Syrian women, many of them Christian, were a crucial part of defeating the Islamic State terrorist group. Yet, their stories of heroism, bravery, and resilience have largely remained untold until now.
The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage, and Justice, a new book from Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Ashley's War, documents how an all-female Kurdish militia known as the Kurdish Women's Protection Units fought alongside their male counterparts in northeastern Syria, defeating one of history’s most violent terrorist groups and risking their lives for women's equality and political rights.
“The Daughters of Kobani is about how the world's most far-reaching experiment on women's equality is taking place right on the ashes of the ISIS fight, created by women who fought room by room and house by house and town by town so that the men of the Islamic State would not be allowed to bring their values to anyone else's communities,” Lemmon told The Christian Post.
“I love to see stories that really challenge us, to see the resilience and the strength and courage of the women all around us,” she continued. “So many of us have daughters or mothers or sisters whose courage isn't always recognized. Seeing women who rewrote the rules governing their lives and created a whole different reality for girls coming after them is just so inspiring.”
To bring her book to life, Lemmon spent hours on the ground in Syria, interviewing young women fighting on the front lines. She was struck, she said, not only by their courage in the face of incredible odds, but how deeply respected they were by U.S. forces.
“These women were instrumental to the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces that defeated ISIS,” she said. “They had true respect for the will that these women brought to the fight.”
Lemmon revealed that many of the women she interviewed grew up in situations where they had very few rights — let alone permission to fight against men.
“These women truly rewrote the rules governing their lives, revealing that women can do anything when they put their minds to it,” she said. “These women were fighting for the ability to name their babies what they wanted, to celebrate holidays, and to celebrate faith, safe and unhindered. Faith, and being part of a cause greater than yourself, can produce a fearlessness that changes the world.”
For ISIS, the buying and selling of women is “at the center of its ideology,” Lemmon stressed. Yet, they were defeated by these largely underestimated women who had “emancipation and a desire for equality at the center of their ideology.”
It’s a story, she said, of “David and Goliath — only, David was a woman.”
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
CP: Tell us about The Daughters of Kobani. How did you first hear about them? And what made you want to tell their story?
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: One of the soldiers from a book I've written called Ashley's War called me and said, “You have to come see this.” At the time, she was a soldier with a special operations unit that was working with these women who were fighting ISIS on the front lines and commanding men and women in battle.
She said, “It's just extraordinary. Their will to win and the faith they have that what they're doing matters is something you have to see for yourself.”
In this book, you will meet four women whose lives were changed and who changed the lives of the Americans they worked with while fighting to stop the Islamic State.
CP: You share some incredible and compelling stories in this book. As you conducted your research, were there any stories that especially stuck out to you?
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: I’ll never forget my interview with one young woman who comes from the Christian community. We spent an afternoon unannounced with her, and she told me the story about how ISIS had kidnapped Christians from the Khabur River Valley. She was so motivated to stop what she was doing and defend her neighborhood, so she joined the Christian Women's Protection Force.
The reaction from her family was not thrilled, but then her parents went to church and people would come up to them and say how proud they were of their daughter who was protecting their neighborhood. I think her parents really came around by seeing how important it was for people in their community that a young woman from their community was defending them.
CP: The idea of an all-women fighting force in Syria is extremely counter-cultural because this is not a region where women have many rights or much visibility.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: Exactly. I come from a cultural tradition myself where the notion of women's equality is a bit confounding. So when I heard that there were women who were both fighting against ISIS and for women's equality, emancipation and political rights, I thought, “This is a story we have to know.”
CP: It seems that in the West, there’s sometimes a bit of apathy surrounding these kinds of stories. Why should we care?
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: I would say there are two reasons. First of all, these are women who are living on the frontlines of the fight against extremism and ISIS so that the United States is safe. The Islamic State doesn't have any kind of physical territory from which it can plan attacks. These are women who are keeping not just their community safe, but the world safe, including the United States, by fighting the men of the Islamic State from the front and keeping the pressure on them.
The second reason is, I think we're in this moment when so many women really want to hear stories of women's persistence, resilience, courage and strength. These women truly believe that their work was to show the value of women's lives, not just in their community, but in their region and well beyond.
This book is about women rising to the moment in support of their communities, their nations, and people all around the world who are fighting for a safer future in which everyone has the right to exercise their God-given talent.