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War in the land of women

MAHMOODIN, Syria -- We journeyed into eastern Syria to see the front line in the fight against militants of the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) -- and the small, under-equipped army of Kurdish soldiers who are holding off the extremists.

Women, teens defend Syrian village from ISIS 02:43

What we didn't expect to find was a society that -- unusual in the Middle East -- appeared to be dominated by women.

A mile away from ISIS positions we met four young female soldiers. The oldest was 24, the youngest only 19. All of them were students before they joined up.

Middle Eastern communities tend to be more conservative than those in the West. Segregation is common, and many Muslim women cover their heads as an act of religious piety.

But dressed in combat fatigues, their heads uncovered and mixing freely with the male soldiers, the women fighters saw nothing unusual in playing a role in active combat. Their commander told us that about a third of the fighting force in Syrian Kurdistan is made up of women.

"I'll stay and fight for as long as it takes to defeat them, as long as I live," said Akina Akin, who at 19 is already a battle-hardened warrior.

Just a mile away, in ISIS territory, women are forced to wear a niqab, which covers everything but their eyes. Any women who don't are reportedly subject to beatings, or worse.

In the nearby Kurdish town of Rmaylan, however, the regional government seemed to be almost entirely staffed by women. The head of the government is Hadiya Yusuf, who told us she spent two years in a Syrian government prison after pushing for democratic reforms.

Yusuf pulled no punches when we asked her about the American airstrikes in Syria, which began a week ago.

"We don't think they're hitting the right targets," she told us, suggesting the U.S. might want to communicate with her administration.

Over cups of sweet tea after our interview, one of Yusuf's assistants told us her team was "fighting for all women, everywhere."

The powerful role of Kurdish women in Syria is no aberration. Across the border to the north in Turkey, where the Kurdish minority has a tense relationship with Turkish authorities, Kurdish women also play key roles in the political leadership.

Our Kurdish translator Omar Omar has a theory about why women have become more powerful in Kurdish communities than in many other Middle Eastern societies.

"We've spent centuries fighting wars with Arabs and Persians," he told us, "and they've always tried to force their version of Islam on us. In reaction, we've gone the other way, and become more liberal."

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