MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
So much of the news we report on from Syria is sad - stories of chaos, of brutality, of war. So it is refreshing that this next story is, yes, about Syria and, yes, about war, but it is very much a story of hope, of female courage, of heroes. The new book "The Daughters Of Kobani" is about an all-women militia facing off against ISIS. In other words, it's about a group of women deciding to face off against a group that raped and enslaved women. The author is Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, and she joins me now.
GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Hi there.
KELLY: I want you to draw us into this story the way that you were drawn into this story because you were trying to quit writing about wars on the other side of the world. You were tired of trying to make Americans care about conflicts far away. And then your phone rang.
TZEMACH LEMMON: 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.
KELLY: Explain the title for us. What and where is Kobani?
TZEMACH LEMMON: 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 are 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.
KELLY: Yeah. There are a few main characters in your story. One of the stories that will stick with me is Znarin, who - when we're introduced to her, she is young. Her family has stopped her from going to university because she's a girl, basically. They have stopped her from marrying the man that she loves and wants to marry. And she makes this decision, OK, you're not going to stop me a third time from doing something I want to do. And the thing I want to do is to join this militia, the YPJ. Talk about how that went down with her family, who was - it was not well.
TZEMACH LEMMON: Well, I think so many listeners will know, you 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 you 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 this story, from, you know, 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.
KELLY: Absolutely. In their case, that journey is so dramatic. Talk about how they got training. How do you make a decision? I'm going to go from being, you know, a very young woman with no military experience to suddenly fighting on the front lines against ISIS.
TZEMACH LEMMON: 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, you know, 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.
KELLY: You made multiple trips to the region to try to chronicle this story. Was it hard to get them to talk to you, or did they really want to tell their story?
TZEMACH LEMMON: (Laughter) No one thought they had done anything exceptional. And they would joke with me, Gayle, 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, Mary Louise, when I asked Rodja, who was one of the commanders, you know, why did you form these women's 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.
TZEMACH LEMMON: And I thought, well, you know, that is...
KELLY: I love it.
TZEMACH LEMMON: That's how you know you have a universal story.
KELLY: Yeah. It sounds like they spoke about a sense of - I don't know if divine justice is the right word - but of deep satisfaction at being these female warriors who helped to defeat ISIS, a group that, as we know, was savage to everyone but unparalleled in its savagery towards women.
TZEMACH LEMMON: Yeah, there's a moment where they're running low 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, you know, one of the women commanders, Naruse (ph), is saying, know what they think of you. Show them what you can do. Show them that this - 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 for simply for themselves but for women around the across the region and beyond ran through everything they said to me.
KELLY: And are you in touch with them now? What do they say? I'm just trying to imagine, having done what they've done, how on Earth do you go back home and apply yourself to getting dinner on the table and thinking about having a family and all of the things that - you know, the rites of passage that women of their generation in their part of the world would have been raised to expect?
TZEMACH LEMMON: Yes. And I think that, you know, what's amazing to see is that Rodja, Znarin, all these people we get to know - right? - in "The Daughters Of Kobani," they all take their journeys in their families, you know? So one of their uncles - Rodja, 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 asks her for help settling disputes in the family. And so I think that whole idea of, you know, if you can 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.
KELLY: That is Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, talking to us about her new book "The Daughters of Kobani."
Thank you, Gayle.
TZEMACH LEMMON: Thank you.
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