The women who fought against ISIS — an unusual experiment in women's equality

In this podcast episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell welcomes Gayle Tzemach Lemmon to discuss her new book The Daughters of Kobani. She tells the story of the Women's Protection Unit (YPJ) and its fight against ISIS alongside American forces. It is, Lemmon says, the most far-reaching experiment in women's equality in the least likely place in the world. Lemmon is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.


  • Daughters of Kobani portrays experiment in women's equality: "The book is about the most far reaching experiment in women's equality in the least likely place in the world, brought to you by women who had been fighting the Islamic State since before it was the Islamic State. They were building a utopia for equality on the ashes of the ISIS fight."
  • ISIS was no abstraction for the YPJ: "War is deeply personal, and we don't talk about it that way. For these people who were fighting the Islamic State, ISIS was not an abstraction, which was something that really struck me the first time I met them in 2017. They talk about ISIS with this intimacy of the people who have been fighting them house by house and street by street and town by town for a half decade."
  • American respect for YPJ: "They were seen at first as oddities and then as warriors. I spoke to a number of U.S. special operations folks at length over the years, they had such deep respect for them. One of them told me they had a warrior ethos. That these were people who put duty, honor, and country above all else. That was where they found the bond on the American side. They were effective. They were no nonsense. And they really were true fighters. In fact, one of the Americans said to me, 'I've never met people who complained less about harsher conditions anywhere in the world.'"

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"Intelligence Matters" transcript: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Producer: Paulina Smolinski

Photo provided by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

MICHAEL MORELL: Your new book, The Daughters of Kobani, has just been published. I really enjoyed reading it. I had a hard time putting it down. Congratulations on a terrific piece of work. Before we actually jump into the book, I want to ask you to briefly define some acronyms for our listeners. The first one is the YPG.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: These are the people's protection units. These are the Syrian Kurds who were first protecting their area and then joining the Americans in fighting ISIS.


GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: YPJ is the all-women's protection units who were formed in 2013 as an offshoot of the people's protection units. Their goal was to be women fighting for women's rights, fighting ISIS, and joining the Americans alongside the ISIS fight.


GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: The SDF is the Syrian democratic forces. That is the group that became America's partner from 2015 onward, which formed both the Syrian Kurds and Arab groups allied with them.

MICHAEL MORELL: So the YPG and the YPJ were part of the SDF?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: That's right. The SDF becomes the umbrella group with which the Americans fight ISIS as the ground force. The Americans come in from the air, and the SDF leads from the ground. A multiethnic group.


GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: The PKK is the group in Turkey that is basically Turkey's enemy number one. The PKK and Abdullah Öcalan, who is the godfather of the PKK. He becomes part of the ideological underpinnings for the Syrian Kurds, talking about both Kurdish autonomy, not statehood, and that the Kurds could not be free until women were free. The PKK is a terrorist group, according to the United States and certainly according to Turkey and many other countries.

MICHAEL MORELL: What's the relationship between the YPG and the PKK?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: This is the thorn that ran through the entire relationship. The truth was that everybody wanted to make a cartoon of that relationship, and it really is somewhere in between. 

Certainly, Abdullah Öcalan is the ideological figure. For these Syrian Kurds, he is the Nelson Mandela like figure. For Turkey, he is enemy number one. He provides the ideological underpinning for a group that could not practice its holidays, could not teach in its language, could not name its children in its own language, faced jail time simply for any kind of political expression. He becomes the ideological godfather that informs the Syrians who become America's partners on the ground. 

While people wanted to make it either one hundred or zero, the truth was it was ideologically connected. The people's protection units to Abdullah Öcalan and the PKK, but that these were Syrian patriots. These were people who deeply believed in protecting their areas from extremists. They would always say to me, 'we are not controlled by Qandil.' They joke that 'we're controlled by Washington.' It's always the gray that we live in. 

MICHAEL MORELL: Let's dive into the book. What's it about from a big picture perspective? Why did you decide to write it?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: The book is about the most far reaching experiment in women's equality in the least likely place in the world, brought to you by women who had been fighting the Islamic State since before it was the Islamic State. They were building a utopia for equality on the ashes of the ISIS fight.

How in the world did the Americans come to back this group whose ideology about women's emancipation really went farther than anything we've seen almost anywhere in the world? Who were the most effective ground force to break the Islamic State? 

I had to tell the story because the first time I saw it on the ground in Syria in the summer of 2017, even as I was prepared for it by a young woman who was in US Special Operations Forces, but it's still very different. We do not have the visual library of twenty five young women with fatigues, smiley face socks, Timex watches, braids, and AK 47s going off to fight the Islamic State.

MICHAEL MORELL: It's just too good a story not to tell. 

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Correct. And how did it end up that the Americans backed them as the force that could not just take territory, but hold territory. And then put a fragile stability in place on the ashes of this fight.

MICHAEL MORELL: The book toggles back and forth between that big picture that you just outlined and the experiences of four Syrian Kurdish women fighters, Asima, Rojda, Zarine, and Nowruz. Why did you structure the book that way?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: War is deeply personal, and we don't talk about it that way. For these people who were fighting the Islamic State, ISIS was not an abstraction, which was something that really struck me the first time I met them in 2017. They talk about ISIS with this intimacy of the people who have been fighting them house by house and street by street and town by town for a half decade. 

One Christian young woman, I asked her 'what did you think the first time you saw an ISIS fighter?' She looked at me like I had asked possibly the dumbest question ever in the history of interviewing and she said, 'what did I think? I thought I wanted to kill.'

 I wanted to capture how very normal people with normal lives get pushed into extraordinary circumstances, and how men who bought and sold women at the center of their ideology came to face off every day against women who had women's emancipation right at the heart of their motivation and their ideology.

MICHAEL MORELL: Why focus on these four particular women?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: I chose these four because they came from different backgrounds. Asima is this commander who you almost can't believe is real, even when you're speaking with her. She is swashbuckling and funny and sneaking cigarettes. Even at a ceremony with US diplomats and all of her commanders, she is trying to sneak puffs of her cigarettes. She's fought ISIS for years. They nearly killed her three times. She was larger than life.

A very real character who I think embodied the spirit of 'we will never give up. We will die before we let ISIS defeat us.' Nowruz was really the commander that the Americans would say, 'you must talk with her.' She is Mazloum. He is the commander first of the people's protection units and then the SDF, who's America's very trusted partner on the ground. She is his right-hand deputy. The other side of his brain. They talk constantly. He delegates to her. I think that really took the Americans aback the first time they saw it, because for all of the American men who spoke with me from Special Operations, they had not worked with women in a partner force. Let alone women who were truly leading, not just leading from base, but leading from the front lines. 

The other two I chose because I thought they showed that you don't have to have swagger to be a true commander and a leader. They were quieter, had faced obstacles in life, and yet were absolutely resolute.

The Americans, people's protection unit commanders, and the SDF commanders all said, 'you have to talk to them.' They were the people that the American women who served alongside them said 'you have to speak with them.'

MICHAEL MORELL: Tell us how the United States came to rely on the YPG.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: The United States was on the hunt for a Goldilocks when it came to Syria. They were looking for a group that would be able and willing to take terrain from the Islamic State and then hold terrain against the Islamic State and then put in place some kind of governance structure that the Americans could understand and navigate and live with and would not topple Assad. That was not easy. The guiding principle was the ghost of the Iraq war. It hung over every decision made on Syria. Looking for that force that could both beat ISIS and not topple Assad was nearly impossible. It led the Americans straight to this group of Syrian Kurds.

MICHAEL MORELL: One of the extraordinary things about this book was that it takes this strategic geopolitical issue and puts a human face. I'd love for our listeners to get a sense of what inspired these women to join these militias and the challenges they faced in doing so.

Could tell you tell us Zarine's story, because I think it's really moving.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: It is so moving. Book interviews are really tedious. I would go back to Syria with a recorder and they would say, 'oh, my gosh, Gayle, you're not done with the book yet.' And so the story emerged. Because people's lives are complex.

I wanted to capture the marvelous complexity of these people who had really led the fight against ISIS. 

Zarine was a young woman who saw her dreams crushed because she was born a girl. She wanted to be educated at 17, her uncle said no. He told her father that it is not appropriate and not necessary for girls to go to university. She did everything she could to fight that, but she was never going to win. She loved her parents and so finally decided she wasn't going to cause any more problems for them. She would go along with her family, which was conservative and did not believe in girls' education, certainly higher education. Then they moved to Kobani. She meets this man she loves, and they're going to be happy. She has a shot at real joy. And her family says no. 

Her uncle has chosen one of his sons who wants to marry her. That's the end and that's what's going to happen. She's going to marry him. She said, 'No, I will not do it. I will not marry anyone. There is zero chance I'm marrying your son. I'm not going to marry anyone else if you're taking my love away from me.'

You think about what that must be like, to see all of that opportunity and hope crushed. Then she gets a knock on the door from followers of Abdullah Öcalan who talk about Kurdish rights and women's rights too. She had never heard of this idea of women's rights. In fact, most of the women I interviewed had never heard of the idea of women's rights.

She doesn't believe them at first. Then she joins them and as she fights ISIS fight, fights against extremists, it becomes the thing that shapes her life because no one by then can take anything from her because she has nothing left to lose.

MICHAEL MORELL: Why are women's rights so important to Öcalan's political ideology?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: It is a fascinating question. I think it was this idea of housewifeization of women's work, the reduction of women to only the house. Also enslavement, that to truly be free, you had to go to a period where women and men were equal. It was part of this whole idea that Öcalan had, which was informed by Murray Bookchin. He was a former communist, an anarchist, then became a preacher of grassroots participatory democracy without hierarchy and with ecology and environmental awareness at the center. Öcalan reads Bookchin's books and decides that governance is going to be about grassroots participatory democracy, these town hall experiments, and that women will be very much at the center. 

In every town this group takes from ISIS, a male and a female co-head of the civil council goes in, a women's council gets established. It's not that the Kurdish men loved it, it's that the women didn't care. They weren't asking permission. Because they had this umbrella of the Öcalan ideology. That's what struck me more than anything else, I have never seen women more comfortable with power and less apologetic about running things anywhere in the world.

MICHAEL MORELL: How were these fighters seen by others on the battlefield, U.S. forces, Kurdish male fighters, and by ISIS itself?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: They were seen at first as oddities and then as warriors. I spoke to a number of U.S. special operations folks at length over the years, they had such deep respect for them. One of them told me they had a warrior ethos. That these were people who put duty, honor and country above all else. That was where they found the bond on the American side. They were effective. They were no nonsense. And they really were true fighters. In fact, one of the Americans said to me, 'I've never met people who complained less about harsher conditions anywhere in the world.'

At the beginning on the Syrian Kurdish men's side, men were not terribly in favor of the women's protection units being formed from the people's protection units. Rojda comes up with the answer. I asked, 'why did you need to join all women's unit when you already had equality? Why create a women's protection units?' She said, 'we just didn't want men taking credit for our work.' 

It is so interesting because ISIS at the beginning ridiculed them. Then they really got to know them, and they would specifically target them. They would very much get on the radio and say, 'we're coming to find you, we're coming to enslave you, we're coming to kill you.' They joked saying, 'we took it as a compliment, that we were important enough that ISIS singled us out.'

MICHAEL MORELL: One of the most riveting parts of the book to me focuses on the YPJ experiences during the siege of Kobani, one of the major inflection points in the battle against ISIS. What was the YPJ role in that fight and why was this battle so significant?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: The book is capturing at the beginning the battle for Kobani, which is the David versus Goliath story only. Only David is a girl. You have the Syrian Kurds, which is a pretty ragtag force with an ideology that many would consider really hard to fathom in how far it goes with its notions of equality. They are motivating this fighting force to fight to the death against the men of the Islamic State who at this point have never lost a fight.

They're fresh off Mosul, fresh off Sinjar, have already taken Raqqa. The book goes between the perspective of U.S. folks in Washington and in northern Iraq watching this and the Syrians on the ground, these Kurdish women watching them as real people coming to take their town.  They are saying, no, 'this will not happen. We will die. We will fight until every single person is dead before we will let these people beat us.'

I think it's that spirit that makes the battle for Kobani become this international moment, because the truth is cameras could capture it. There is in the book a moment where U.S. officials, say the fact that it was on camera made a difference. We could see this ragtag group of people without uniforms with not very good weaponry up against ISIS. ISIS was truly fresh from a tear of wins and acting like it. The book shows the women who are commanding in that fight.

MICHAEL MORELL: I would love for you to tell two stories from the siege of Kobani. The first is a Asima's operation to rescue 21 of her fighters who had been surrounded by ISIS.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: The daughters of Kobani does a story about Asima in this moment where she gets a call saying, 'Twenty one of us are pinned down.' This is her forces. She's now leading. She's gone from leading a couple of folks to now really leading multiple people and now has twenty one folks pinned down. Lots of people are on the radio trying to tell them what to do. She says, 'don't listen to anybody, I'm going to get you out.' Then we go as readers into her mind, and we follow her as she does everything. She goes to figure out where exactly they are, then how she can get them out using the heavy weapons that they have on hand in Kobani. Then when that fails, she thinks 'how is she going to get twenty one people out of a situation in which ISIS could obliterate them at any moment?'

We follow her through this cumbersome but very real process that they had for calling in U.S. airstrikes. We follow her through this heart stopping moment. She was waiting to see: will the Americans come through? How was this process going to happen? Will they be able to figure out how to hit ISIS and not hit our forces?

MICHAEL MORELL: Do you think this was a big moment of trust for her and her fighters and the U.S.?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: One of the Americans who read it said to me, ''I just wanted to be able to reach through the page and say we're coming. Don't worry.' I think she had no other choice. She wanted to believe in the Americans, but they really felt like they were on their own fighting ISIS. The whole world was watching. The Americans were overhead. But who was going house by house and room by room? It was them. It was a lot of hope and some faith. 

MICHAEL MORELL: Please tell us the story of the gift that the commander of the SDF gave a U.S. special operator on his first visit to Kobani and how that drove home the critical role that the YPJ was playing.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: I wanted to capture how the Americans saw these women. There was an American Special Operations Soldier who said, 'I wasn't sure what the symbolism was of these women. Were they really in the fight? Were they not?' He goes into Kobani and for the first time an American is there on the ground after the battle has ended. He gets handed this green scarf that you see all through the region in northeastern Syria with scallops and flowers on it. It turns out it's the scarf of one of the young women who died fighting ISIS for her people, but also for the world. Because they did the world's work in stopping the Islamic State from the ground.

MICHAEL MORELL: I love that story. Where is the YPJ today? How are they thinking about the U.S.? 

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Today, there is this very fragile but real stability. Even after the Turkish backed incursion of the end of 2019, I was there in December of 2019 and it almost has no right to be as stable as it is. The SDF is really working to keep what fragile stability it has been able to carve out, that Turkey has not attacked, in place and waiting to see what the new administration will bring.

MICHAEL MORELL: Is the YPJ still an entity? 

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: The YPJ remains very much a force on the ground. It remains a part of the people's protection units and the SDF more broadly. The question of what comes next has loomed over this entire story since I started working on it in 2017. That is no less the case now in 2021.

MICHAEL MORELL: The book is a natural extension of your previous two books in that all of them focus on how women in male dominated societies deal with times of conflict and crisis. What drew you to those stories?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: I truly never set out to write books about women. I set out to tell stories that weren't being told. I think the narrative of the victim has so often shaped the way we see women in war. I spent a lot of time in Afghanistan. I had the privilege of spending time on the ground with young women who lived under the Taliban, with young women who lived after the Taliban and in northeastern Syria and some in northern Iraq. They are the strongest people I've ever met. Yet we continue to swat them in this victim blanket. I wanted to tell stories that I saw and that I thought other people should see, too. We're in a moment where there's room for these stories where people see that you don't need an adjective in front of it. It's simply a war story, a friendship story, a story of love. The fact is, it happens to have women as its main characters. One day we'll actually see women stories as universal. I hope these stories do their part to get us there.

MICHAEL MORELL: Can you mention the other books?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: The first book I did was The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, about a teenage girl whose business supported her family under the Taliban. All these girls who were breadwinners during years when they could not be on their own streets. The second book is called Ashley's War, and it is about an all women special operations team that was recruited in the US. They were American women recruited for Army Ranger and Navy SEAL missions back in 2011 while women were officially banned from ground combat. That is now in the process of becoming a film at Universal, with Reese Witherspoon producing and Leslie Linka Glatter of Homeland directing. 

MICHAEL MORELL: That's really cool. How involved are you in that?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON:  Very. My grandmother was a film distributor. I'm very careful about walking the line between helping and interventionist. We've now been working on this for a half decade as a team. Bruna Papandrea, who just did The Undoing for HBO is there, and it's an amazing team. They really understand the responsibility of telling the first all women special operations ensemble war story.

MICHAEL MORELL: You talk in the book about your personal views of gender equality and how they were influenced by your upbringing, particularly the views of your father. Can you talk about that a bit?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: It's funny because I really never want to shape the reader's views. I come from PG County, Maryland, where we have all kinds of backgrounds, all kinds of views. I wanted to shine a flashlight for readers. But I wanted to take readers into my own story because it did influence why I wanted to tell this. 

My father was born in Baghdad and lost his country as a kid because he was of the wrong religion. I never really understood him as a kid growing up in P.G. County. I was smoking Marlboro Reds and eating pistachios and playing soccer know. 

He wouldn't carry flowers. He didn't think that was masculine. And one day we were having this discussion and II was asking why women that we were around were eating after men. I thought, that's ridiculous. My father looked at me and he said, 'Do you really think men and women are equal?' I wasn't offended by it at all because he it was truly puzzling for him. I had really been spending time in the region. I had so much more empathy for how he saw the world. I think about him all the time, what he saw, what he experienced as a child, and how that shaped him and his views about what women's work was.

MICHAEL MORELL: There is something deeply ironic in this story that it took ISIS, this brutal Islamic extremist organization that enslaved women and raped women, to pave the way for in this enclave in northeast Syria, a place that puts women's rights front and center. How do you think about that? 

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Every book I've written begins with a question I cannot answer. I could not understand how it was that men who put the enslavement of women at the center of their ideas came to catapult onto the global stage this fighting force with women's emancipation at its heart, with the Americans backing them. 

It took two years of deep reporting and trying to talk to people and sitting in rooms in northeastern Syria and northern Iraq and in the United States. I was working to understand how these events came together. That a guy sitting in a Turkish prison reads a book from a writer in Vermont and put these ideas of grassroots democracy and town halls at the center of governance in the sliver of no man's land. A land recognized by no one, but backed by the Americans. ISIS was bewildered by them at the beginning. They were joking, 'kill all the women.' And at the end they are saying, 'Don't get shot by those women. Be very careful of those women.' 

MICHAEL MORELL: Are there lessons here for women's rights in general? 

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: The book contends with the idea that these women, the women who fought ISIS, their effort matters far beyond their borders. Certainly they see themselves as fighting for women who are oppressed all around the world. At the end, Nowruz told me, 'if Turkey hadn't invaded, we planned to have this gathering of women's groups from around the world come here and talk about it.' I want readers to contend with that question because I thought of so many questions as I first began writing Daughters of Kobani. 'Does it take violence to stop violence against women? Is it only after military victory that women can put an end to violence? Does it teach us that military campaigns pave the way for political efforts.' The idea that putting women at the center of the politics is the lesson, I want readers to grapple with those questions as they read the story of women who killed ISIS.

MICHAEL MORELL: What's next for you? Is there another book that you have in mind?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: I always dread that question because when you write a book it's basically a much more physically pleasant form of giving birth. You put it out in the world and all you want to do is just make sure it's OK. You want to make sure that you have given everything you have to give it the best shot to reach people, to move people, to bring people into this world that feels foreign but isn't. 

I really want people to contend with ideas, to feel like it belongs to them, that it's not just for policy folks or for people who only listen to national security ideas. You have such a broad audience. That's what I want for this story as well. 

The book I was working on was about single moms I grew up with. This community of women who work two jobs and taught us how to go to work every single day and not feel sorry for ourselves. They showed us how to look at the world in a way that respects people even when they see the world differently. I might go back to that. But first, I want folks to come to love this story, and the daughters of Kobani. 

MICHAEL MORELL: How do you think about what's at stake for the Syrian Kurds in general, for these amazing Syrian Kurdish women in particular, as the Biden administration decides what it wants to do in Iraq and Syria.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Everything is at stake for the women who are in the daughters of Kobani. These are women who fought ISIS. This is a force that lost ten thousand of its people in the fight against ISIS for the world, with America as the air power and the train and equip power. But them as ground force doing the fighting. Right now, the US presence in northeastern Syria, which I've seen for myself, is making a difference. It is allowing this very fragile stability to exist. The stakes are high for the United States as well. This truly is the post 9/11 policy that actually did what it set out to do. It is a by, with, and through a partner force. It did everything it promised and then some. The question is what comes next for it? I do think many people will be watching to see how the new administration really takes up this policy.

MICHAEL MORELL: The book is Daughters of Kobani, the author is Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. Gayle, thank you so much for joining us.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.  



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