In 2016, my phone rang just as I walked into the courtyard of my children’s preschool to pick them up. Seeing the WhatsApp number flash across my screen, I knew immediately it was a call from a soldier I knew who was stationed in Syria. I ducked into the shrubbery next to the playground to keep my children from seeing me in the afternoon sun.
“Gayle!” came the voice of an American Army special operations soldier I knew well from reporting on the all-women’s Army special operations team of which she was a part. She told me I had to come to Syria to meet the Kurdish women she was working with—women who were taking the lead in the fight against the men of the Islamic State. She told me she had never before seen female commanders who led both men and women in battle, and that these women’s role was even more stunning because they weren’t just fighting against terrorists—they were battling for women’s equality.
Her call raised all kinds of questions: Did it take violence to stop violence against women? What did it look like when women went to war and won? And how had ISIS fighters, who brutalized and enslaved women, somehow inadvertently catapulted onto the global stage these women who put equality and emancipation right smack in the center of their ideology? It all seemed too unlikely to believe.
The story was complicated even further by the fact that the political moment to which these Syrian Kurds belonged was an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which the U.S. State Department had listed as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997. Their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who was jailed in a Turkish prison, had come to espouse women’s rights and women’s emancipation, and to argue that the Kurds could not be free until women were. Now, his ideas were being put into place by fighters as they brought the battle to ISIS each day supported from the air by the U.S., who saw them as their best shot at winning the fight against ISIS without putting American forces on the ground.
It took 18 months, but I eventually made it to Syria to meet the members of this all-women’s force. In August 2017, after spending a night stewing in a whole lot of my own sweat in the 100-plus degree summer heat—as the only woman in the Syrian Democratic Forces media guest house that evening—I saw for myself what these women went house rooting out the men of ISIS.
The thing that struck me most was that the women soldiers, who took us to the frontline—Raqqa, the city ISIS called its “capital”— that summer afternoon of 2017, treated it like a regular day at work. And that is because, for them, it was. I was scared just to cross a bridge in the eerie silence of active war, still a half mile from the front, and the women acted as though they were commuting in the irritating haze of rush hour traffic. Afterward, I sat drinking tea, surrounded by a small group of the women fighting in Raqqa in smiley-faced socks, hiking boots, and fatigues, wearing braids that fell down over their camouflage, their AK-47s, usually on their shoulders, standing at attention by the door.
These women faced off against ISIS fighters every single day and had for years. They talked about them with a connectedness, a hard-won familiarity, that shocked me; I was used to seeing ISIS as an abstraction, men on videos terrifying the world. For these women, ISIS was the guy in the next room trying to kill them, plain and simple. Their job was to kill them first. Fighting ISIS now was their cause, and women’s equality and the fight for emancipation played a huge role in pushing them to risk their lives each day.
I felt drawn to share with readers just how this had come to be, in all its complexity, even while I tried to figure out how I was going to manage to report the story. When you try to tell a story like this, the first thing you think about is the responsibility to get it right. Later, you come to the logistics: Who do you work with? How do you get there? What visas do you need? Where do you stay?
The “getting there” was really complicated in early 2018 when I went to work on the book in earnest. Normally you fly to Erbil, a welcoming town in northern Iraq with an old city holding a great deal of history, a significant U.S. military and diplomatic presence, and a comfortable airport where you can get fresh pizza and good Internet so long as you buy a cup of coffee. Then you drive six or so hours the next morning to the Syrian border and cross either by boat or by van alongside moms and dads carrying hulking packages of clothes, toys, furniture and sometimes TVs to and fro between the two borders.
But when I started my reporting, you needed a visa to fly to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad and then you had to figure out how to fly from Baghdad to Erbil. There was no buying a ticket on the Internet. Getting the visa involved baked goods, called-in favors, and incredibly generous people willing to vouch for me. Similarly, securing the plane ticket involved kind Iraqis spending hours on the phone with the local airline for me.
Going to Iraq was also a big deal for me personally. My family was forced to leave Iraq seven decades earlier because they were from the wrong religion in the eyes of those who ruled at the time. No one from my family had gone back to the country since, and my father talked to me about it only very rarely, in shards of half-shared memories about the food, the friends, the neighborhoods, and the smells he would never encounter again. I felt a jangle of nerves just walking up to the customs window.
The officer, looking debonair in his uniform, looked at my passport and at me, up and back, three times. My stomach bristled as I nervously filled in the silence. I told him my father had been born in Iraq. He raised his eyebrows, “Why don’t you get an Iraqi passport then? You are a citizen if your dad is from here. You could come here without needing a visa.” I laughed. It was definitely a warmer reception than I had expected.
I landed in Erbil in the middle of the night and so launched my second trip to Syria on the way to bringing The Daughters of Kobani to life. That next night, as I watched How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days on Saudi satellite TV in northern Iraq, I tried to imagine what lay before me as I embarked on this reporting journey. Every great story starts with an unanswerable question and I knew, immediately and in my gut, that this was one. How did this most far-reaching experiment in women’s equality come to be on the ashes of the ISIS fight?
Beyond whatever was happening in northeastern Syria, what these women were doing mattered far beyond this fight. They were focused on war only as a means to achieving a political end: A world in which Kurds governed themselves, practiced eco-conscious grassroots participatory democracy focused on sharing of resources, and kept women’s equality at the center of all their work. That’s why every town they controlled had a woman and a man as co-head, as well as a women’s council.
I set out to tell the story and met women more comfortable with power and less apologetic about leading than women I have seen anywhere in the world. They played a key role in ending ISIS’s territorial grip on their country, and they carried that swagger and that sense of self with them. They weren’t focused on how men felt about what they were doing; they were focused on making gains that lasted.
We have never seen stories of women as universal. A story with more than one female character gets labeled a “women’s story” and immediately becomes relevant to only half the population. We must change that. When I asked Rojda, one of the commanders who worked with U.S. special operations to push ISIS out of Raqqa, why they started the all-women unit in 2013 if they already had full equality as a result of their ideology and already fought alongside men while they battled to defend their towns, she told me, “We just didn’t want men taking credit for our work.” If ever there was a universal theme, that is it.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Ashley’s War and The Dressmaker of Khair Khana and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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