Vigilantes and Vengeance: On the Women Who Fight Back
How Elizabeth Flock Immerses Herself in the Lives of Her Subjects
Cicek had come straight from the frontline to our interview, and was smoking her cigarette down to a long ash. It was May 2021, and we sat on a mat outside her dusty military base in northeast Syria while she told me about her childhood. She said she’d grown up a tomboy who loved to fight, desperate not to be married off to cook and clean. At 17, she had joined the YPJ, an all-female, Syrian Kurdish militia, to have a different kind of life.
Though she was only 24, she said she’d killed dozens of militants of the ISIS terror group, and lost just as many friends in battle. She described feeling joy as she killed them because of how they’d raped women, and said she felt the same about the Turkish-backed armed groups they were now fighting.
Later, one of Cicek’s commanders would describe her to me as a woman who “did not know fear,” who smiled as bullets flew past her in battle, to increase morale among her fellow fighters. Cicek seemed unreal to me then, larger than life.These women were impressive and yet they were also vengeful and corrupt and went mad.
I was interviewing Cicek for a book I was writing, The Furies: Women, Vengeance, and Justice, which is about women who take up arms to defend themselves. Over three years of interviews, she told me incredible stories of evading death, losing comrades, and her unfailing devotion to the Kurdish cause. Along with the larger militia the YPG, the YPJ has fought for years for self-determination for the Kurds, an ethnic minority in the region; gender equality for women; and safety in the war-torn region. Cicek vowed to remain in the militia until it disbanded or she was killed. “As long as there is the YPJ, there is Cicek,” she said. “There is me.”
Just as I finished the book, however, I learned from a local journalist that Cicek had abruptly left the YPJ. When I followed up, she said she’d grown disillusioned with the cause and needed to find a life beyond war. I was shocked and at first thought there had been a mistake. But then Cicek sent pictures of herself in plain clothes, even one where she was wearing makeup, which would have been unimaginable before. She said that her “soul was tired,” and that some days she went mad with grief.
As a human, I was worried about Cicek, who was clearly suffering from PTSD. As a journalist, I was relieved that I was able to interview her over a period of years. Had I stopped earlier, I would have overlooked a grim reality of war, which is that it eventually catches up to a person. And as a writer, I was in trouble.
I had premised Cicek’s story on her devotion to the cause and her comrades. When I asked her about international criticism of the YPJ for its recruitment of girls under 18, she’d argued that it was good she joined when she did because her life would have been worse at home, and I believed her. Now, I was not so sure.
For The Furies, I tracked the stories of Cicek and two other women who fought back against gender-based violence in different corners of the globe: a single mother who killed her rapist in Alabama, a female vigilante leader who took on domestic abusers in northern India. During the years I spent embedded in these communities, each of the three women transformed from a seeming heroine into a more complicated character.
When I first met Brittany Smith in Alabama, it seemed obvious that she had defended herself against her rapist; later, after she set fire to the bed of another man who’d abused her, I came to see her as a woman retaliating against a lifetime of domestic violence. Over time, the North Indian vigilante leader Angoori Dahariya showed herself to be not only a powerful advocate for other women but also someone invested in amassing more power for herself, which she did by entering the corrupt world of Indian politics. And Cicek—Cicek had lost her idealism and bravado.
As I noticed these changes in the women, I found myself wishing I could ignore them. It was cleaner to depict a woman defending herself against a rapist, a vigilante leader who protected vulnerable women, and a female fighter who fearlessly battled jihadists. But that wasn’t the full story. The reality was messier: these women were impressive and yet they were also vengeful and corrupt and went mad.
As I read and reread my interview transcripts, I found myself fixated on the shifts in the women, thinking maybe I’d been blind to their true selves at the start. Maybe I had projected the notion of heroism upon them, a fantasy that had never been real. Stereotypes are useful first drafts, but people are complex and perhaps I had not noticed the micro changes they were undergoing as our interviews wore on.
I remembered how, even in my first interview with Cicek, she’d said she wanted to participate in the book because she had been a “witness” to so much. I felt she had always wanted me to see the cruel reality of war; she just had hidden the way it was destroying her, too. And even if she hadn’t given any indication of it in our interviews, of course Cicek was traumatized. She’d seen untold death and bloodshed and been seriously injured three times—her legs and arms wounded and her stomach split open in the shape of a T.
It’s also the nature of writing about living people: the story changes, and changes again. During the reporting of my first book, which is about contemporary marriage in India, the relationships of the multiple couples I interviewed morphed in many ways that surprised me. The couple most enamored with one another at the start ultimately fractured, while a young pair, unhappily persuaded into an arranged marriage, flourished in the end.
This is at the heart of immersion journalism, which I have practiced for years, in which a writer or journalist embeds themself in a culture or community long-term. The longer you hang around, the more things shift. Usually it happens bit by bit, but occasionally, as with Cicek, a person I’ve gotten to know does a full 180.
Something else bothered me about Cicek’s turn. An uncomfortable fact of immersion journalism is that by spending years interviewing people, constantly asking them probing questions about their lives, you have an impact on them. For years, over WhatsApp and in our in-person meetings, I’d asked Cicek to describe her experience of war to me. While I practiced trauma-informed interviewing as much as possible, and she said she wanted to tell those stories, I wondered if or how much our conversations had brought her face-to-face with her grief and suffering.
How did the book change as a result of Cicek’s pivot? In one sense, not all that much. If she wanted to present herself as bold and brave in the face of immense loss, I wanted the reader to receive that. I didn’t mind if the reader, like me, was forced to grapple at the book’s end with the fact that they’d spent a hundred pages buying into her swagger. (Perhaps, reader, even you will be convinced.)
But I also needed to add context to her words, because Cicek had been fed a lifetime of propaganda about the Kurdish cause, and it was my job to provide a reality check. I included more information, too, about how many girls like Cicek had joined the militia before they were old enough to make such a momentous decision. I pointed out how little the YPJ did to address PTSD among its fighters. And I bookended Cicek’s chapters with a recounting of her most intimate loss, that of her beloved commander Sosin, who died by drone strike.
At the start of The Unwomanly Face of War, an oral history of Russian female fighters in WWII, journalist Svetlana Alexievich issues a warning: “As they narrate, people create, they ‘write’ their life. Sometimes they also ‘write up’ or ‘rewrite.’ Here you have to be vigilant. On your guard.” Cicek was an uncommonly courageous fighter, but she was also a young woman grappling with serious trauma, and she had rewritten that part to me.
Alexievich also wrote: “It takes not one meeting, but many sessions,” to get at the truth. It took years for me to start to understand Cicek and the other two women. Once I did, I was reminded of how much all of us contain competing truths, and it is the job of the writer to coax the reader toward living in that ambiguity.
The Furies: Women, Vengeance, and Justice by Elizabeth Flock is available from Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.