Women in the Women's Protection Units train
CNN  — 

In early 2016, the first time a friend told Gayle Tzemach Lemmon the story of Kurdish Women’s Projection Units in northeastern Syria – also known as the YPJ – she had two reactions. The first was fascination: How had no one else told the tale of these women, aligned with US forces (and later provided with support by the Trump administration) who were fighting the Islamic State – a group which routinely kidnapped, raped and murdered women?

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

The second reaction, when an American friend of Lemmon’s who had been working with the women’s units, urged her, “Come on, you have to see it,” was: “No.”

As Lemmon explains in the introduction to her new book, “The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage, and Justice,” she had just spent years on books about women and war in Afghanistan: “I was tired of living two lives, the one at home and the one immersed in war,” she writes. Lemmon, an adjunct senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations and a longtime journalist experienced in reporting from war zones, is the author of “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield” and “The Dressmaker of Khair Kana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe.”

But she couldn’t shake the questions she had about the women fighting in Syria. Three years of research and interviews and seven reporting trips to northeastern Syria later, Lemmon’s book chronicles some of the YPJ’s fiercest battles with the Islamic State.

Lemmon details how the force that would become the People’s Protection Units (YPG) arose in response to a crackdown against Syrian Kurds after an uprising at Qamishli in 2004. They offered coed training in ideology and tactics and became known as the YPG in 2011 at the outset of the Syrian civil war. A number of the women who became Lemmon’s central characters joined the YPG during those first years of that conflict, which ISIS exploited to sow violence and grow its ranks. In 2013, the organization’s women members formed their own group, the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ).

The Daughters of Kobani book cover

As Lemmon takes the reader along with the intrepid fighters she meets, they rescue trapped colleagues while ISIS fighters taunt them over the radio for being women. They know that those taunts, coming from ISIS, mean death, even beheading, if they are captured. They are wounded. They sustain losses, sometimes heavy ones, sometimes close friends. They kill to liberate their homeland, even though, as Syrian Kurds, they are not permitted by the Assad regime to publish in their own language or celebrate their own holidays. They do not surrender.

Women and girls in the cities they set free come out to hug them, or simply to look, marveling that they exist. In one riveting scene, American soldiers visit a school in Kobani where some of the YPJ had been pinned down. In the basement, they see graffiti scrawled on the wall. It reads: “We will fight to the last person.”

“Daughters of Kobani” is a war story for the 21st century, unflinching in its depictions of the violence and kinship that shape the lives of soldiers like Nowruz, Rojda, Azeema and Znarin, who serve and lead on the front lines to liberate the cities of Kobani, Manbij and Raqqa between 2015 and 2017.

Freedom to risk their lives to fight ISIS was a radical change from the lack of freedom many of these women faced in their younger years. Azeema, seeing what things were like for most women around her, had vowed at 13 never to marry; she becomes a sniper and commander in Kobani. Znarin had been denied both a university education and a love marriage she desperately desired before her political awakening sent her off to war; she is later one of a half dozen or so field commanders of hundreds of fighters in Manbij. Of the latter, Lemmon writes, “While the world considered ISIS a movement, Znarin saw it as far less grand than that: for her, ISIS was a group of men who brutalized women and wanted to destroy her and her friends.”

Women of YPJ gather to mark the end of the fight against ISIS in Raqqa.

These women and their comrades are instrumental to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces that ultimately defeat the Islamic State, but since that liberation, they have been thrust into danger again, facing military incursion from Turkey without US support.

While not aligned with the Turkish Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which Turkey, the US and the EU consider a terrorist organization, the YPJ and other Syrian Kurds follow the teachings of the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan, about grassroots democracy and gender equality.

Their Kurdish identities and association with Ocalan place the women of the YPJ, their families and their comrades in an uncertain position militarily and diplomatically against Turkey and in their relations with the US. As Lemmon puts it in her book, “The future of northeastern Syria remains a question written in invisible ink in a language no one can yet decipher.”

When we spoke, Lemmon told me that for now, the women she came to know while reporting her book are living with “a fragile stability that’s holding.” She reports that fortunately amid their other precarities, they have also been relatively unscathed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Near the end of our interview, Lemmon described a conversation she had with Nowruz, in which she asked what she wants a girl born in Syria 20 years from now to understand about the war she and her sisters in arms fought against ISIS – especially now that things have again become volatile in northeastern Syria.

Member of Women's Protection Units during the fight against ISIS

She told me that Nowruz said: “I’m doing this for my nieces and nephews, so they can speak their language, they can publish in their language, they can name their children what they wish. So that they can live in peace.” Nowruz wants the yet-unborn-girls to know their own power, to understand “that we did this for them. For the next generation, so they wouldn’t face this.”

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

CNN: I was really struck from the beginning by the way that you described what it is to report on and tell a war story. What makes telling a war story different from other kinds of storytelling? And what made you want to tell this one in particular?

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: Every great story starts with a question you can’t answer. And this story struck me immediately. How in the world did the world’s most far-reaching experiment in women’s equality come to be built on the ashes of the ISIS fight, brought to you by women who fought the Islamic State, house by house, room by room, and town by town, for a half-decade? How was it that the Islamic State, which put the buying and selling of women right at the center of its ideology, was defeated by women who had women’s emancipation and the quest for equality right at the center of their ideology? It was almost Shakespearean.

To me, there is no difference between this story, among the stories I’ve had the privilege of telling. Because to me, they are all stories of communities of women underestimated from the outside, at the outset, who rise to the moment in service to something greater than themselves. And I think that we all want to see more stories of women’s lives in all their glorious complexity.

CNN: You do lay out in the early part of the book the multiple questions this story raised for you. What questions did writing it answer for you and which remain unanswered?

Lemmon: I wanted to know what it meant for women to win a war. And I will say that I have never seen women anywhere in the world more comfortable in power, and less apologetic about exercising it. And it stays with you because it looks different. And I wanted to show that. I think the thing that struck me is we all have mothers and sisters and daughters and friends in our lives who are just resilient and full of courage, and full of bravery. And it’s wonderful to be able to see on the page, the story of women, maybe far away geographically, maybe in a very different context. But bringing all that courage, and all bravery to the fore every single day to stop the men who devalued women.

Roadside sign outside Qamishli in Syria.

CNN: How did you connect with the women who became your main characters?

Lemmon: This whole story started because one of the women from “Ashley’s War” (Lemmon’s last book, about a special team of women soldiers working and fighting in Afghanistan) called me in 2016 when I was actually in the middle of school pick up. I was hiding in the bushes at preschool to take the call on WhatsApp.

She was calling from Syria and she said, “You have to come see this. This looks completely different from anything we’ve ever seen. Not only are women leading in battle alongside US Special Operations, but they are leading men in battle. And they have the full respect of the men they fight with and the men they serve alongside and lead. And of the US forces, with whom they work.” And she also said “That’s not all of it, you know. They’re really focused on women’s rights and equality and emancipation.”

And I thought: How in the world did this come to be?

CNN: It’s striking how these women remain aware of and deploy their gender, even on the battlefield. There’s Rojda, who goads ISIS fighters she’s up against into giving up their location by going after their masculinity. And when an American commander meets one of the young YPJ fighters and she trash-talks him, saying, “I bet I killed more ISIS than you did” –

Lemmon: Oh, I know. The guy on the US side told me that story himself. Multiple times.

CNN: That’s amazing. Did you get a sense when you were working on this story that these women were developing strategies to weaponize misogyny against itself?

Lemmon: They were fighting inhumanity with humanity. And they’re really funny. They truly thought it was obvious that women were equal. And they didn’t care what other people would say to the contrary (laughing) because they had this very strong self-possession. They just knew that they possessed the right to choose the path of their lives. And weren’t actually interested in what other people thought about that. On the other hand, you know, I think they deeply cared about other people, I think they were ferocious in trying to take care of their people. Their forces, their fighters. You know, every loss they took very personally. Even if it wasn’t somebody they knew personally or well, if they were commanding and their forces took losses, of course they took it to heart.

Young women training to join the YPJ in northeastern Syria, 2018.

I think what they focused on most was ending the notion that this kind of mentality could exist – the mentality that said women had no value, women could be enslaved, women could be bought and sold. They wanted to end that. And they truly believed that they were doing this for women around the world.

CNN: That comes through in the book, especially when you describe the Social Contract of the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria. I love how you put it: “women’s rights would form the spine of the document.” What has been the impact of this document and the fight to implement it?

Lemmon: I was sitting with two of the political leaders, Fauzia Yusuf and Ilham Ahmed. And of the contract (a constitutional document outlining the political future for the territory won back from ISI), Fauzia said to me, “We’re building a lake in the desert.” It doesn’t change things overnight, but having a document that says no child marriage, no dowry, and that women have economic rights, women have the right to political participation. The paper, the document doesn’t change everything, but it starts to change some things.

CNN: What was the role of the American military men who provided support to these women? And what do you want readers to take away about that collaborative relationship?

Lemmon: The American men who worked with these women were forever changed and their biggest champions. They spoke with me at length. Folks talked to me at length and in-depth, to help me really understand the extent of the YPJ’s contribution, and also why it mattered to America.

For example, there’s this moment where a US Special Operations soldier who’s watching these young women, 30 of them in a flatbed truck, some with flowers in their hair. And they have their AKs and they’re wearing their fatigues and their Timex watches and their braids, and they’re smiling and hugging each other as they’re at a rallying point getting ready to go fight the men of the Islamic State.

Member of Women's Protection Units during the ISIS fight

And he feels this mix of awe and real grief that he can’t go with them because of US policy. And a feeling of responsibility that he should be there with them, because he is a warrior who’s come of age in the post-9/11 wars and could help maybe some of their lives. And then he just stops and says, “You know” – and he really said this to me – he’s like, “I just had this notion of the MacArthur speech at West Point, of duty, honor, country.”

CNN: Another thing that struck me: Some of the details about your main characters – Azeema is great at volleyball, Rojda loved soccer, both talk about their refusal ever to marry – those aspects mirror, to some extent, the life experiences and discussion topics among women and young girls around the world who care about gender equality –

Lemmon: Right. So the most universal moment was early on in the reporting process. I’m sitting there with Rojda. And I asked her, “Why did you have to form the Women’s Projection Protection Units in 2013? You already had equality according to your ideology, you were already fighting alongside men in battle.” And she’s sitting there chewing sunflower seeds, and she looked at men and said, “We just didn’t want men taking credit for our work.”

CNN: I was especially fascinated by the evolution of Znarin’s character, going from a woman without hope to being a driver for the Women’s Protection Units to becoming the leader of the forces that liberate her hometown of Manbij from ISIS. What stands out to you most about her story?

Lemmon: What stood out most to me about her story is that she changed the rules governing her life. And she did it herself. And she’s one of the kindest, gentlest people – if you meet her for tea, it’s hard for you to imagine how much horror she has seen. And yet, even all the horror she has seen, her heart, her kindness is the thing that strikes you first. And her determination – she ends up putting herself right in the center of her people’s future. Her moment in the book is so important, because it shows women challenging the status quo realizing they’re not alone.

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    CNN: It’s exciting to hear that the book is set to become a TV series. Even though it’s early in the process, what do you hope for an American viewing audience to take away from, or bring to, watching this story on screen?

    Lemmon: That this is a story of David and Goliath, only David also happens to be a woman. And it is a story about women who persevere and who push forward against all the boundaries that previously shaped what they could do and who they could be. And I hope viewers see this as a universal story of going up against the odds – so that people determined to bring inhumanity and barbarity to the world would be stopped.

    CNN: I keep coming back to one question that you raised in the introduction that I think went unanswered. You asked, “Would real equality be possible only when women took up arms?”

    Lemmon: It really is a central question, isn’t it?

    CNN: Do you think the answer is yes?

    Lemmon: I don’t know the answer to that question. And I don’t want to answer that question. I want readers to contend with what it means when women fully protect and defend themselves.