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U.S. Troops Withdrawal Could Disrupt Women's Gains Amid Fight Against ISIS

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've been focusing a lot of our attention, this weekend, on President Trump's announcement that he plans to pull U.S. forces out of northeast Syria. Earlier today, we heard a report about people living there. But, now, though, we want to focus, specifically, on how a U.S. withdrawal might affect women who've taken on new roles in their communities in the fight against ISIS.

Author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is working on a book on the topic, and she says that what has been achieved may be in jeopardy with an abrupt U.S. withdrawal. She is just back from northern Syria, where she's been traveling over the course of the year, and she is with us now. Gayle, thanks so much for joining us.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Great to join you.

MARTIN: Tell us about the role that women have played in the fight against ISIS. I think we - some people may have heard stories about Kurdish women soldiers. Tell us what you saw and what you know.

LEMMON: In northeast Syria, you now see what is, in many ways, the world's most radical experiment in women's equality in the absolute least likely place in the world. And the reality is that there are women who have led the fight against ISIS, who now are kind of handing over to a political situation in this very unrecognized-by-the-rest-of-the-world slice of no man's land, where every city has a female head of the civil council and a male head of the civil council. There are women's councils in all the cities.

And what I've really been looking at is the role of Arab women now who have come out. Even in a city like Raqqa, where ISIS bought and sold women, you see women on - taking on entirely new roles. I was in Raqqa last week, Michel, and I saw two women pulling security as you came into the city.

MARTIN: How did this happen? And what role do U.S. forces play in this?

LEMMON: Yeah. So this happened because the Kurdish forces, whom the U.S. backed in the ISIS fight - part of their ideology is that women's equality is at the center of building local participatory democracy. These are the same people Turkey considers terrorists. So there was always a tension with the U.S. working with them.

MARTIN: Is the greater threat now from ISIS or from Turkish forces that would come in once the U.S. withdraws?

LEMMON: The forces fighting ISIS would have to move to defend themselves against Turkey if an offensive occurs. Turkey is a NATO ally. Very understandable security concerns that can be addressed, right? So no one is saying to ignore Turkey's concerns. I think the question is how do you protect the stability gains.

MARTIN: So, finally, Gayle, the issue of how these policy decisions affect women. What do you say to people - you know what? It's - it is exciting that women are making these gains, but it's just not the U.S.'s problem or responsibility.

LEMMON: Women are essential to the stability and security. This is not about a social experiment. This is about security and stability that is in America's interests. What you see in Syria is young women who have been snipers and battlefield commanders, young women whose pictures adorn white headstones in cemeteries across the region who are really making the ultimate sacrifice for their areas. Really, it is, to me, at the end of the day, about helping to cement this very fragile stability that is very much underway, even while almost no one has been paying attention to it.

MARTIN: That was Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. Her forthcoming book is about advances that women have been making in northern Syria. Gayle, thanks so much for talking to us.

LEMMON: Great to join you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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