Kurdish women have gained a reputation worldwide for their strength and determination when they picked up weapons and took their places on the frontlines in the war against ISIS. While there is no official count, it is believed that 30% to 40% of combatants in Kurdistan are women. Many of the fighters are teenagers when they join. Some sign up with the support of their parents, says Hamad. Others have run away from home because their parents would not allow them to go.
Kurdish women typically marry at a young age and even if they want to go on a walk, they have to ask permission.They fight for equality by taking on traditionally masculine roles and transforming perceptions. For many, joining the militia has been their first taste of freedom. Many of them appear older than their age, due to traumatic events of war. Although men and women separate into different camps overnight, they often train together and fight shoulder to shoulder. The female Kurdish fighters have had a definite impact on the male part of Kurdish society. When they see women with weapons and fighting, they learn to respect them."
Women have served in Peshmerga (the Kurdish army) forces , Kurdish women first took up arms in the early 1990s, as members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long war for self-rule in Turkey. Inspired by Murray Bookchin, an obscure American philosopher, Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s leader, sought to empower his female comrades. Female Peshmerga have primarily found themselves maintaining border security, protecting women’s shelters, and providing medical and communication services throughout history. Formally integrated into the forces in 1996, female fighters rarely carried out combat-related duties and stayed far from the front lines where their male comrades were stationed. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) formed the first all-female unit in 1996, and this unit alone has grown to include more than five hundred fighters. Members have since moved on to assume high-ranking military positions, up to the rank of colonel.
However, decades of formal participation in Peshmerga did not provide women with the opportunities to branch out of the limited roles designated for them. With the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) in June 2014, cultural taboos and restrictions previously surrounding women broke down. Female Peshmerga assumed more active combat roles and ultimately joined the front lines of the battle against IS. The ISIS terrorists believe they won't go to islamic heaven if they are killed by a woman. The fighters that ISIS fears the most wear lipstick, according to these troops. Some even let their long, braided hair fall out behind their hats. A female Zeravani captain said it would be "humiliating" for an ISIS fighter to be killed by a woman. These women fought bravely and demonstrated to both potential recruits and their superiors that female Peshmerga were a valuable asset to combat forces.
In June 2014, the first female Peshmerga were deployed to the Basheer front. During August of the same year, female fighters also took part in the operation to recapture the Mosul Dam. After the dam had been recaptured, ten female Peshmerga continued to guard it – a sign of Kurdish women’s changing role in combat in the war. In 2016, with the plans to liberate Mosul underway, close to 1000 female members of the Peshmerga Zeravani unit received intensive two-month training from Italian coalition forces at a Kurdish base outside of Erbil. That same year, female Peshmerga became part of the mission to secure the city of Kirkuk and nearby oil fields, eventually reclaiming the oil production facilities at Bai Hassan in Kirkuk from IS.
Participating in the fight against IS by joining the Peshmerga became both an act of necessity and a point of pride for Yazidi women as well. Yazidi are an ethnic and religious minority, who suffered a genocide from ISIS. These women voluntarily joined Peshmerga ranks following the Sinjar massacre in August 2014, when thousands of Yazidis were killed and abducted by IS forces and forced to flee to the Sinjar Mountains. Under the rule of the Islamic State group, women were forced to wear all-encompassing veils and could be stoned to death for adultery. Hundreds of women and girls from Iraq’s Yazidi minority were captured and forced into sexual slavery. In January 2015, Former Yazidi singer Khatoon Khider, a survivor of the massacre, obtained formal permission to set up an all-female Yazidi battalion by the Kurdistan Regional Government and became the commander of the Force of the Sun Ladies Brigade. By early 2017, the Sun Brigade consisted of nearly 200 Peshmerga-trained women between the ages of 18 and 38. Moreover, in 2016, 127 Yazidi Kurdish women completed a 45-day intensive basic training course at a Peshmerga Tiger base in Peshkhabur in the Zakho district.
The fight against IS has indisputably demonstrated female fighters’ exceptional combat skills and leadership. Colonel Nahida Ahmad Rashid, who is currently the highest ranking female commander in the Peshmerga, is but one example. And for their part, many women are interested in taking on combat roles. For the first time in 18 years, the all-female unit has had to turn down women applicants due to a lack of training capacity.
Yet with the fight against IS approaching its end, the future of female Peshmerga fighters and women’s representation in Kurdistan remains unknown. One positive model for the future is the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) of Syria, an all-female military organization established in 2013. The YPJ provides a clear example of female fighters successfully breaking traditional gender barriers in Syrian society and obtaining a more lasting freedom through their collective fight against IS.
For many in the YPJ and other female military organizations, all-female units have provided women with the opportunity to liberate themselves from men’s dominance and have created environments where both women’s rights and gender equality have flourished. Indeed, power in Rojava is currently equally divided between men and women. While the question of whether this equality will remain in a more stable Rojava remains, the involvement of women in both military and political positions bodes well for their future involvement in civil life and potential future shifts in public opinion on the role of women overall.
Yet female Peshmerga fighters in Iraq now fear that trends may be shifting in the opposite direction. In a number of interviews conducted by the author at a Peshmerga base during March and April 2018, female Peshmerga fighters expressed concerns as to whether they will retain their freedom after the fight against IS concludes. Even in spring, the barrack’s tiny white cabins baked in 113°F heat. The women who live in these bases rely on the strong social solidarity formed in their units, yet in some ways they are trapped in their cabins. Despite their training, their work is now limited to guarding their own bases, often chopping vegetables at night for the base’s cafeteria. Unlike male Peshmerga fighters, the women are required to remain on base on days when they’re on duty, and many are concerned that this model is what participation in the Peshmerga will come to look like after the full defeat of IS. Some women were deciding to leave due to boredom and the unavailability of services inside the bases, and they are growing frustrated at the lack of trust expressed by the government even after the female Peshmerga units had already proved themselves.
A female Peshmerga stated that, “when no one dared to enter Kirkuk, we forced IS out together with the male Peshmerga.” In contrast, however, “now we are being used for media coverage and nothing else. We demand gender equality, further rights, and the same attention to women Peshmerga than our male partners.” These women viewed their participation in the Peshmerga as a sign of broader social equality; the KRG now has an opportunity to build on the successes of female combat units against IS to create longstanding and positive social change. Having women in close-combat units can help lead to a more positive perception of women’s roles in other public positions. Moving forward, it is indispensable to afford women even greater roles than they assume now in order to demonstrate the benefits of women’s equal participation in institutions such as the Peshmerga forces.
The Kurdistan Regional Government currently has a unique window of opportunity to continue the policies towards female Peshmerga that enabled these combatants to participate in the fight against IS as equal members rather than support staff. However, if female forces are left to languish in their former positions, this opportunity will be lost. The underrepresentation of women in public life and limited number of roles available to them should be addressed by laws and policy changes focused on promoting gender equality. With equal civic responsibility comes equal performance of civic duties, which serves all. The Kurdistan Regional Government, Peshmerga leaders, and civil society organizations all are accountable in driving for change to ensure that women remain in combat units. The YPJ’s example demonstrates that Iraqi Kurdistan can also become a success story in enhancing the role of women militarily, politically, economically, and socially—but women must be given an equal opportunity.