From the Biblical ‘Woman on Fire’ to Female Kurdish Fighters: The Women Who Mama Up by Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee

I was one of millions inspired by Greta Thunberg’s speech to the United Nations. In her usual courageous fashion, she spoke plain truths all adults need to hear about our failure to assure a future for generations of all creatures. Yet you all come to us young people for hope? How dare you? she rebuked us. How dare you?

The beginning of her speech actually struck me the most. This is all wrong, she said. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school, on the other side of the ocean. Her words echoed the words of the small, simple hobbit Samwise in Lord of the Rings, as he and Frodo journey into the terrifying, almost certain death of Mordor. In the film, Sam says: It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here.

This is all wrong. Sometimes, we have messed things up so badly that people, and cultures, and species, and ecosystems, even the whole world faces apocalyptic disaster. When it comes to annihilation, girls, women, and women elders (and peaceful hobbits) seem like the last people our society should ask to lay down their lives. Yet, knowing the risks, so many have. Anna Mae Aquash. Ida B. Wells. Melba Pattillo Beals. Dorothy Day. Malala Yousafzai. The list is long. And it feels particularly inspiring to us mainly because it just feels… wrong. Why?

Telynia Jeansun Grenfell-Lee, Age 15, March For Our Lives Boston, March 2018 (Photo by Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee)

For these kinds of questions, I often turn to my faith tradition. The Hebrew scriptures describe a time of the Judges, when the Hebrew tribes were trying to figure out how to live faithfully among neighboring tribes in the land of Canaan. The Divine repeatedly sends a Judge to guide, liberate, and restore the people to their covenantal relationship.

The pattern takes an interesting turn in the story of Deborah. Her title is a play on words that means both ‘wife of Lapidoth’ and ‘woman of torches,’ or ‘fiery woman.’ Deborah, the only female Judge, is the ‘Woman on Fire.’ If this sounds familiar to Hunger Games fans, it gets better. Although she offers guidance and wisdom, she also works collaboratively with a military commander, who values her so highly that he refuses to march into battle without her. The enemy armies are driven off, but their leader has survived and gone into hiding. At the dramatic end of the tale, another warrior woman, Jael, pretends to shelter him, lulls him to sleep, and then drives a tent stake through his head. This victory ushers in an era of peace.

The similarities with Katniss, the “Girl on Fire” from the Hunger Games, may not be intentional; but both stories describe female warrior leaders, teamwork, wisdom, liberation, and justice. Scholars note that, unlike other Judge narratives, this particular story does not lift up One Person as Ultimate Arbiter of Wisdom and Might, but rather a collaboration among women and men that together leads to justpeace. They also note not only the startling roles of the women but also how the text explicitly lifts up their contributions as the most important.

There is something about a Girl on Fire that both disrupts our expectations and inspires deep respect. Somehow, we innately understand that women, generally speaking, do not fight. That’s largely why Jael was able to trick and then kill the enemy – she was [just] a woman, doing ‘womanly’ things, like feeding him warm milk and tucking him into bed. We don’t expect females to be warriors. It reminds me of signs from recent protests – You Know It’s Bad When Even Introverts Are Marching.  Or the startling image of children striking for gun control in the March For Our Lives. It’s true – you know it’s bad when girls and women, or bands of them, are getting arrested. Getting death threats. Going into combat. Getting assassinated. You know it’s bad.

Telynia Jeansun Grenfell-Lee, age 17, and Leyalyn Jisun Grenfell-Lee, age 14, School Strike for Climate Boston, September 2019 (Photo by Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee)

Women are supposed to stay tucked up in the home, doing all that invisible and emotional labor; or doing a nice community-building job, like teaching young children; or making babies; or caring for their grandkids. How dare they? How dare those same teachers go on strike? How dare a Turkish woman paint about the plight of her Kurdish ‘enemies?’ And then continue to paint in jail, using her menstrual blood, because it’s the only thing available?

How dare these women? We’d better trivialize them before they really make an impact. And sexualize the female warrior archetype, too, before she becomes truly powerful. Quick, remove any body hair, so she looks pre-pubescent; now put her in tight leather and heels, so she looks like a sex toy. It’s okay that she can’t actually fight in that outfit; at least now she’s doing her real job, contributing to rape culture.

I have been thinking of the Kurdish women fighters a lot these days. These women have fought for decades against brutal patriarchal rule, genocidal rape, and sexual slavery, to build a free, egalitarian society. This feminist movement has been going on for so long that women warriors are not only numerous and prominent, they are normal and accepted in Kurdish culture. They fight off ruthless terrorists, but they also build egalitarian political systems and feminist, women-only ecovillages for women to heal and flourish. As Dilar Dirik argues,

Reporters often pick the most ‘attractive’ fighters and exoticise them as ‘badass’ Amazons… It does not help Kurdish women to be glorified as enemies of ISIL, if their entire political struggle is not supported. Western media’s white-washing of the Kurdish women’s resistance sanitises a radical struggle… Those seeking to honour the bravest enemies of ISIL can begin by actively supporting the resistance in Kobane [Northern Syria], remove the PKK from the terror list, and officially recognize the Syrian Kurdistan administration.

Last week, the US pulled its support for the Kurds, despite their success keeping ISIL at bay. Every day, I see photos of beautiful, brave Kurdish women, children, and men who have now been either assassinated or killed. And as my heart breaks, I keep thinking, this is all wrong. Women should not have to live in a separate village in order to have autonomy, refuge, peace. And they certainly should not have to take up weapons to protect their villages, any more than men should.

There’s not a lot I can do to help them. Raise awareness. Light a candle, sing a song in their honor. But Greta would remind us that this whole war torn region is a casualty of our addiction to fossil fuels. We all use gasoline, or heating oil, or plastic; so we must acknowledge our collective contribution to the suffering. We are drowning in oil, and its blood is all over our hands.

Clean energy isn’t just a neat idea. Plant based diets aren’t just good for our hearts. There is much we can do to bring our troops home. There are many lives to save. These Kurdish women are among those who mama up. They are the Judges of their region, protecting the vulnerable, renewing a sacred, covenantal relationship with one another and the land, and nurturing justpeace. And, like many others, they are dying. How dare you? Judgment Day is upon us. What will we do?


Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee recently earned her Ph.D. in social and ecological ethics from Boston University School of Theology. She continues to study intersections of ecofeminism, permaculture ethics, grief, and nature connection. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives in central Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.

Categories: Activism, Ecofeminism, Ecojustice, General, War and Peace, Women's Power

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13 replies

  1. I’m with Greta. And the girls I presume are your daughters. How dare we bring our Mother Planet to the major sickness she’s enduring now? I’m with brave women in history and with Kurdish women today who are just trying to save the lives of their families while evil, powerful men (do I need to name them??) play with their explosive toys. Thanks for writing this post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Barbara, it makes me so heartsick. Writing is one way to wrap my mind around the immense grief. Thank you for joining hands on the journey. Blessings to you.


    • Yes, I have the privilege of being the mother of the girls in the photos. No matter how much we love them, they still manage to burst through all our expectations.


  2. It speaks to the state of our collective depravity that a child – woman becomes a heroine… Imagine her loneliness – now she is angry but beneath all that…well?
    I’ll repeat her words over and over…
    “Yet you all come to us young people for hope? How dare you? “


  3. Brilliant, timely post! Thank you!


    • Elizabeth, I am glad it is helpful. I am grateful for this community, where we can try to navigate these challenging waters together. Blessings to you, friend.


  4. Your post made me cry. Then it got me wondering if we allowed men to cry, maybe they wouldn’t kill each other/themselves and kill and rape girls and women so much. I sometimes think we all just need to cry and cry until we can actually face the truth honestly and understand what needs to be done and do it. Thank you for ripping this issue wide open, with brutal but loving honesty. The parallels you draw and the resonance are striking and powerful.


    • Trelawney, I am glad the post helped you get in touch with your own grief and rage. And I agree completely: men and boys need to have healthy vessels for their grief and rage as well. At times, it hits us so hard – so that it is too much to bear. Thank you for joining hands with me on this challenging journey.


    • Carol, thank you for sharing that, I really enjoyed it! And it echoes what Trelawney says above – what if men were to cry, and cry, and cry? Would our society and world finally begin to heal?


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