On the women who fought the Islamic State’s territory — and won.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Oct 22 · 4 min read

The story of America’s partners in the ISIS fight cannot be told without talking about the role of the women who led in battle against men who bought, sold and enslaved women. Talk to them and they will tell you they are not just battling ISIS, but the entire mindset that says women are worth nothing and matter none. These women signed up and refused to back down against the men of the Islamic State, and they have pressed forward to write what they call a new chapter for women, not just in Kurdish communities, but across the region. In the process, as I have seen for myself, they have built an experiment in women’s equality that goes well beyond what we have seen until now, anywhere in the world.

For the past two years I have chronicled for my next book the stories of the women who led the battle against ISIS as the partner force for the United States. The respect the American forces felt for these battlefield fighters and commanders is shown in the words they used to describe these women: warriors, leaders, fighters.

A group of young women from the Assyrian Christian community during the Raqqa fight to retake the ISIS ‘capital’ (Courtesy: BethNahrin Women’s Unit)

This all-women military force sits at the center of a politcal experiment based upon the notion that true equality is possible for women and good for everyone. And brought to you by women who spent four years battling — at close range — men who bought, sold and enslaved women while leading men in that fight.

These young women — from Kurdish, Arab, Christian communities and beyond — have given all to beat ISIS. And on the heels of that fight, these young women created a real-life utopian push for equality in the last place most would expect to find it. On the ashes of the battle against the physical territory of the Islamic State, they launched an unlikely political experiment in which women play a leading role in all political bodies. And all this while almost no one outside its borders was taking note.

Spend time with these women — Kurds, Christian, Arabs — -and it is clear they fight not just to defeat the Islamic State, but to gain against extremism and to advance the idea of women’s equality. After all, who are the first people to pay the price when extremists win? Women and girls. Across communities.

The Islamic State enslaved women. On the streets of Raqqa, ISIS fighters traded women and girls. And the young women who come from Raqqa are part of this all-women’s force created not just to protect land but to protect women.

One of the young women I met in this photo had a brother who joined the Islamic State. He forced her to marry one of his fellow fighters. She had no choice, and her mother could not stop it. Her husband brutalized her. She survived, and decided that the one way she could avenge her suffering was to be part of defending her city. That is where I met her in 2018.

In the coming months, I look forward to introducing you to the women who are part of this story. Their futures now hang in the balance as negotiations about the fate of their region presses forward. What is not in question is their role serving and protecting their communities and the important part they played in keeping ISIS at bay.

The world began paying attention during the Islamic State’s siege of the border town of Kobani in 2014. In that fight, Kurdish women played a central role in leading and holding the near-collapsed front lines as a mix of Syrians and Iraqis worked to defend the city from a well-armed ISIS which had yet to experience one single battlefield defeat. The Americans launched strikes from the air, and it was up to the women and men inside Kobani to do the fighting and dying on the ground to keep the town out of ISIS hands.

A fighter during the siege of Kobani.

Following the end of the battle for Kobani, the forces who held the city emerged to hand the Islamic State its maiden defeat and begin their partnership with the United States. The town later erected a statue in its center to commemorate the role women played in the city’s defense. Young people come and take pictures in front of it today.

As of today, this statue stands proud. In the coming days the town’s fate will be decided, along with so much else in northern Syria. What these young women achieved against the Islamc State will stand no matter what comes.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
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