‘The Daughters of Kobani’: A chronicle of the women who fought ISIS

Kurdish female fighters of the Women's Protection Units (YPJ) take part in a military parade as they celebrate victory over the Islamic State, in Qamishli, Syria, on March 28, 2019. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon's “The Daughters of Kobani" introduces readers to the YPJ and their impact on Kurdish society after the war.

Rodi Said/Reuters/File

An American soldier who had served with U.S. Army Rangers in Afghanistan, calling from a brutal war zone, launched Gayle Tzemach Lemmon on her latest book, “The Daughters of Kobani.”

“She said, ‘You have to get here. You have to come see what’s happening.’”

Women in Syria were fighting on the front line against the Islamic State (ISIS), serving as snipers, tacticians, and battlefield commanders. Through the Syrian Kurdish Women’s Protection Units, or YPJ, they were leading both men and women into battle. Some guys didn’t love the idea – at first. But they came around. Most strikingly, says Ms. Lemmon, “was that these women truly had the respect of the men they were commanding.” 

Why We Wrote This

The Kurdish women who battled ISIS had a vision far beyond victory. By demonstrating their innate abilities, they lay the foundation for opportunity and equality for generations to come.

The women were fighting for their lives against ISIS, true, but also for their own equality: The YPJ was created in 2013 with a goal not simply of destroying a brutal terrorist organization, but of building a democratic and egalitarian society – and of defending the women of their region whenever they faced persecution.

Ms. Lemmon spoke with Monitor correspondent Anna Mulrine Grobe.

‘The Daughters of Kobani’: A chronicle of the women who fought ISIS

Q: Talk a bit about what these women’s lives were like before joining the YPJ.

There’s Rojda, whose uncle dressed up like a ghost to try to scare her away from playing soccer in her grandmother’s village, which he considered shameful for girls. She ended up commanding 4,000 soldiers – Arab and Kurdish, men and women – as the commander of the western front line in Raqqa [the capital of ISIS’s self-described caliphate in Syria].

Znarin is another amazing example, a decidedly naive entrant into militia life. She grew up in a conservative family – she’d never before heard the phrase “women’s rights” – but she wanted to go to university and dreamed of being a doctor. When she was 17, her father told her that he didn’t mind her getting an education, but his older brother did. He said, “Your uncle says that’s not for the women in our family.” A couple of years later, she fell in love, but her father comes to her again and says, “I’m sorry, your uncle has already picked out someone for you.” She refused.

She thought, “If I can’t marry the person I love, I’m never going to marry” – which is a huge act of defiance in a traditional society. For her, it was all about choice and dignity.

She goes from being part of a political movement focused on women’s equality to playing this role in the liberation of her hometown from ISIS, and having girls come up to her and see her as a role model. It’s a universal story for so many women – of turning a no into a yes, and rewriting the rules of a life that you didn’t play a part in writing.

Q: Their political inspiration is Abdullah Öcalan, who has been in a Turkish jail since 1999 for fomenting a Kurdish separatist movement. How is he an inspiration to the female fighters, and how is women’s equality central to his teachings? Also, how does a Vermont socialist come to play a role in all this? 

Here is this man, Öcalan, who, for the Syrian Kurds, lives in the public imagination somewhere between Nelson Mandela and George Washington. He came from a poor family of farmers with seven children, including a beloved sister who was married off for some money and several sacks of wheat.

It was central to his teachings that Kurdish society couldn’t be free until women were free. So women’s equality wasn’t on the periphery, as happens so often in politics. In this case, the notion that women should have full and equal rights was at the core of his ideology 

So you have a Kurdish liberation movement leader – Öcalan – who, sitting in prison, reads a former communist turned anarchist turned social ecologist living in Vermont – Murray Bookchin, [who advocated for equality between men and women]. These ideas converge with women at the center in a sliver of land in Syria recognized by no one outside its borders – but catapulted onto the global stage by the United States – because they offer the world’s best hope of stopping ISIS. 

Q: For them it really was an existential battle. If they didn’t win, their lives – literally and metaphorically – would be taken from them. In the midst of battle, they hear ISIS fighters saying over the radio, “Women, surrender,” and another telling a female commander, “I’m going to behead you, Azeema.” In spite of their fear, you write that you’d never seen women more comfortable with power and less apologetic about running things. 

I have thought a lot about the why behind this. They tested themselves, day in and day out, against one of the most brutal fighting forces the world has ever seen. They couldn’t separate the political piece from the fighting; without the military victories, the political experiment could not take hold. They believed – as one fighter put it – that “if we can lead in battle, we can govern in peace and no one can question that.” To win means living in a world where you [don’t] have to survive under the horrors of ISIS and their political structure. And it would also mean showing girls and women around the world what women can do. 

Q: And the YPJ soldiers were closely watched on the world stage. The wives and partners of U.S. special operations teams on the ground in Syria followed their battles on social media, right?

So many people spoke with me about this, because they were so deeply moved by the courage and the heart of these women, including the U.S. special operations forces. One of them said, “At the beginning, I wasn’t sure what it would be like working with them. But their warrior ethos is the same – we kind of want our daughters to be like them.”

It was new for the special operations teams that their families would be following their work in real time and rooting for them. Some of their partners went on social media to learn more about Rojda and the others, and started following them on Twitter and Facebook.

Their families were very much like the American public, watching this David versus Goliath story play out – except that David was a woman. 

Currently an adjunct senior fellow for women and foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon arrives at the International Women’s Media Foundation’s 2013 Courage in Journalism Awards at The Beverly Hills Hotel on Oct. 29, 2013, in Beverly Hills, California.
Paul A. Hebert/Invision/AP/File

Q: How did this change the way the men in the region – and within their own families – saw women?

It’s much harder to say women aren’t equal, or women don’t merit equal rights, when you’re watching them put their lives on the line every single day for you. And that camaraderie, respect, and courage on the battlefield is what enabled more of this notion of equality to take hold.

To watch your family members protect your people from the existential threat of the Islamic State, it really makes you question all the limits that have been placed on women’s lives, because you can see for yourself how much they’re capable of.

In the case of Znarin’s uncle [who had forbidden her from attending university], and Rojda’s uncle [who once dressed up like a ghost to keep her from playing soccer], the fact that they now ask their nieces for advice about family and real estate matters – and that they call them friends – says everything. 

Q: You grapple with some questions in your book, like “Does it take violence to stop violence against women? Will real equality be possible only when women take up arms?” What conclusions did you come to about this?

I want readers to contend with these questions. I don’t want to give the answers, because I really hope that they’ll embrace the complexity.