Fatma Emin’s life changed forever when her husband died in the Syrian war, killed by ISIS in a land mine attack.
It triggered a series of events that would bring her to Jinwar, a village built and inhabited by women – a refuge for Syrian women and their children fleeing a rigid family structure, domestic abuse and the horrors of civil war.
Jinwar means “women’s land” in the Kurdish language. The village welcomes Syrian women and children, regardless of religion, ethnicity and political views. It is a mosaic of diverse women who want to experience freedom, democracy and a new form of life.
“Jinwar is a response to every person who thinks of violating a woman’s freedom, or sees the woman as the weaker sex in the society, or that she can’t manage her life or manage her children,” Emin told CNN by phone in Arabic. “On the contrary, a woman can build her house. Here we are – we built a village not only for Kurdish women, but we have Arab, we have Yazidi and some of our foreign friends are also living with us.”
After Emin’s husband died in August 2015, the stigma of being a widow weighed heavily on her.
The 35-year-old had to fight to keep her six children – her husband’s family repeatedly took them away from her, she said. They didn’t want her to work, and demanded she give up a job she loved in Kobani’s local government to raise her daughters under the family’s supervision. She says they viewed her and her children as weak, with no man left to protect them.
“The people that I was mixing with didn’t value this and didn’t accept me as a strong or a working woman, or raising my kids after my husband’s death,” Emin said. “I worked at the (Kurdish) administration and I was good and excelling at my work.”
When she managed to get her children back with the help of a Kurdish women’s movement group, she moved to Jinwar – a village in northeast Syria built from the ground up by Kurdish women two years ago.
A refuge from war
Brown, rectangular houses constructed of handmade bricks sit on land that looks dry and parched. But on the inside, the homes are painted and decorated, showing the touches of the families who live in them. Today, Jinwar is home to 16 women and 32 children.
Men are allowed to visit during the day as long as they behave respectfully toward the women, but they can’t stay overnight. Working in shifts, the women keep track of who comes and goes from Jinwar. They only carry a weapon during night shifts for security.
Jiyan Efrin is a 30-year-old mother to two daughters and one son, who live elsewhere with their grandfather. Efrin moved to the village by herself three months ago to escape the Turkish assault on Afrin, a city in northwest Syria. She says life in Jinwar is beautiful.
“You feel like there is a normal society that you can live in,” Efrin said. “We work, we farm and get paid, too, from the village council.”
Some of the women who live there have fled displacement, rape, imprisonment and death at the hands of ISIS and other armed groups. “In the war conditions that we have been through, every woman suffered. Every woman was hurt. Every woman was lost, but Jinwar brought them together,” Emin said.
Syria’s civil war has devastated the country and wrecked its economy with intense fighting, arbitrary detainment and use of chemical weapons. It created the worst refugee crisis of the 21st century. And it continues.
Women built the village with their own hands
Two years ago, Jinwar was just an abandoned piece of land. After a year of planning by local Kurdish women’s organizations, such as Kongreya Star and The Free Women’s Foundation of Rojava, construction began in 2017.
These organizations, along with local and international groups, continue to fund Jinwar. The village officially opened on November 25, 2018.
Jinwar has a council in which women take turns each month acting as the leader of the village. The women built the village in an ecological and sustainable way using mud bricks. They built 30 houses, a store and a bakery, where they sell bread and handicrafts to each other and to neighboring villages. They also have land where they herd animals and grow crops that can be sold when they exceed their needs, says Nujin Derya, an activist in Jinwar.
The village has an alternative-medicine hospital where some women have been trained, but they still lack enough medication to open a full-fledged hospital.
The children growing up in Jinwar will be given the choice when they come of age whether they want to remain in the village or move elsewhere, Derya said.
The boys will be allowed to stay in the village because they were raised with Jinwar’s values, Derya said.
The children already go outside the village to attend secondary and high schools, as the village school offers classes only for first through sixth graders, according to Derya.
In addition, women are offered private English tutoring and will have the opportunity to continue their education as the village grows.
An unstable region
The region around the village is surrounded by endless uncertainty – Jinwar is an hour away from Qamishli, a city on the Syrian-Turkish border, and there is the risk that the village might fall under Turkish control, if they intrude.
Turkey is one of the powers in northern Syria that opposes two US-backed Kurdish groups: the Syrian Democratic Forces and People’s Protection Units, known as YPG. Turkey sees elements of these groups as linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a separatist group that Turkey considers a terrorist group.
The Turkish-Kurdish conflict is decades old. The Kurds have sought to carve out a state of their own in Kurdish-majority parts of Turkey, Syria and Iraq, which led to their political aspirations being quashed by those governments.
Turkey’s intervention poses a threat primarily to the Kurdish population, as Turkey plans to create a buffer zone of 20 miles inside Syria to fight Kurdish forces.
Another threat causing instability is ISIS. Even though the war on ISIS is over, the potential risk of sleeper cells and the state’s supporters loom over the region.
“Everyone is hoping that this will not happen, because a lot of things have been built, a lot of progress has been made and it would be kind of horrible if this would be destroyed,” Derya says.
In the case of a military attack, Kurdish forces will protect them, Derya says. Many of the women also “wanted to learn basics of self-defense with weapons in case of emergency,” she said.
In the meantime, women in the village are not spending their time worrying about politics. They are doing what they can to maintain the village and live independently in a communal place.
Challenging entrenched ideas
The women of Jinwar say they want to change the idea that women are victims of patriarchal relationships and violence. They want to establish the concept of free and independent women.
Though many parts of Syrian society are governed by patriarchal structures and rigid traditions, it’s not the case everywhere. Syrian culture consists of a diverse set of ethnicities, religions and sub-societies, ranging from conservative to moderate and liberal.
Emin, Efrin and other women say they want Jinwar to be a place that challenges conservative, patriarchal ideas.
“Jinwar is life’s spirit, nature’s spirit and a free woman’s spirit. The women here are establishing their existence in the entire society,” Emin said. “I wish that the whole world would see Jinwar the same way we see it and I wish that we build more Jinwars in every region so that no woman would be subjected to injustice.”
Some people in the area think Jinwar is like a prison, Emin said, where women are not allowed to leave and interact with men and the rest of society. But she says it is simply a peaceful village for women and their children to live in harmony.
Emin is a mother to six girls between 5 and 17 years old. She came to the village seven months ago and became the head of Jinwar’s council. She also helped organize Jinwar’s opening ceremony.
Some of her daughters attend the village primary school where children learn Kurdish, Arabic and English. Emin, who left school after grade nine, said she feels relieved to be building a life for her and her children.
“The future of my kids is also here. What I planned for them to study and how to live is getting achieved in Jinwar,” Emin said.
Regardless of the conflict with her husband’s family, Emin doesn’t forbid them from seeing the girls. She doesn’t want her daughters to grow up without ties to their family.
Emin continues to lead an independent life, despite her in-laws’ continuous disapproval of the life path that she is paving.
“Wherever I go, I keep standing on my feet and will continue my work, whether you accept me or not,” she said. “This is me, Fatma, who saw herself as strong and will never be weak.”