Last Updated on August 17, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1422
Having covered war in the past, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon was initially hesitant to research the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), an all-female military force fighting ISIS on the front lines in Syria. In her previous books, Lemmon had focused on Afghanistan, writing of a teenage girl running her own business under Taliban rule, and exploring a women’s special operations unit, respectively. Because of her intense work in Afghanistan, Lemmon felt exhausted, especially given American audiences’ apathy toward conflict in the Middle East. Things changed when Cassie, a member of the women’s team Lemmon had met while writing her second book, called to tell Lemmon about the YPJ in Syria. Cassie emphasized that the women of the YPJ, now backed by the United States, were fighting for women’s rights and were inspired by the teachings of Abdullah Ocalan, who believed no society could be truly liberated unless women were equal to men. YPJ units led both men and women in the battle against ISIS, and women did not face the restrictions placed upon women in the US military. Their male counterparts in the YPG (the People’s Protection Units) treated them with complete respect.
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Lemmon introduces the recent history of the Syrian civil war from its beginnings as a peaceful protest in 2011. While several countries intervened, none were successful in mitigating Syria’s “humanitarian catastrophe.” As the civil war raged on, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed power in the region, while Bashar al-Assad’s oppressive regime still ruled most of Syria. Lemmon reflects on another personal connection to the area: she has paternal relatives from Kurdish Iraq, though her father himself was a child refugee who had to leave his country due to religious differences. Despite his own oppression, Lemmon’s father has a hard time believing men and women are equal, which serves as another piece of evidence that the YPJ is extraordinary in a society where sexism is deeply ingrained.
During Lemmon’s first encounter with the YPJ in 2017, she met Klara, a YPJ commander, and her troops. Lemmon notes that Klara was not wearing protective armor; the equipment that the United States had provided seemed insufficient. Lemmon was also surprised to see that the fighters were Arab men rather than Kurdish women. However, after meeting a group of female soldiers soon after, Lemmon realized how strongly the groups believed in women’s liberation—not just for themselves, but for the region as a whole. Lemmon contemplated a similarity between the YPJ and ISIS, in that both were fully dedicated to their causes, despite their being at opposite ends of the political spectrum. She soon became fully convinced of the importance of this project, motivated by the confidence and commitment of the YPJ fighters.
Lemmon introduces Azeema, a YPJ sniper scanning for ISIS soldiers as she defends Kobani, a Kurdish town near the Turkish border. Azeema is an intense person whose political leanings are revealed through an anecdote in which she chastises her sister for becoming engaged and for watching a soap opera; Azeema believes marriage is oppressive to women. Azeema joined the fight in 2011 when she trained with YXK, the Student Union of Kurdistan, to protect Kurds within Syria. She was intrigued to see a childhood friend, Rodja, at her first YXK meeting.
Rodja is different in temperament from Azeema but equally invested in achieving rights for women. She was a dedicated soccer player as a girl, despite her relatives and the society at large frowning upon women’s athletics. Like Azeema, Rodja does not intend to marry. She is attracted to the military for its order and to the YXK for its support of women’s liberation.
Nowruz is an older, more experienced leader who, even as a young girl, insisted that girls should have voices and power over their lives. Nowruz dreamt of becoming a doctor and had no interest in marrying. As a teenager, Nowruz shot a gun at a target at a school summer camp, exhilarated that she could defend herself. Nowruz became radicalized to the Kurdish cause by watching her parents suffer, unable to express their own culture in a Syria that outlawed Kurdish traditions.
Znarin joined YPG in 2013, inspired by the movement for women’s rights. Her very traditional family from Kobani follows its patriarch, her paternal uncle, who holds absolute control over his family members. Znarin’s education was halted by her uncle, despite her intense passion for knowledge. This same uncle later ruined Znarin’s chance for a happy marriage when he insisted she marry his son rather than the man she loved. Eventually, her intended fiance married another woman, and Znarin was left single but very much dedicated to Kurdish and women’s causes.
After introducing her book’s main characters, Lemmon provides background on the oppression of Kurds in the Middle East and a timeline of the conflicts in Syria. The Kurds represent an ethnic minority in Syria and the Middle East, with no homeland of their own; they are spread across several nations and ostracized by each, and Kurdish traditions and language are outlawed. When Saddam Hussein was removed from power in Iraq, Kurds there gained more rights, sparking hope in the region. However, a pivotal conflict soon occurred in Syria when violence broke out between Kurds and Arabs at a soccer match in Qamishli, a Kurdish town. The ruling regime of Bashar al-Assad subsequently jailed and tortured Kurds, but young Syrians decided it was worth the risk to fight for more rights.
In response, the Democratic Union Party, stemming from the Turkish Kurdish Party (PKK), began to recruit members. The PKK arose in the 1970s as a result of the leadership and theory of Abdullah Ocalan, who embraced Marxism and prioritized gender equality as a feature of a free society. When Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, was in power, he tolerated Ocalan because they shared a common enemy in the Turks. Eventually, though, Ocalan was banished from Syria and imprisoned for life in Turkey. Despite his physical removal from the country, Ocalan’s teachings influenced many young Syrians. When the civil war began in 2011, Kurds feared they would lose their land, so they formed the YPG. In 2012, the YPG clashed with the FSA (Free Syrian Army) over objectives; while the FSA wanted to overthrow Assad’s regime, the YPG made it their purpose to protect Kurds and maintain authority in Kurdish areas. In 2013, the YPJ became an official group fighting “to build a democratic and egalitarian society” and to defend all women in the region. In 2014, the YPJ began fighting ISIS in an attempt to oust them from Syria.
Lemmon’s introduction clarifies her motivations for writing, including her previous interest in and experience with women’s rights and military action in the Middle East and her own familial connection to the region. Despite her personal passions, however, Lemmon admits she “felt emotionally spent, trying to make Americans care about faraway places and people that meant so much to [her].” Some of Lemmon’s techniques in chapter 1 seem to be a response to this concern, as she seeks to engage reader interest by providing personal portraits of four women fighting with the YPJ.
Chapter 1 opens in medias res, dropping the reader into a tense scene in which Azeema is scanning an area for ISIS fighters and looking to shoot. From there, Lemmon provides some of Azeema’s backstory, including an anecdote about Azeema’s relationship with her sister that contrasts traditional and revolutionary attitudes toward women’s rights in the Middle East. After introducing Azeema, Lemmon skillfully traverses between political and social contexts, grounded in thorough research and historical facts, and poignant stories about the women who fight for Syrian Kurds and for women’s liberation against the extremists of ISIS. In characterizing the women of the YPJ, Lemmon includes details like Rodja’s passion for soccer and her playful rebellion against her grandfather, the “first thrill” Nowruz experienced when she shot a gun, and Znarin’s tragic love story, which allow readers to connect with the characters on a personal level. Though their bravery and heroism may make them seem unrelatable, Lemmon forces readers to see where these women came from and what motivates them, and to establish common ground and empathy. Readers can then become invested in these women and their stories, which Lemmon hopes will eliminate the American apathy toward the Middle East that she was exhausted by after producing her first two texts.