In 2020, the vast majority of news coverage here in the United States was dominated by the presidential election and the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the challenges and calamity of Syria’s civil war, and the continued impact of ISIS’ brutal expansion in the summer of 2014, has been mostly forgotten.
But despite the chaos and carnage, there is a surprising ray of hope in the region. This is the focus of journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s new book, “The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage and Hope.” In it she shares the story of a small group of Kurdish female fighters who took up arms and led military operations against ISIS, with the hopes of establishing a freer society where women could experience equality and the Kurdish people, a suppressed minority in the region, could fully embrace their culture and protect other religious minorities, like Christians and Yazidis.
In the end, though there were casualties, they won and established an autonomous zone in northern Syria near the Turkish border that provides citizens with the freedom to practice their religion, even the ability to convert from Islam to Christianity, and includes a mandate that women must hold half of all government positions.
The story of Women’s Protection Unit (YSF) members Azeema, Rojda and Znarin and commander Nowruz are incredibly compelling, and recently The Daily Citizen had the opportunity to interview Lemmon and Nadine Maenza, who serves as the Commissioner for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Though ISIS might be gone, the autonomous zone is now under threat from Turkey, which has had a historically aggressive stance towards the Kurdish people. “I would say that there’s a fragile stability,” Lemmon said.
“I was there in December of 2019, right after the incursion (by Turkey) and what was amazing to me was to see how enduring the institutions that they built have remained. And I think everybody is waiting to see how the next several months play out,” Lemmon explained. “But right now, women are still co-heading the civil councils, the women’s councils are still up and running, and the entire notion that they were founded upon, which is a multi-ethnic, multi-faith society, continues to hold.”
Maenza added, “It’s really remarkable how they built this governance in the middle of a civil war, while they were fighting ISIS. So obviously, having Turkey invade is a negative development, but they are used to dealing with conflict, and still governing and trying to meet their people’s needs.”
The success and the uniqueness of this community cannot be overstated, especially in a place like the Middle East where the punishment in some countries for converting from Islam to Christianity is death and women are often treated as little more than property.
“One of the things that they have really worked towards is to build a place where people from all backgrounds can come together and where Christians could practice in peace, where folks of all backgrounds could live together, and I think what they have talked about is just wanting the world to understand that. This is really their focus, that’s what they’re aiming to build,” Lemmon explained.
It’s something that they’ve achieved, despite the odds, but it hasn’t received much, if any, press attention. Oftentimes, the quagmire of conflicts in the Middle East seems overwhelming, complicated, distant and foreign to most Americans, but if this autonomous zone succeeds in growing and establishing other havens for religious freedom and equality, it would be an incredible turning point in the region.
“These are the folks who handed ISIS its first battlefield loss, and who continue to keep the pressure on the extremists of the Islamic State,” Lemmon said. “For communities of faith, these are the people who are really working on the religious freedom front right now.”
It’s especially important for Christians, who as a religious minority, face incredible pressures from the surrounding countries. Lemmon shared that one young woman she met said that her family was concerned about her fighting but had a change of heart when other church members would tell the family how proud they were that she was defending their community.
Over this last year, Americans have seen their religious liberties restricted by state governments utilizing COVID in order to shut down worship services while allowing businesses to operate as normal, but with reduced capacity. That’s just a small portion of what Christians in the Middle East experience on a daily basis, which can include abduction or even death.
“I think that to me what was so moving is the fact that they’re trying to build a community free of extremism and for people of different backgrounds and different faiths to live together,” Lemmon shared. “It’s really remarkable.”
“We at the Commission have been paying close attention, because it is such a contrast to the areas around it,” Maenza said. “There really is no other place in the Middle East that has these kinds of conditions.
“There are now two churches in Kobani that are made up almost entirely of Muslim converts to Christianity. Nowhere else will you find a government that will give a permit to a church of Muslim converts. And, you know, they are right downtown in Kobani and are treated just like normal citizens,” Maenza said. “They built this government as a way to bring all ethnicities, all religions together and let them all have a seat at the table. It’s created an environment of tolerance that is really unique and has Christian communities, and in particular these two really fragile communities in this part of the world, a place where they can thrive and where they can practice their faith.”
Contrast that with how Turkish authorities have been treating Christian converts in areas they’ve captured along the Syrian border. In at least one community, Christians who left Islam decades before were arrested and charged with apostasy for converting. There are currently 23 countries in the world that have laws against apostasy, with a small handful of executions carried out as a result.
Not only have the women of the YSF fought to protect their own Kurdish community, which has been persecuted by Turkey, Syria and Iraq, but other religious and ethnic minority groups have the opportunity and freedom to exist without interference. Not only that, but equality of opportunity for women is ensured as well.
“I wanted to write this book because I wanted people to understand why these women signed up to protect their neighborhoods and protect their towns,” Lemmon said. “Everyone has women in our family who would do anything they could to protect their community, their neighborhood and I think that this is really about women who signed up on behalf of their communities to offer as much support as they could. To keep out extremism and to fight for values that we really recognize, the ability to go to school, the ability to name your babies in the language that you want, the ability to practice your holidays, the ability to educate your children in your language and this was really what they were seeking to protect.”
And these women did it, on the front lines, under heavy fire. Azeema, in particular, was shot by an ISIS fighter and had the bullet land near her heart, in addition to later driving over a landmine and nearly dying.
But she didn’t give up.
“I want people who read the ‘Daughters of Kobani’ to really take that to heart just that these were women whose military victories were basically designed to create the notion that if we can lead in battle we can govern in peace,” Lemmon explained. “It also really captures the notion that women’s equality, that women’s emancipation was a reality that everybody should work for.”
It also raises a rather interesting question, which the U.S. military is grappling with right now. Should women engage in direct combat along with men? In the book, Lemmon shared that the male-dominated U.S. Special Forces team assigned to assist the Kurds were incredibly complimentary of the women they served with.
Lemmon said, “I hope that this encourages us all to see that women can do and be anything. And I think that the support of the men in this story just points to the limitlessness of what women are able to achieve.”
This autonomous zone doesn’t just teach female recruits combat skills, but also teaches basic protection to women in the community as well. This allows women, in a region where they could experience violence, a way of defending themselves and their family.
The spirit of the religious freedom and inclusion of women in governance that started in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria has been spreading. Arab communities have been slowly giving women more freedom as well.
Instead of being unable to leave the house without an escort, some women have shared how they are now attending local government meetings. They’ve also gone from being barred from speaking with a man who isn’t a family member, to having meetings with them.
Maenza shared, “It’s really remarkable how far women have come, and they tell me what it feels like for them, as women, to have a role in their society as equals. Gayle so brilliantly tells the story of these women fighting for equality and liberty, and how it’s spread freedom to other areas. It’s brought this really beautiful tolerance.
“What we’ve found at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is that you often see women’s rights and religious liberty coming together at the same time, and this is a perfect example.”
Though the YSF and other allied forces were victorious over ISIS, the possibility remains that it or another extremist group will rise. The possibility of a Turkish invasion backed by Russian forces and weaponry aimed at crushing the Kurdish spirit is also an ever-present threat.
The story of the women contained in “The Daughters of Kobani” was inspiring, and a reminder for Christians to continue praying not only for peace in the region, but for the protection of the fragile church body there as well, including congregations that still speak the language of Jesus, Aramaic.
Those interested in keeping up with what is happening in Syria and with the Christian church in the region can follow Gayle Tzemach Lemmon and Nadine Maenza on Twitter, or they can follow the Al-Monitor, which provides news and analysis of the Middle East.
Photo from Amazon