So much of the news from Syria consists of sad stories of chaos, of brutality, of war. But a new book — while a story about Syria and about war — brings us a refreshing story of hope, of female courage, and of heroes.
The new book The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage, and Justice is about an all-women militia facing off against ISIS. It’s about a group of women deciding go up against a group that raped and enslaved women.
Author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Ashley’s War, spoke with NPR about her new book — a story about a fight for women’s equality.
On how she was drawn into the story
My phone rang and a soldier who was in my previous book, Ashley’s War — about an all-women, special-operations team called me and she said, ‘Gayle, you have to come to Syria. You have to see what’s happening here. There are women who are leading the fight against ISIS. They’re leading men in battle. They have enormous respect from U.S. forces and they’re leading the fight to stop the men who bought and sold women. And they’re not just fighting for the military side. They’re also fighting for women’s equality.’
On what the title means
So Kobani is this small town in northeastern Syria that few outside Syria had heard of. And it got thrust onto the global stage by the men of the Islamic State who think they’re going to just overrun this town and have yet another battlefield victory — because this is 2014 and they haven’t had one loss. And there comes this David and Goliath story that starts to take hold of people’s imaginations about this Syrian Kurdish force helped by a few other folks, including Iraqi Kurdish forces, who decide that they’re going to fight to the death to stop the Islamic State — and women play a central role in that battle. It almost becomes a David versus Goliath. Only David is a woman.
On how the family of one main character dealt with her desire to fight ISIS
Well, I think so many listeners will know there are oftentimes that young women run into roadblocks in their families. And hers had been, I think, more significant than most. She had wanted to continue university study. Her uncle said [she] couldn’t do that. She had wanted to marry the person she loved and she couldn’t do that. And so then she gets drawn into this world where women are really battling for their rights. And that fight merges with the fight against the Islamic State. And she transforms, I think, as we see her, as readers, in the story, from this assistant who’s driving a vehicle is providing ammunition when they had it, which wasn’t very often, to leading men and women in battle against ISIS. And I think, you know, so many women have had their own journey of going from people, telling, you no to creating your own yes. And I think that’s what she does.
On how they decided to start fighting against ISIS
So the men of ISIS, the men who bought and sold women as a central part of what they did and who they were, you know, come to your neighborhood. And so many of these women had signed up — well before there was an ISIS — to simply defend their own towns, their own houses, their own neighborhoods in the chaos of the Syrian civil war. And then that starts to all morph with the fight against the Islamic State. And, you know, many of them said you have a choice of either becoming someone’s property or being forced into marriage or taking the fight to these men. And I think at a moment when so many women are rewriting the rules that govern their lives, this was exactly what these women did.
On whether the women wanted to tell their story
No one thought they had done anything exceptional and they would joke with me [asking]: ‘Gail, when are you done? You know, how many times are you going to come see us? When is this book actually coming out?’ And I had one moment that I knew it was a book … when I asked Rojda, who was one of the commanders, ‘Why did you form these womens protection units?’ And she looked at me and she said, ‘Well, one, we were never going to let ISIS stand, you know, what they were doing to women and two, we just didn’t want men taking credit for our work.’ And I thought, well, that’s how you have a universal story.
On the women having a sense of deep satisfaction at being these female warriors who helped to defeat ISIS
Yet there’s a moment where they’re running in Kobani in this battle, which is the first time ISIS faces real defeat. They are running low on ammunition. They’re running low on people. They’re running low on food. But what they have is spirit and motivation. And actually, one of the women commanders now is saying: ‘Know what they think of you, show them what you can do, show them that women have value, that women cannot be enslaved, that this is not what is going to stand.’ And I think that sense that they were not doing this simply for themselves, but for women around the across the region and beyond, ran through everything they said to me.
On what they are doing now
I think that, you know, what’s amazing to see is that … all these people we get to know, the daughters of Kobani, they all take their journeys in their families. So one of their uncles, Rosja, when she was a girl, her uncle dressed up as a ghost to keep her from playing soccer with her cousin because girls couldn’t play soccer without bringing shame on their family. Now, that same uncle calls her and asks her for advice and ask her for help settling disputes in the family. And so I think that whole idea of — if you could see it, you can be it, right, this whole idea of women leading, has really infused the area. It’s obviously a work in progress and not perfect, but it really does look different than anything I have seen and I’ve had the privilege of being in many places around the world.