These AK-47-Wielding Women Are Fighting for Religious Freedom in Syria

When violent terrorists attacked their community, these women weren’t helpless victims. They took up arms, defended their homes … and now they’re working towards a lasting peace.

Rojda Felat serves as one of the commanders of the Women’s Protection Units in northeast Syria. She joined thousands who worked with the U.S. to defeat ISIS terrorists.

By Josh Shepherd Published on February 18, 2021

When she first heard the story four years ago, she could hardly believe it.

A friend in the U.S. military tipped off journalist Gayle Lemmon about several female-led regiments in Syria. They were reportedly “doing most of the fighting and dying” to defeat ISIS terrorists. Though embattled on every side, they had established a haven of democracy.

“Who wouldn’t want to tell this David versus Goliath story?” Lemmon told me in a phone interview. “Especially, in this case, when ‘David’ was also a woman.”

The Daughters of Kobani

She decided to check it out firsthand. It became her first of seven trips to northeastern Syria between 2017 and 2020.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Released this week, her book The Daughters of Kobani has been praised as a story of beautiful resilience in the midst of terror.

It also offers up-to-the-minute insights as Mideast-shaking events unfold under a new U.S. president.

Lemmon recalls a conversation with Nowruz, a commander of Syria’s women’s protection units (YPJ).

She asked if Nowruz had ever thought of a different life. What if she had a family to raise instead of hundreds of troops to train?

Nowruz answered: “I love children. Everything I’ve done has been for my nieces and nephews. It’s all so the next generation will be able to have a world that looks much different from the one I grew up in. Because without freedom, what is the point?”

David vs. Goliath

With reporting attuned to human stories, Lemmon illuminates Syria’s complex conflicts. It begins in 2013 — when “ISIS” became a household word. ISIS is an acronym for: the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

ISIS terrorists represented a new type of threat. They were driven by extremist ideology rather than backed by a nation. Their violent followers routinely raped, enslaved and tortured innocents. Their ideology required the subjugation of women.

Americans saw atrocities reported, yet the Iraq War loomed large. “The public was not looking to enter another conflict in that region,” said Lemmon. “Then this ground force of women brings the fight to ISIS. They are really fighting for their neighborhoods, towns and culture. It captures U.S. officials’ imagination.”

Some Kurdish women were only teenagers when they volunteered to fight. They had inferior weaponry, little ammunition and less experience in combat.

“Communities of women are often underestimated from the outside,” said Lemmon. “But they rise to the moment.”

Starting in 2014, it netted surprising results when the U.S. partnered with these Syrian regiments. “Every day for five years, these two forces faced off against one another,” she said. “The women handed ISIS their first battlefield losses. It was because they had more commitment, more courage and more heart.”

Importantly, the YPJ saw military peace as a means to an end. They lived by a simple mantra. If we can fight and lead in battle, we can govern in peace.

More than 11,000 Syrian Kurdish troops died in battles against ISIS terrorists. Another 24,000 suffered debilitating injuries. Women are represented significantly in both groups.

“They stopped these terrorists from attacking not just that one region,” noted Lemmon. “ISIS had designs to go after the U.S. and Europe also. These women were fighting for humanity against inhumanity.”

Haven of Democracy and Religious Freedom

By fall 2018, a fragile peace had been stabilized. Community leaders re-established what is called the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.

Nadine Maenza

Nadine Maenza, a faith-based human rights advocate, explains. “It’s a mistake to think we can solve extremism with weapons and bombs,” she said in a phone interview. “You can only beat radical Islamists by building governance that is opposite the way they govern. We have to win the war of ideas.”

Maenza serves as a Commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The independent government entity acts as a watchdog for religious freedom issues.

In late November, she completed a month-long trip across the region to meet with locals and see progress.

She saw people excited about a church being rebuilt in the northwest city of Raqqa. But what has transpired in Kobani is even more remarkable.

“The Kobani region has hundreds of recent Christian converts,” said Maenza. “Over a year ago, their government approved a new church building permit. It’s now open and worship services take place there. Actually, a second church in that area will begin construction soon.”

Mosques can be seen only blocks away from these churches. In showing how religious freedom can work, the region has become a model for Mideast peace.

Dwelling Together in Unity

Her friend Lemmon also extols what these Syrian warriors have accomplished. “Today, moms in that region can send their children to school without fear,” said the author. “Fathers can go to work. The sacrifices made in battle now allow liberties to exist — including religious freedom.

“Across ethnic and religious lines, we are seeing people exercise their freedoms and faith in this society.”

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According to Maenza, U.S. investment has been minimal yet has reaped great rewards. “As an American conservative, I see this as a win-win situation,” she said. “They don’t need us to give them money. They don’t need us to teach them how to govern. What they need is for us to let them survive.”

The alliance even aided U.S. national security. “When we partnered with Syrian Kurds, they took back critical territory,” said Lemmon. “It cut off ISIS from having the freedom to launch attacks — including into Europe or even the United States.”

Human rights leaders at USCIRF are hopeful the new Congress will act swiftly in support. A key recommendation: to exempt the northeast region of Syria from crippling U.S. sanctions.

A Story of Overcoming

Apart from politics, Lemmon hopes her book elevates a story of overcoming.

She recalled speaking to a young woman who lived in Syria’s Khabur Valley, known for its Christian population. ISIS had taken her believing friends hostage. Though her parents discouraged it, the woman volunteered to fight and protect her community.

Lemmon asked her: “What did you think the first time you saw an ISIS fighter?”

“She looked at me and said, ‘What did I think? I thought I wanted to kill him. He had come to threaten my community. My job was to stand up and say no.’”

Woman’s courage isn’t unique to northeast Syria. “Every one of us in our own families has women who work to protect our communities,” Lemmon said. “They protect our values and the things that matter. And that is what these young women are doing.”

 

The Daughters of Kobani (Penguin Press) by Gayle Lemmon is now available wherever books are sold. 

A graduate of the University of Colorado, Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith, and public policy issues for media outlets including The Stream and The Federalist. Find him on Twitter and follow The Stream @Streamdotorg.

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