In February 2021, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s groundbreaking book, The Daughters of Kobani, became available. This is an important book telling the story of the women of the Kurdish Militia, an all-female fighting force (the YPJ) that pushed back and took revenge on the men of ISIS to free Kobani and other Kurdish towns in northeastern Syria. They faced long odds and opposition from their families, the oppressive regime in their native Syria, and hostile neighboring nations. They showed that women are not only equal to men, they are a force to be taken seriously. Lemmon spent hundreds of hours on trips and interviews between 2017 and 2020. She spoke with a broad swath of militia members as well as with civilians just trying to survive in Syria and Iraq. She also talked with the American military advisors in country and with military and political functionaries in the U.S. about the challenges surrounding U.S. involvement. The U.S. was keenly aware of the dangers posed by ISIS to the region and to the world, so there was a vested interest in making this work.
This is a difficult book. It’s very graphic at times as it immerses the reader deep into the struggles of the people living in what seems like an endless warzone. As courageous and selfless as these female fighters are, they are also a reminder of what it takes in certain parts of the world just to survive. The horrors that ISIS inflicts on those it seeks to oppress show the absolute worst of humanity. ISIS removes women from participating in society at any level. To them, women and girls are not human beings. They are objects to be owned and abused merely there for the men’s amusement.
Per the story that unfolds in the book, the fight is a religious war of the deadliest variety. The Kurds and Arabs in this fight are Muslims. Although they share a baseline faith, they do not practice it the same way. They have significant cultural differences down to their languages and daily routines. The Kurds just want to be able to speak their language and live their lives. The ISIS regime wants to force everyone to comply with their oppressive worldview.
Before the formation of the YPJ, many of the women who drove its formation and success were oppressed by their families, denied their educational goals, and coerced to enter into arranged marriages. After they stood up to ISIS, most of their families were grateful to them and started to realize that women’s equality was a positive thing. While northeastern Syria is an unexpected part of the world to further women’s rights, their efforts serve as an inspiration across the Middle East and far beyond.
YPJ’s pursuit of women’s rights was a central tenet of their agenda from the start. It built upon the jailed Turkish Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan’s ideology. He held that in order for any society to be a free and democratic one, women had to be equal to men in that society. This idea was (and still is) diametrically opposed to ISIS and many of the Middle Eastern regimes though it should be common practice worldwide.
The book also covers the political climate in the U.S. and the struggle faced by those who supported helping the YPJ. In part because Turkey, a NATO ally, was opposed to the YPJ, the U.S. couldn’t directly help with troops on the ground. Instead the U.S. military provided advisors, equipment, and some air support during the heaviest fighting. Unfortunately, that support was very limited, and once the major objectives of liberating Kobani were completed, much of that support disappeared.
Even after they achieved their objectives, as they started to rebuild the newly freed areas, other villages and towns came under attack. It’s unlikely to be a truly peaceful region for some time, but the women’s force continues to grow. As more areas are freed, women are eager to help. Despite the rugged and never ending campaigns and significant personnel losses, they have hope for a better future.
Religious persecution isn’t unique to Syria or even the Middle East. This book shows how religious extremism causes undue suffering when fundamentalists garner power. This should serve as a warning not only to the Middle East but to the west as well. In the U.S. we are seeing religious extremism and the hatred that inspires threaten to undermine U.S. democracy. We are also seeing dangerous attacks on women’s rights. It’s not hard to see that Ocalan is right – when women’s rights are restricted, democracy and freedom are imperiled. We see a similar religious aspect in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Fundamentalist fervor underlies the most vicious atrocities and serves as a justification for authoritarian rule.
Given all of this, it makes the hope that the women of the YPJ hold surprising in some ways while also understandable. Without hope, existence is pretty gruesome. With it, there’s purpose and dreams are possible, and they can see the fruits of their labor unfolding in front of them every day.
Safely ensconced in a very blue state in the U.S., I’m personally about as far away from the conditions described in the book as is possible. It’s hard to imagine the day to day lives of the people in the midst of the conflicts in Syria, Ukraine, and other war torn countries. The Daughters of Kobani is not a book that I enjoyed, but it is one that I needed to read. I admire the YPJ’s character and determination as they dig deep within themselves to make their lives and the lives of their communities better. They work together knowing that as individuals many of them will not survive and doing it anyway because they can’t continue to exist under oppressive fundamentalist rule as mere chattel. They are human beings. They are women. Like all people, they yearn to be free.
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