Why I Wrote “The Daughters of Kobani”

The untold story of the women who fought to defeat ISIS.

Every great story starts with an unanswerable question. The question I set out to answer with the book 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 did they come to battle for women’s rights and against ISIS as America’s partner in the half-decade campaign to stop the Islamic State?

In 2014, the border town of Kobani 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 last few years getting to know these women, who also are daughters, sisters, and friends, and coming to realize that they aren’t superhuman at all. They are 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 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 is a swashbuckling, funny, chain-smoking thirty-something who led men and women in battle against ISIS. One day during the battle for Kobani 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!”

Azeema during the 2014 battle for Kobani
Azeema and her sister during our interview in 2018

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.

Members of the Bethnahrin Women’s Protection Forces in the Battle for Raqqa 2017

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 with them the confidence, the swagger and the sense of self that comes from being tested in battle. They weren’t focused on how men felt about it. They were focused on making enduring gains that included women in everything.

Members of the Women’s Protection Forces fighting ISIS in 2014

We have never seen stories of women as universal. The intellectual infrastructure in this country that defines what is serious by and large does not include women. A story with more than one female character immediately is labeled a “women’s story” and thus relevant to only half of us. It is our challenge to change this — for us and for those who come after us. When I asked Rojda, one of the commanders who worked with U.S. special operations soldiers to force ISIS out of Raqqa, its “capital,” why she and her teammates started the all-women unit in 2013 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 readers will be inspired by those they meet in this story who risked everything to stop ISIS, by the women who show that there is no limit to what women are capable of when they are the ones writing the rules that govern their lives, and by the deep respect the U.S. special operations soldiers felt for these women who fought ISIS room by room, house by house and town by town for a half-decade so that those of us here in the United States didn’t have to.

Author of New York Times best sellers “Ashley’s War” and “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.” Adjunct senior fellow, Council on Foreign Relations. All views mine.