The Daughters of Kobani: Female Militia Fighting ISIS

It’s an unbelievable story, yet it’s all true. Aren’t those the best kind? It’s a David and Goliath story, but the boy and the giant, are swapped out for girls and Islamic extremists. It’s The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage, and Justice, an all-women militia facing off against ISIS, and winning. Written by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, the author of the New York Times bestsellers Ashley’s War and The Dressmaker of Khair Khana and also an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, she went to Syria and spent time with these women. We sat down with Lemmon to hear firsthand about this incredible story.

Interviewed for Risen Magazine

Risen Magazine: The Daughters of Kobani is your third book focused on reframing war stories to put women at the center … how did you first hear about what these young women were doing?

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: One of the soldiers who was in Ashley’s War, my second book, she’s a soldier with U.S. Special Operations, and she called me and said, “I’m in Syria. You have to come see what’s happening. There are women who are leading in battle, and not only are they leading in battle, but they have really the deep respect of the men in their community alongside whom they’re fighting, and of the U.S. Special Operations soldiers.”

RM: I love how your earlier book indirectly laid the foundation for you to be privy to this story… so share a little bit about your background and how it lends itself to create these amazing opportunities.

GTL: Yes absolutely. It’s a privilege to tell these stories truly, and I think two things; one is that my family comes from the region I grew up in, with my father, very much having quite a traditional mindset about the role of women and girls. And then secondly, I also grew up in a community of single moms who were very determined to give us every opportunity. And so I think I came up in a community of women underestimated from the outside, who really did everything they could to focus on the next generation. So when I come across stories, which really are very different backdrops of the same themes, women who are really rallying to give the next generation a world that looks better and brighter amid the most difficult circumstances. I am always drawn to that. And it’s, it truly is a privilege to tell the story.

Members of the Women’s Protection Units in northeast Syria in July 2018.

RM: How did these girls decide to start fighting ISIS?

GTL: When most of them took up arms, we’ll meet Azeema, Rojda and Nowruz and some of the other people, the leaders who become people we get to know in the process of the story, you know most of the women who came to these women’s protection units, they took up arms to protect their neighborhoods, their towns, their houses, really in the chaos of the Syrian civil war. I think like so many women we know, they were just simply doing what they needed to, to defend their homes. But then the civil war morphs into what becomes a hotbed for extremism and the extremists take advantage of the chaos of the Syrian civil war and they tried to bring their brand and their ideologies to what we started as simply a peaceful protest.

And then the women who are part of these units really say, “Wait a minute, we’re not letting any of this into our towns. We’re not going to have this happen. We’re going to keep extremism, we’re going to keep values that say women are worth nothing, out of our towns.” And that is when you have this showdown that forms between the men who buy and sell women of the Islamic state and the women you have women’s emancipation right at the heart of who they are, who form the resistance alongside the men that they serve with, to ISIS. And in 2014, there was so much resistance that it looks to the world like they might be able to hold out, in a very David versus Goliath kind of story in the town of Kobani at a time when ISIS has never had a battlefield loss and they ended up creating a world in which David is also a woman.

RM: It’s so amazing that you get choked up just hearing it because you can’t believe that it’s true.

GTL: I truly didn’t. In fact, the prologue of the book is me saying, “Wait a minute, what?” And really taking readers into that. Because when I first saw it, I mean, this is the prologue to the daughters of Kobani is me being on the front lines in Raqqa and needing some of these women and watch going to visit their troops, and realizing their troops were men. And I was the only one who thought there was anything remarkable about what I was witnessing.

RM: This also became more than just fighting ISIS, it shifted perspective as they indirectly were fighting tradition, oppression, rights and more… changing forever what women are “capable” of. It’s so inspiring to woman all around the world.

GTL: And this is why I could never understand why more people didn’t know this story. And it’s why it had to be a book. And so we’re sitting, I was in his room with Rojda, who actually the Americans had told me about already. She had led and been the Americans’ interlocutor for the fight to retake the capital of Raqqa. What ISIS called is capital. And even though you think about what little boys and little girls saw under ISIS rule — beheadings, maimings — honestly, you start crying when you think about it, truly. So she led the fight to take back that territory, not just for herself or for the region, but really this is from where ISIS was planning attacks against Europe, against the United States, against places all around the world. So these were women doing the fighting for us, for you, for me, for the people we know and love. And I asked her in this room in 2018, I said, “You know, why did you create all women’s units? Right? You had already had ideology, which said, the Kurds couldn’t be free until women were free. You already have been fighting in 2013 against extremists, right on the front lines, right next to men. So you already were leading in battle. Why did you need to create women’s protection units?” And she looked at me and she said two things. One is, “We can’t have a world in which men can buy and sell women and which ISIS can rule.” And secondly, “We just didn’t want men taking credit for our work. If we’re going to be out there courageous and losing our friends. We want people to know women did it.”

RM: Were the girls always open to their story being shared? Does it compromise them in anyway?

GTL: For them, this is their way of life. They already been up against. I mean, ISIS knows them. In the books you’ll see, ISIS is on the radio talking about them. With a connectivity, like we know you were going to come find, you were kind of come and enslave you and they’re so mentally tough that they just tune it out and just honestly try to defeat them, that’s all they want. And they said to me, you know, we’re not for war, we didn’t choose this, but we’re doing this for humanity.

RM: They actually worked alongside the United States to battle against ISIS, which is an additional amazing layer.

GTL: Absolutely. No, no. I mean, the Americans are the ones who told me about these women and I have to tell you, Kelli, and I hope you’ll share this with your readers. I have gotten a number of U.S. Service members, a number of folks in the Special Operations community in the U.S. have written me just in the last two or three days saying, thank you. These women are amazing. And it is high time their stories were told.

RM: The book you mentioned earlier Ashely’s War is actually in development right now to be turned into a feature film, and also heard The Daughters of Kobani has been optioned for a TV miniseries… what will your involvement be and how do you feel about the stories getting shared in yet another format that can reach so many households?

GTL: I’m so excited about it because I want everyone to know these women and I want to know their heart, their courage, their sacrifice, their humor, their friendship, their love. I want them to know who they are and all their complexity. And I want them to spend time with them because these are the women who did the fighting for us, truly, and for the world, not just for United States, but for the entire world that didn’t want to live in a world in which ISIS held territory from which it could carry out its rules, and from which it could terrorize its citizens who lived under its rule, and all of us.

RM: So what are women doing now? In my lack of knowledge, is this still going on or are they leading “normal” lives?

GTL: It’s funny because you know, so Nawruz, who’s the head of the women’s protection units. She wanted to be either a pharmacist or a lawyer. And of course ended up commanding thousands of women in this women’s protection units. And I asked her once, “Did you ever think yourself of having a different life with a family?” And she said, “I love children. Everything I do is for my nieces and nephews, so that they will have a world in which they can celebrate their holidays, they can speak their language, they can listen to their music from their culture without fear and live in freedom and peace.”

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

RM: It’s so powerful to have somebody be an example and lead the way. Gayle your career has been so amazing, was there a role model for you or what helped give you the confidence to navigate your from a little girl to where you’re at now?

GTL: I mean, truly everything came from the women in my family and the women who raised me. My mom was a single mom who worked at the telephone company during the day and sold Tupperware at night. We grew up in a community of single moms. They always called themselves the mothers’ club because they were all single moms with a daughter and they were all there for each other and truly taught us about the power of community.

And my godmother, my aunt, my mom, they sacrificed so much for us. And my mother always said, “On a scale of major world tragedies, yours is not a three. Keep going and never give up.” And really taught me that it’s not important where you started, it’s important where you land and what you drive toward. And she taught me how to go to work and to never ever give up. And I think that is the most important thing you can have is, is that imperviousness to circumstances. And so it definitely made me even more committed, I think, to telling stories of communities of women underestimated on the outside, who rise to the moment in service to a cause greater than themselves.

RM: And speaking of that, so is that kind of like a theme or a strategic collection of your writings, meaning you continue with more stories like this or does it depend on kind of what you find and if it’s inspirations elsewhere, you’ll explore that?

GTL: Honestly, I mean, I have such a privilege of being able to share these stories, but you know, I, it really is always about, for me, where do you make a difference? And Kamila from the dressmaker, her father, deeply followed their faith. And he said something that always stayed with me, which is you do as much as you can, for as many as you can, for as long as you can.

I’m so thrilled to see this story bringing readers into this world and for people to be inspired by seeing the limitlessness to what’s possible for girls, what’s possible for women, that we all need the most of the talents of all of us. And I think if there’s one thing that I am obsessed with, it’s the idea that suffocated opportunity is the enemy of global stability. We need every bit of talent available and I also want your readers to know is that, these were also daughters and sisters and friends. These were not superhuman people, but people who were pushed into extraordinary circumstances and rose to them.

RM: I know that it takes a lot of time to develop the relationships and the stories, but I can’t help but chuckle at the placement and the timing of your book coming out, because I feel like people really are evaluating their life and maybe even pivoting during quarantine on how they view their purpose. Plus many are needing to be creative with opportunities and even the ways of doing business and communicating are changing.

GTL: It’s such an excellent point. And you do never know, I mean quite honestly, you just never know when a creative project that you’ve had the privilege of working on is going to reach the world. And then you have COVID, there’s so many challenges people are facing. But I think what moves me is to see people inspired by people who are rewriting the rules governing their lives. And at a moment when we’re questioning the rules that we didn’t create, that govern our realities, especially I think for women in particular, but certainly not exclusively, right across the board we are rethinking the rules that shape our lives. And it’s a story really about nothing else, about people who said, just because something was doesn’t mean that it always must be.

The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage and Justice is published by Penguin Press and available now.

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