to inequality and conflict beyond the Middle East (Burç 2020; Dirik 2018, 2022; Graeber 2020). In this understanding, Kurds are located at the margins of an international system, from which Kurdish identity emerged under conditions of colonial domination by bordering nation states who mark them as Other. Contrary to their neighbours, Kurdish identity or culture is presumed to be inherently egalitarian and more conducive to women’s liberation. I will explore how this understanding of Kurdishness gives way to a claim of exceptionality which informs the AANES’ institutions and practices.
My findings from six months of ethnographic fieldwork consisting of in-depth interviews and participant observation suggest that a sense of moral superiority informs the AANES’ gender discourse: Kurdish interlocutors implied that their struggle resulted in Kurdish women having more rights than Arab women, who unlike them, have not developed a “fighter personality”. The Kurdish experience is presented as different both from “Capitalist Modernity” and from a backward Islam that is oppressive to women. The material effects of this framework in which (Kurdish) women become the markers of cultural difference are the exclusion of those, mostly Arabs, who as a “culture” are considered to cling to patriarchal customs and traditions.
Recognising that privilege and subordination are not mutually exclusive, I hold that those who embody the AANES’ gender discourse enjoy certain social privileges over others despite having previously experienced or still experiencing subordination based on other aspects of their identity (gender, ethnicity, statelessness). Reassessing the claim of Kurdish marginality in the case of the AANES, I argue that practices and institutions informed by a sense of exceptionality potentially (re)inscribe racialised-sexual boundaries.