Em Joseph doesn’t really look like many of the women in this socially conservative stretch of Syria‘s Idlib province, and she certainly doesn’t act like them. Instead of the traditional hijab, or headscarf, worn by women in the area, her head and the lower part of her face are wrapped in a red-and-white keffiyeh in the manner that a man (or a woman working in the fields) might wear the garment.
She carries two grenades, one in the left breast pocket of her blue-and-gray military camouflage vest, the other in the same pocket of the men’s leather jacket she wears over the vest. Perhaps her only concession to femininity is the pattern of maroon and creme swirls on her loose, floor-length beige robe, but if it weren’t for the swirls, the garment could easily be a man’s galabiya. And then, there’s her Kalashnikov rifle.
Em Joseph is a 40-year-old Syrian female fighter with the Islamist Suqoor al-Sham Brigades. She is a rarity.
There have been media reports of female fighting battalions, but most — upon further investigation — turn out to be false, just photo-ops of a few women carrying guns. One report claimed that women in Deir Ezzor, a tribal, socially conservative area bordering Iraq, were fighting in high heels. Women in the area don’t even wear high heels, unless there’s a wedding or some other special occasion.
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Still, there are several credible accounts of female fighters, including a sniper in Aleppo and a deputy commander in the same city, but by and large, women on the rebel side of the Syrian civil war are more often found one step behind the frontline — in field hospitals, helping smuggle weapons or providing intelligence. Syria’s rebels have long said they have no shortage of fighting men, just weapons and ammunition.
On the other side of the conflict, Syrian President Bashar Assad has recently been arming and training women as part of a new National Defense Force militia, according to media reports. The women are reportedly manning checkpoints in some areas, but not undertaking combat operations. “He must have learnt from me,” Em Joseph says laughing, referring to Assad’s female force. She says she tried to form a female military battalion, but none of the other women she approached were interested.
She’s sitting outside her unit’s newest base, an empty home it appropriated the day before just across the train tracks in the town of Abu Duhoor, a flat, farming hamlet some 48 kilometers southeast of the provincial capital Idlib city. The unit’s former base, four houses up the road, was struck by a mortar at 11.30pm the night before, tearing a hole through a wall. She has no qualms about moving into what are clearly other people’s homes. “These buildings belonged to government workers, to the rail workers, to Bashar,” she says. “Did he [Bashar] build them from his mother and father’s pockets? No, he built them from the sweat of our brows. These are our houses.”
A MIG fighter jet rumbles overhead. Em Joseph remains seated outside, Kalshnikov across her lap, as she yells at the neighborhood boys — and the men — to get inside. “Yalla, al bayt!” she says. “Come on, go home! Send those men and boys home. Home!”
Her real name is Souad Al-Ghayaree and she is from this town. She was given her nickname by Jamal Maarouf, the commander of the prominent Martyrs of Syria rebel group based in Idlib province. Em Joseph was a popular fictional character in a Syrian television mini-series (“Bab al-Hara”) about the struggle for independence from French rule.
She concedes that at first, a few of the men didn’t want her fighting with them, out of concern for her safety, but she doesn’t think the fact that she’s fighting, especially with an Islamist unit, is odd. “It makes no difference,” she says. “There are examples of women fighting in the Koran. This is something that is inside me, in my heart, from God. It makes no difference if you are a woman or a man.”
Her unit leader, Khaled Abu Abdullah, agrees. “We’re not surprised by sister Em Joseph,” he says as he limps alongside her. He walks with the aid of a crutch, the bone of his lower left leg was shattered five months ago in battle. “We are used to her, to her personality. We protested together in the early days of the revolution, and then the battle here started, and she stood with us.”
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It’s clear that Em Joseph has never really been the kind of woman afraid to get her hands dirty. She worked in the orchards, and had her own cinderblock press, churning out between 400-600 blocks a day, she says, before she picked up a gun seven months ago. Her father taught her to shoot as a child. She says she asked one of the men for a gun, and she’s still using the same Kalashnikov, although she said she’ll relieve the machine-gunner from time to time, or the guy with the rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
On the afternoon TIME met her, she’d just come back from the front at the Abu Duhoor military airport. The airport is one of a handful of remaining loyalist outposts in Idlib province. It’s a helicopter base, and has been besieged for months. The situation there “is terrible, thanks be to God,” Em Joseph says. “We are squeezing them.”
She says she spends most of her time at the front, a short drive away, returning to this base only to cook something for her men. The dishes from lunch are still on the kitchen sink. On this day, she made eggs, yoghurt and potatoes (she’s now out of potatoes) for lunch.
She gets into a dusty silver four-by-four that was originally red but painted silver to make it less visible to Assad’s troops. She drives the short distance to the front, unleashing a string of curses at a driver who buzzes past her, insults that would make many a Syrian man blush. “These are my guys,” she says, as we approach a group of men.
Here, she’s one of the boys, and she’s as tough — or tougher — than most of them. She is a respected member of the unit, somebody the men say they are proud to fight alongside. “She’s a sister of men,” one of her comrades says, using a common Arabic phrase for a strong, independent woman. “She raises our morale,” says another, Walid. “When we see her in front of us, we push forward. May God keep her,” he says before offering her a hearty slap on the shoulder, the kind of slap a man might give another man, but not one a man would give a woman in a community where many women will not shake hands with a man they are not related to. Em Joseph was married only briefly and has no children; her parents are alive and live nearby. When asked what they thought of her fighting, she responds, “God willing, I have raised their heads high.”
Em Joseph’s older brother Abu Abdullah, is part of her battalion, as well as his 13-year-old son, Abdullah, who carries a gun. His father doesn’t think it’s wrong that his child is armed. “God will protect him,” he says. “God will protect him.”
Em Joseph “shamed the men who hadn’t picked up weapons,” says Adnan, a fighter with a gold tooth, and a keffiyeh wrapped around his head. “This is the best thing that she did, to push the men to take up arms and fight.”
Her toughest moment, she says, was when she tried to retrieve a fellow fighter from the battlefield who had a large piece of shrapnel lodged in his chest. She grabbed his arms and the top half of his body came away in her hands. “It’s impossible for me to forget that,” she says. “Impossible.”
Still, she is determined to continue fighting, and she has a special message for Assad: “Bashar, we are coming for you, we are behind you” she says. “Even if there is not a man left, only the women, I am coming for you.”