“You go home now and attend to your work, the loom and the spindle, and tell the waiting-women to get on with theirs,” says Hector to his wife, Andromache, in the Iliad. “War is men’s business.”
The eight-year-long conflict in Syria gives the lie to that age-old view. The twin burdens of responsibility for children and for family “honor” may still fall disproportionately on women, but their role has not been limited to keeping the home fires burning and preparing sons for battle. In Syria, women are journalists, filmmakers, and fighters. They took part in the street protests of 2011 and 2012, which aimed to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, and were subsequently imprisoned and tortured—the Syrian regime practices equal-opportunity repression. It would be a mistake, of course, to think that female participation in revolution and war is in itself a good thing, or that women are inherently a moderating influence. Women were in the vanguard of the Islamic State, which formed its caliphate in western Iraq and northeast Syria in 2014. They recruited other women to lives of sex slavery and martyrdom, and cruelly enforced strict dress codes.
I have seen some of this myself. In October I went to Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria to report on the border attack by Turkey. One side effect of the assault—which President Trump had presumably not predicted when he withdrew US troops, effectively giving President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan permission to invade—was the escape of female ISIS prisoners who had been held by the Kurds. Video footage showed veiled women dragging reluctant children, running down a road away from a camp at Ain Issa, near Syria’s northern border with Turkey. After a Turkish air strike, Kurdish guards deserted their posts, and the prisoners seized the moment. Dormant WhatsApp and Telegram groups sprang back into life, providing the women with phone numbers to call for help to avoid capture.
Watching the mayhem, I thought about the women I had met six months earlier at a camp called al-Hol, in northeast Syria, near the border with Iraq. It was a bleak place. There weren’t enough tents or medical facilities. Blankets and washing that the women had draped on the wire-mesh perimeter fence flapped in the dusty desert wind. More families arrived every day, the children terrified and malnourished. A twelve-year-old girl refused to look at me until I put on a headscarf—in her eyes, my bare head was a sign of moral degeneration. The women, most of them…
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