The Daughters of Kobani

by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

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The Daughters of Kobani Summary

The Daughters of Kobani by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon follows the true story of four female Syrian Kurds, all fighters in the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units against ISIS.

  • In response to the Syrian Civil War, the YPJ is established in 2013, with the fight for gender equality at its forefront.
  • Nowruz, Azeema, Rodja, and Znarin, all leaders in the YPJ, champion their cause in the battle at Kobani, regained in 2015.
  • The women continue to reclaim the cities of Manbij and Raqqa, and the Raqqa Women’s Council is formed in 2018.
  • The US withdraws support, forcing YPJ forces to resume war.

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Last Updated on August 16, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1196

The Daughters of Kobani begins with the introduction of four female fighters in Syria—Azeema, Rodja, Nowruz, and Znarin. All four are Syrian Kurds, part of families who are not legally permitted to practice their own culture, to speak or publish in their own language, or to celebrate their own customs or traditions. These women all strive to lead full lives, to be seen as equal to men and to not be limited by their gender. When they join the YPJ—the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units—they will fight for the rights of Kurds and women as they seek to oust the extremist, misogynist terrorist group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) from Syrian lands.

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Lemmon provides a background of the Syrian Civil War, the larger conflict out of which the fight against ISIS was born. Angered by the oppression of two Assad regimes, rebel troops attempted to remove the dictator from power. The Democratic Union Party, an offshoot of the Turkish Kurdish Party (PKK), began to recruit Syrian Kurds to fight for Kurdish rights while Arab rebels focused on deposing Assad. Without a guarantee that Kurds would benefit from new Arab rulers, they had to form their own groups in order to protect their interests. The civil war began in 2011 when Assad regime troops shot down peaceful protesters in the streets. As the war raged on and a power vacuum opened in Syria, ISIS, among other terror groups, saw an opportunity to claim land for its desired Islamic empire. The People’s Protection Units (YPG) formed as the military arm of the Democratic Union Party, and soon their female counterpart, the YPJ, emerged, in 2013. The PKK and Democratic Union Party ideologies were always informed by the philosophy of Abdullah Ocalan, who emphasized the breaking of hierarchies and the necessity of gender equality in a free and just society. It seemed only natural, then, that women would also become part of the fight, both in the military and in contributing to a constitution for the Kurds of northeastern Syria.

The battle between YPG/YPJ and ISIS at Kobani forms the centerpiece of the book and marked the turning point in the fight against the Islamic fundamentalists. The conflict was fought in the city center and powered mainly by snipers and car bombs, among other explosives. As the YPG/YPJ, including Azeema, reclaimed Kobani street by street, they encountered the brutality of ISIS, who decapitated and mutilated the bodies of fallen Syrian soldiers. At one pivotal point, Azeema and her teammates were able to successfully free YPG troops from a building surrounded by ISIS, with the help of a US military air strike. Later in Kobani, however, Azeema was struck by a sniper’s bullet and eventually underwent surgery to remove the bullet from near her heart. While YPG/YPJ led the ground campaign, the Americans struck from the air to aid the Kurds in regaining Kobani from ISIS in January 2015.

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After Kobani, the four YPJ fighters profiled had gained valuable battle experience and had grown in confidence as they moved on to other conflicts. However, their work did not come without cost. Azeema broke both of her legs and was reassigned to intelligence after a car bombing in Hassakeh. Nowruz commanded YPJ troops as they crossed the Euphrates River to fight to reclaim Manbij from ISIS control, aware that the conflicts that awaited on the other bank would cost numerous SDF lives. Meanwhile, Znarin had built her battle profile and was promoted from Nowruz’s aide to commander of her own troops in Manbij. During this mission, Znarin met and was motivated by a young woman, a teenager, who wanted to join YPJ someday. Nowruz was correct that the YPG/YPJ troops had suffered major losses in Manbij, but their courage in combat, with the continued help of American air strikes, eventually secured the city for the Kurds. After Kobani, the United States knew it needed the Kurdish fighters to take on ISIS, but diplomatic pressure from Turkey and anxiety in the United States about alienating a NATO ally resulted in the formation of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a combination of Arab and Kurdish fighters. The change allowed the United States to support Kurdish fighters but also appease Turkey. Late in 2015, Obama also approved the deployment of special operations forces to Syria, mostly men who had been involved in the previous airstrikes and other strategy work from Iraq.

The next crucial site was Raqqa, which ISIS had declared as its capital in Syria and later what it projected to be an Islamic empire. Before attacking ISIS troops in Raqqa, though, the SDF had to work to claim neighboring town Tabqa and its valuable dam. Rodja led a team that tried to retake the dam, while other SDF forces were airlifted to ISIS territory for ground combat. When she eventually made it to Raqqa, Rodja commanded and witnessed savage warfare and frequent loss of life. ISIS had explosives planted all around the city, and its fighters were more than willing to die for their cause. Despite the obstacles, the SDF gained territory and power in Raqqa, holding two thirds of the city by late August 2017. While attempting to perform reconnaissance in the city, Rodja was unexpectedly caught on the front lines and battled bravely, leading her troops by example, even though she was advised to return to command headquarters. By October 2017, the SDF had defeated ISIS, planting a new flag in Raqqa’s stadium as a symbol of victory. While the military troops fought in Raqqa, two female activists, Ilham Ahmed and Fauzia Yusuf, helped to ensure that women’s equality would form the basis of the constitution for the regions freed from ISIS control.

By October 2017, the SDF had reclaimed Raqqa and declared victory over ISIS, who no longer held territory in Syria. A victory celebration in Raqqa saw the troops and those civilians who remained singing and dancing in the town square that ISIS had recently used as a site of terror and intimidation. In August 2018, the Raqqa Women’s Council was officially formed and was also praised with song and dance. Syrians marveled at the changes that had occurred in their cities in the past year; in a place where ISIS had openly abused women, trading and buying them in a marketplace, Syrian women were now embracing leadership roles in their local government.

Despite a productive partnership with Syrian Kurds over the past several years, the United States began to withdraw explicit support for Kurds, under pressure from NATO ally Turkey. As soon as the Americans pulled back, Turkey launched offensives on the northeastern border towns reestablished by Syrian Kurds, an action the United States condemned as ethnic cleansing. YPG/YPJ forces soon returned to war, having had little time to enjoy their victories over ISIS. However, YPJ leaders like Nowruz remained motivated, knowing the freedom and equality they fought for was well worth the struggle. The text ends on a note of uncertainty for Syria’s future, but the story of the YPJ serves as an example of the strides women can make against even the most brutal of enemies.

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