Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Inside Kobani

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Have you ever had one of those days, so frustrating, where you trip and hurt your toe, or the letter carrier is late, or the milk is spoiled. Yeah.  SO awful.

 


Now let me introduce you to Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.  She’s seen some truly bad days. And some incredible courage. Women dealing with life and death, and defending their families and homes.  In a way we can never imagine.

 

Instyle listed Gayle as one of their 50 “badass women of the year.” 

 

The magazine said:  The author and determined reporter writes real accounts of women who support their war-torn communities against all odds. Her third book, The Daughters of Kobani, about those who took on ISIS and won, has already earned praise from the likes of Angelina Jolie. Tzemach Lemmon says, “It’s a universal story about people up against a wall who rise up for something greater.”

 

So listen: Gayle’s the author of the New York Times bestsellers Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield and The Dressmaker of Khair Khana , about a young entrepreneur who supported her community under the Taliban. Ashley’s War is currently being developed into a major motion picture at Universal. 

 


Her new book,The Daughters of Kobani tells the story of what ISIS has left in its wake: the most far-reaching experiment in women’s equality in the least likely place in the world. It reveals the story of young women who have been battling ISIS town by town, street by street since 2013. 

 

Listen: These young women served as America’s ground force in the fight to defeat the Islamic State and The Daughters of Kobani tells for the first time the story of how they came to serve as America’s partner. 

 

Listen: In 2014, northeastern Syria might have been the last place you would expect to find a revolution centered on women’s rights. But that year, an all-female militia faced off against ISIS in a little town few had ever heard of: Kobani. By then, the Islamic State had swept across vast swaths of the country, taking town after town and spreading terror as the civil war burned all around it.

From that unlikely showdown in Kobani emerged a fighting force that would wage war against ISIS across northern Syria alongside the United States. In the process, these women would spread their own political vision, determined to make women’s equality a reality by fighting–house by house, street by street, city by city–the men who bought and sold women.

Based on years of on-the-ground reporting, The Daughters of Kobani is the unforgettable story of the women of the Kurdish militia that improbably became part of the world’s best hope for stopping ISIS in Syria. 

 

Rigorously reported and powerfully told, The Daughters of Kobani shines a light on a group of women intent on not only defeating the Islamic State on the battlefield but also changing women’s lives in their corner of the Middle East and beyond.

Gayle and I have talked on the phone, and she’s wonderful, and as I asked her more and more about this incredible story--it all come down to one question: How did this happen?

 

And I asked her to write her answer so we all could hear.

 

Inside Kobani

   By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

 

 


Every great story starts with an unanswerable question.  The question I set out to answer with The Daughters of Kobani:  How on earth did one of the most far-reaching experiments in women’s equality anywhere in the world get created by women who fought — and crushed — ISIS?  Who were these women and how on earth did they come to fight for women’s rights and against ISIS as America’s partner?

 

Kobani in 2014 became the first town ever to hand ISIS a battlefield loss. And women played a big part in that.  It was like David versus Goliath, only David was also a woman.

 

I spent the next few years getting to know these women, who also were daughters, sisters, and friends, and coming to realize they weren’t superhuman at all. They were women who felt they had to stand up and rewrite the rules governing their lives in order to protect their towns, their home and their families. Like so many of our daughters, mothers and sisters, they simply stood up because they felt that someone had to and that a world in which women could be bought and sold should not be allowed to stand. 

 

One story always stayed with me when describing the women I met in this book to my friends at home: Azeema was a swashbuckling, funny, chain-smoking thirty-something who led men and women in battle against ISIS.  One day she was in the middle of planning her next move against ISIS when her phone rang. She picked it up immediately, thinking it was her commander. Only it was actually her sister, calling from a few towns over to check in on her. “Come on,” she told her sister, “stop calling me while I am working! I promised you I would call you when the battle was over.  Now stop calling!”

 

We all have had that moment when we are trying to finish something and our mom or our sister call to check in! This was the most extreme version of that and I wanted to show the humanity and the love of family even amid the inhumanity of war against ISIS.

 

These women wanted justice and they wanted equal rights and they were focused on war really only as a means to achieving a political end: a world in which Kurds governed themselves, practiced environmentally conscious, grassroots, town hall-style democracy -- to the left of Bernie Sanders -- focused on sharing of resources, and kept women’s equality right at the center of all their governing.  Every town they took over had a woman and a man as co-head. Every town had a women’s council. Women served in security forces, too.

 

I set out to tell the story and met women more comfortable with power and less apologetic about leading than women I have seen anywhere in the world. Honestly, it looks different when women lead. These women stopped the men who bought and sold women, and they carried that swagger and that sense of self with them.  They weren’t focused on how men felt about it. They were focused on making gains that lasted.

 

We have never seen stories of women as universal. A story with more than one female character gets labeled a “women’s story” and immediately becomes relevant to only half the population. We must change that. 

 

When I asked Rojda, one of the commanders who worked with U.S. special operations to push ISIS out of its so-called capital in Raqqa, why they started the all-women unit if they already had full equality according to their ideology, she answered me this, “We just didn’t want men taking credit for our work.”

 

I hope you will love The Daughters of Kobani. It is a privilege for me to share this history and an honor to bring it to your community of readers. 

 

HANK: And it is a privilege for us to hear it. And now, Reds and readers, will you look at YOUR life a bit differently? Gayle will try to stop by today--what would you like to tell her?

 

And you can get this powerful and life-changing book here. (And scroll down for the link to her amazing Ted Talk. And soon you will hear who has optioned it for film. More I cannot say.)

 

 

 

More about Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: She serves as an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, along with private sector leadership roles in emerging technology and national security, began writing about entrepreneurship in conflict and post-conflict zones while studying for her MBA at Harvard following a decade covering politics at the ABC News Political Unit. This work from Afghanistan, Rwanda, Liberia, Bosnia and beyond has been published by the World Bank, Harvard Business School, the Financial Times, Harvard Business Review and CNN, among others. Following MBA study, she led public policy analysis during the global financial crisis at the global investment firm PIMCO.

 

Lemmon is a frequent speaker on national security topics, including at the Aspen Security Forum and TED forums, and has given talks at West Point, ODNI, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the U.S. Naval Academy, and the National Infantry Museum. 

 

Her TED Talk on Ashley’s War and the reshaping of the hero story to include women has received more than a million views worldwide.  She regularly appears on MSNBC, CNN, PBS, and National Public Radio. Along with her national security work, she has reported and written extensively on topics including child marriage in the United States for PBS NewsHour and on school choice, single moms and the power and importance of girls’ ambition for The Atlantic. Lemmon holds an MBA from Harvard and received the Dean’s Award for her work on women’s entrepreneurship. In addition to serving as a Robert Bosch Fellow in Germany, she served as a Fulbright scholar in Spain, on the board of the international aid organization Mercy Corps and is a member of the Bretton Woods Committee. She speaks Spanish, German and French and is conversant in Dari and Kurmanci.

61 comments:

  1. This is an absolutely amazing story, Gayle . . . the courage of these women is truly inspiring . . . .
    I’m looking forward to reading “The Daughters of Kobani.”

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  2. what an amazing story, Gayle. I learned something new.

    How did you know about the women?

    Diana

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    1. Yes--completely new to me, too! And I'm hoping Gayle will stop by soon...

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    2. Gayle Tzemach LemmonFebruary 23, 2021 at 2:49 PM

      I learned about these women from a US soldier who was part of my second book, Ashley’s War. She was deployed to Syria and working with these women and called me and said, “Gayle, you have to come see this, these women are not only fighting ISIS but they are also fighting for equality and they are leading men and women in battle!” She was in awe and told me I had to meet them for myself.

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  3. Wow. What an amazing story. How did you get to know the women and earn their trust to tell their story?

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    1. I'm so curious about this too--however did you connect with these women and get them to talk to you?

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    2. Yes, eager to hear more--Gayle will tell us! xxx

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    3. This is SUCH a great question. Trust is at the center of earning people’s time and respect. It is a huge responsibility also. They saw that I had written about women a lot, and that the Americans trusted me. They also saw that I kept showing up and listening and asking questions. They didn't think they had done anything extraordinary but my persistence and previous work earned their trust enough to give me their time. I take that responsibility very seriously and am deeply thankful for it.

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  4. I am stunned - and wondering why I never heard of these women before now. (Never mind - it's probably because they are women...) Thank you for telling their story.

    Did you already speak Dari when you started? If you had to use interpreters, was that hard?

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    1. I had the EXACT same reaction — how did people not know these women? Why aren’t more stories of women told? I hope readers are so inspired by meeting these women and by their humor, their heart, their friendship and, of course, their courage. It is not easy to work with interpreters because of the flow of conversation. But I am so lucky to work with amazing journalists from Syria who do the hard part of translating over hours and hours of interviews.

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    2. Hi, pardon, had lots of internet issues today!

      I learned Dari from an Iranian actress in LA. My Dari is not great, but it is close to Kurdish, so let me have a bit of a clue as to the language going on around me. I have an amazing Kurdish teacher in LA, but I was a lousy student given work and family and book, and I hope to go back to it!

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  5. Wow, what an empowering, amazing story! We talk about justice and equal rights for women, but they did it.

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    1. That's the stunner, right? ANd you have to think--what would WE have done?

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    2. Grace, that was the thing that stuck with me, that they so deeply were committed to their work, their family, their fight, NOT because they wanted war, but because they believed that injustice should not stand unanswered.

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  6. Gayle, amazing work, amazing women. Are you still in touch with them? That region is so explosive and women so exploited by surrounding cultures. How is life for them now? Did their victories last?

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    1. I am still in touch with them! Quite honestly, it means so much to them that you are asking about them — they always want to meet more women from the U.S. They fought very hard against ISIS so that the world could be safer, and that the U.S. would face a reduced threat from ISIS. They continue to fight for a future that is brighter for the girls across communities who form the next generation.

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  7. Thanks for bringing this story here, Hank and Gayle. I'm off to learn more.

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    1. Yes, that's exactly what I thought, too!

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    2. How wonderful -- please write with questions if you have them as you read the book to contact@gaylelemmon.com

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  8. The fact that they are Kurds worries me--like Judy, I'd like to know if what they have achieved is still in place.

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    1. It is! Honestly what amazed me when there in December 2019 was how enduring what they have built == a governing structure which includes women right at its heart — truly has been. Women from across communities are facing the challenges and, like women in your neighborhoods, are standing up to shape the future. It is not easy, but they will not go backward, they say, without a fight.

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  9. Fascinating! Can't wait to read your book and pass it on to my daughters.

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    1. Oh, that is so brilliant. It's the perfect gift for a daughter.

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    2. How wonderful and very best to your daughters!

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  10. What an amazing story. As others have questioned, have their achievements lasted? The area is in such a state of turmoil.

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    1. Truly their achievements endure. Go to Raqqa and see amazing young women from across communities studying, serving in the security forces, teaching. Go to Kobani and see young women who are pushing forward and reshaping the rules governing their own lives. The spirit of pushing forward and pushing ahead is real!

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  11. Amazing. I, too, would like to know how you got to know these women and have their achievements lasted?

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    1. Yes, it's really difficult to envision..but I know Gayle will have the latest!

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    2. hi! Please see the question above. It has been such a journey to get to know these women. They would joke the last few visits, when is the book going to be done? Do you still have questions? They didnt think they had done anything extraordinary but they spoke with me on behalf of their friends and those they love. They are sisters, daughters, friends, just like you and me, and bringing their story to you has been a true privilege. I cannot tell you what it means to know that you are moved by this book.

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  12. Sheroes! I'm going to send a link to this blog post to all three of my daughters, and encourage them all to read this book. And I will also read it. What an amazing story--and as Edith said, if it were men, they'd be internationally acclaimed and put on pedestals. Thank you for writing their story, Gayle.

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    1. That is so true! It's so mind-bending. xxx

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    2. Thank YOU for sharing it. We can write all we want, but if readers don't take it personally, stories won't make a difference.

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  13. These women may not think they are extraordinary' "We just didn't want men taking credit for our work," but they are so much more than that. Thank you for bringing their story to JRW ~

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  14. Amazing. Since we are all asking the same questions, I'll leave there. I am in all awe of you and all these amazing women.

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  15. Gayle will be here! Yay. Meanwhile, here's a link to her appearance on
    MSNBC. https://www.msnbc.com/morning-joe/watch/book-chronicles-the-women-fighters-who-took-on-isis-101179461789

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  16. AND--with Andrea Mitchell! https://www.msnbc.com/andrea-mitchell-reports/watch/gayle-tzemach-lemmon-in-new-book-there-are-women-leading-in-the-fight-against-isis-101181509618

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  17. This is just amazing. I saw Gayle's TED talk and was blown away by both her subject matter and her ability to tell a story. And as the mother of a Muslim daughter, I really appreciate stories that don't paint Muslim women as repressed and submissive. There are almost two billion Islamic people in the world - that's a lot of room for a lot of cultures!

    THE DAUGHTERS OF KOBANI is going on my must-read list right now.

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    1. Yes, so agree. It's breath-taking, and so important. And life-changing for all of us.

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  18. The Daughters of Kobani sounds like an incredibly powerful and empowering story -- actually, all of Gayle's books do -- and I am going to seek them out today. Thanks so much for sharing them.

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    1. Yes--it almost seems impossible. And makes all of our lives seem different.

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    2. How wonderful to hear. Thank YOU for sharing these stories -- you sharing this with your sisters, your daughters, your friends, that makes ALL the difference.

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  19. Marvelous and mind boggling.
    Thank you

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  20. I had never heard of such a thing. These women are absolutely amazing.

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    1. I keep thinking about exactly that! How did we not know this?

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    2. I thought all the time as I was working on this, "everyone must know this story." We all need to know what was sacrificed for our sake, and that women battling not just for themselves, but for their towns, their region and for the cause of women's equality, sat right at the center of the fight to defeat ISIS.

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  21. Gayle, what a fascinating and inspiring story. I would love to know more so hope you have a chance to chat with us!

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  22. Sounds inspiring and empowering. I was wondering what is the one thing she learned from these women that changed her personally and if that change showed up in her daily life? If she could only impart one lesson she learned to us what would it be?

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    1. Oh, what a terrific question! I hope she comes back to answer it. I wonder, too, about all of us. Our lives can change as a result, too.

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  23. Such an amazing story! Thanks so much for sharing it with us, Gayle.

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