Swift Press, £16.99
Review by David Pratt
I recall it being grey and overcast with brooding storm clouds scudding across the sky on the day when I last visited the Martyrs’ Cemetery in the northern Syrian town of Kobani. Almost four years had passed since that bitter siege in 2014 when Islamic State (IS) jihadists overran most of this city only to be beaten back by the determined and near legendary resistance of mainly Kurdish fighters. Today, many consider the battle for Kobani to be a key turning point in the war against IS in Syria, but it came at great cost in lives.
So many of the graves in Kobani’s Martyrs’ Cemetery have the names of young women inscribed into the marble of their headstones, or have pictures of them smiling and dressed in the khaki military fatigues of the all-female Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) formed to fight alongside their male counterparts in the YPG (People’s Protection Units).
As well as resisting IS in Kobani, women played a key role as part of the wider Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that comprised both Kurds and Arabs in the liberation of the city of Raqqa, which IS had claimed as the capital of their self-proclaimed caliphate.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s book, The Daughters of Kobani, tells the story of some of these remarkable women. Based on extensive interviews, it is the story of Azeema, Rojda, Nowruz, Znarin and a handful of others among thousands who participated in those frontline battles, but it is about so much more than that.
For this is an account of something equally extraordinary in a region the Kurds call Rojava – “land where the sun sets”. It defies the usual narratives about Syria and the Middle East, and is totally at odds with the reactionary, hierarchical, misogynistic, and vehemently anti-democratic diktats espoused by the jihadists of IS.
To date the Rojava women’s achievements are nothing short of remarkable in a region that is traditionally very conservative and home to rural and peasant norms. Here, the “old ways” included prevailing attitudes that saw the existence of child marriage and keeping women at home. But the real-life characters whose lives are followed in this book broke with such constraints.
“Don’t be like me. Make sure your life looks different,” Nowruz’s mother would tell her children before they went to sleep at night. “Never rely on others for your future.” It was advice Nowruz, who grew up rejecting the conventional domestic path for marriage, took to heart, deciding she wanted to change both women’s lives and those of her fellow Kurds.
Historically, Kurdish people had been threatened from many quarters, but the arrival of IS in Syria’s civil war brought unprecedented danger to both Kurds and women. It was this IS onslaught that led Nowruz into the ranks of the YPJ, in which she ended up leading around 4,000 Arab and Kurdish male and female fighters as the commander of the western frontline in the hell that became Raqqa.
Other women followed a similar path. Azeema, another of the book’s central characters, became a sniper in besieged Kobani as fighting with IS intensified. During the street battles, she survived a bullet wound that narrowly missed her heart.
Gripping as these women’s eyewitness accounts are, they are rendered by the author in a sparse no-frills prose which at times verges on the prosaic. Where the writer does a particularly good job is in setting the wider context in which these battles are taking place, making accessible the sometimes confusing alphabet soup of acronyms and names of the political and battlefield players in Syria’s war. She explains well too, the ideological and philosophical background against which the “Rojava Revolution”, as it is sometimes called, redefined the role of women in the movement based on the Marxist-inspired writings and thoughts of Abdullah Ocalan.
Ocalan had helped trigger the rebellion for Kurdish rights in neighbouring Turkey with his Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) before his capture in 1999 and imprisonment by the Turkish authorities, an incarceration that continues to this day. As Lemmon makes clear, central to Ocalan’s teachings was the “position that Kurdish rights could not be divorced from women’s liberation because the enslavement of women has enabled the enslavement of men”.
Ocalan’s teachings led the newly formed YPJ to release a statement that their goal was to “build a democratic and egalitarian society and to defend women from around the region wherever they faced discrimination and persecution, not just in Kurdish areas”.
This isn’t the first time Gayle Tzemach Lemmon has tackled such themes. Her previous books, including
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana in 2011 and Ashley’s War in 2015, focused respectively on civilian women in Afghanistan under the Taliban and American women as part of a US Special Operations group in the country.
Like those titles, The Daughters of Kobani has become a New York Times bestseller. It’s a book I thoroughly enjoyed, perhaps not least because I’ve had the privilege of meeting some of the many women involved in Rojava’s remarkable revolution. But for the general reader too this book will really open the eyes of many used perhaps to viewing events in the Middle East negatively.
The story of the women depicted in The Daughters of Kobani deserves the widest possible audience. If I have one concern, it’s the way in which events are viewed through the prism of a US understanding of what has occurred in Rojava. Described as a journalist, the author is also very close to a variety of American think-tanks and I can’t help sensing, especially where the book details US Special Operations collaboration with the Kurds, YPJ and SDF, a certain gloss on US policy in the region.
Let’s not forget that in 2019, not for the first time, Washington left the Kurds to their own fate at the hands of Turkey after they had served the purpose of helping defeat IS. This, however, should not for a moment put any reader off following the stories here of these magnificent, courageous, and inspiring women.