The women cradled AK-47s as if they were cradling their children. They never intended to be soldiers. They did not belong to the once U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). But, after years of turmoil in a northeastern enclave of Syria, most of the women in the region had learned to handle firearms with the same normalcy as they’d once learned to keep their homes immaculate and to cook Kurdish delights for their burgeoning families.
I sat on the floor of a forsaken home in Kobane, Syria, a home I am sure was once teeming with music and fresh naan, but it had been drained of color in the months following ISIS’ occupation of the city. I was there to watch skilled women teach the not-so-skilled how to handle firearms.
They called themselves “feminists” and belonged to a group called the “Kongra Star,” an all-female group founded in 2005.
When I met them, they’d long since begun to see guns as tools of freedom. When I asked if they’d ever willingly give up their guns, even if or when peace comes to this region, they told me in no uncertain terms they would not. They’d learned too well how tenuous freedom is and had no interest in ever trading in arms for perceived safety.
Still, I am not going to tell you they are all good and that others in the region are all bad, as it’s much more complicated than that. What I found, though, was they had discovered how critical having firearms and knowing how to use them is for any people who wish to be free.
“We will not let the responsibility of defending our land and our rights fall only to the men,” said one woman as she passionately pulled apart and then re-assembled her gun over and over again.
Newcomers sat in a circle learning the basics. The youngest was 18; the oldest was over 60 years old.
When the Kongra Star members heard of a possible clash with Turkey or other militia outfits in the region, they’d rush with whatever arms they had and form giant human shields in the hopes of preventing any advance into the terrain they believe belongs to them and the Kurdish dream.
When it comes to the women who officially took up arms as fighters in the SDF, or in the long-running militia known as the YPJ, I found their role to be equal to their male counterparts. There was no debate about whether females should be shielded from the frontlines or relegated to craggy bases or checkpoints dotting the toffee-colored plains or rugged mountains. They were very involved in the fight. They took thousands of casualties in battles with ISIS.
Their training—many joined with little to no previous weapons experience—also mirrored that of the male fighters. This training typically consisted of around six weeks of drills, physical training, firearms instruction and basic first aid.
It was only in the dead of night—when they trekked back to their soiled mattresses on the floor of a base, an abandoned shack with no electricity and little in the way of water or fresh food, to catch a few hours of disturbed sleep—that I could see the emotional impact the endless fighting had on their calloused exteriors. In oversized nightshirts and bare feet, the women unwrapped their tight buns and combed through one another’s waist-length hair. The sun-worn crevices in their faces seemed to soften. Some glanced down at their wedding rings, sullied by the weeks of grit. Others re-dressed their wounds. Some prayed, some stared absently into the walls that were pockmarked with shell holes.
But there was no self-pity, tears or even complaints. These women knew without a doubt they were fighting for their people, the Kurdish people, to live freely.
Other women I met brought that fight away from the military domain and into the political one.
In 2018, the author met Hevrin Khalaf in Syria. Khalaf was the secretary-general of the “Future Syria Party,” and a strong advocate for individual rights. Shortly thereafter, Khalaf was assassinated.
In April of 2018, some seven months after ISIS was defeated in its self-proclaimed caliphate capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, I met an especially remarkable young woman named Hevrin Khalaf. She was the secretary-general of the newly formed “Future Syria Party,” which intended to incorporate all Syrians regardless of religion or ethnicity and to ensure that the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship would not re-impose its iron rule once the protracted war came to an end.
Hevrin was dressed sharply in a suit with her black hair smoothed behind her ears. She sat in her office in a mostly barren ivory building on the edges of that dilapidated city. She had an aura of serenity, making tea and speaking softly as mortar rounds cracked in the distance.
“We wanted our base in Raqqa because these people have lived under the black flag; they know what it is to lose life and still want to live again,” she told me.
In the days immediately after the sudden troop withdrawal from northern Syria in mid-October, which triggered an invasion from the Turkish army resolved to cleanse the area of what the Turks consider Kurdish “terrorists,” Hevrin was on her way to that office building when her vehicle was ambushed. She was pulled from her car and dragged to the dusty road. Her porcelain face was smashed into the rubble and bullets riddled her body until it was lifeless. The horrific ordeal was filmed and splashed across social media, prompting international outrage.
Contacts in the region tell me that Hevrin’s death has only fueled their desire for freedom. After meeting them, I have no doubt they will not, cannot, abandon their dream. But in them, I also found a common bond. In my many conversations with these women, and especially in their actions, I found them to be a remarkable example of how the right to defend our own lives and our freedom is fundamental.
When I left Syria, I left with a greater appreciation for the Second Amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights.