In a desert town in east-central Syria, two prisoners sat on the ground, guarded by about a dozen Kurdish men. The two had surrendered to the mostly Kurdish defense force, YPG, as it routed ISIS fighters from Baghouz, their last stronghold in Syria. The prisoners awaited transport to a detention camp that already held tens of thousands of ISIS loyalists and dependents. The guards stood over them, their triumph palpable.
A few hundred feet away, female Kurdish fighters with AK-47s over their shoulders guarded women and children, presumably militants’ wives and offspring. As these fighters, known as YPJ, chatted, several took long drags on their cigarettes (it had been forbidden for women to smoke under ISIS). Others adjusted their hair using their cell phones as mirrors (under ISIS, a woman who hadn’t kept her hair and face covered would have been whipped). Occasionally a YPJ woman spoke to the veiled women, a sea of black cloth punctuated by wary eyes and filthy children.
As the morning dragged on, some YPJ fighters decided to see the enemy up close. The women approached the two prisoners almost casually at first. Then, slowly and deliberately, they walked a tight circle around the men, staring straight at them. Not long ago in this town, a woman could have been executed for such behavior. But ISIS had fallen, and the female defenders of Kurdish Syria were claiming equal footing with their male comrades. They were on the front lines together, savoring victory.