Social issues

Peshmerga: the Kurdish Women Facing Down the Islamic State

– by Hanifa Abdiraihan

Amidst the atmosphere of fear surrounding any news of radical group ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), there has been rising momentum of awareness of women rising up to fight against the tyranny this organisation propagates.

These are the female soldiers of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Peshmerga, meaning, ‘those who confront death’,  is the main security force in the region known as Kurdistan, and was first made official in 1943. Their soldiers have played an valuable role in the fight to contain ISIL in the region, most recently deploying troops in the Syrian town of Kobane. Not long ago, they also announced the recapture of several important cities in Iraq.

Kurdish female soldiers are hardly a new phenomenon. While the exclusively female cadre was formed in 1996 to assist against Saddam loyalists, a Florida State University thesis notes that Kurdish women fought in the military during the late 1700s. Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and Syria in the twelfth century, was Kurdish in background and employed women among his troops.

4According to Al-Monitor, soldiers of the exclusively female 6th Brigade, 2nd Battalion of the Peshmerga Forces undergo two kinds of training, which are “exactly the same as the men[‘s]”. One involves daily exercises starting at 6 am, followed by various educational seminars touching on topics such as politics and culture, and ending with military routine. The second is seasonal training, beginning at 5 am by studying theory on “political, military, and intelligence” topics, which is then applied in exercises in special training locations accompanied by male fighters.

Numerous female soldiers have been, and remain, active participants in the front lines, notably in reclaiming two significant oil fields in Kirkuk and Bai Hasan in northern Iraq. Awas Tawfiq, one such fighter, told the BBC in July, “I’m very happy: I’ve been training eight years for [the front line]. I’m not afraid. I know I’ll be defending my land. I’m very excited to go.”

In the report, Col. Nahida Ahmed Rashid, commander of the unit, said, “The reasons we want to fight ISIL is, first, we want to defend our country… to defend women, because in Mosul ISIS attacked a lot of women.” ISIS’s extreme interpretation of Islam has resulted in a complicated, and somewhat macabre, prescribed role for women. The group has all-female brigade which operates in Syria, initially formed to expose ‘anti-ISIL’ males disguising themselves as women to clear guarded checkpoints. One of them, al-Khansaa, now functions as a police unit, and enforces harsh rules on women, including strict dress codes.

In 2008, the humanitarian news service IRIN reported that there was a large amount of graffiti plastered on the walls of the Iraqi city Basra which read, “Your make up and your decision to forego the headscarf will bring you death.” In the same year, an average of fifteen women died every month as punishment for dress code infractions.

Untitled-3Many have regarded the Peshmerga’s 2nd Battalion as a refreshing new perspective on women in the Middle East, a region notorious for the stories of gender disparity and even segregation perpetuated by its fundamentalist voices. Dr Joseph Kéchichian, an American political scholar specialising on the Persian Gulf region, commented to Al Arabiya that the Peshmerga showed it was possible to “be both Muslim and moderate”.

Rashid admitted that it was not always smooth sailing. She recounted to an AFOSI reporter that the women were often “teased” by the men, and in response adopted a unique strategy to give them the power to press on: “During training the women carry the names of those female martyrs killed by the former regime. This gives them the strength to endure those who don’t believe in their abilities.”

The 2nd Battalion is not new to the struggle of women’s rights. For one, all soldiers are literate and are educated on political issues. Special Agent Tracy Simmons of AFOSI writes that they provide “one of the best maternity programs available [which includes] six months of light duty while pregnant and six months of leave” after birth. Pensions are made available to women who serve until retirement age and, perhaps most importantly, they provide shelters for members who are at risk of becoming an honour killing victim.

Between 1991 and 2007, over 12,000 women were victims of honour killings in Kurdistan. Despite the act having been declared illegal in 2008, incidents persist. In July, a Kurdish 15-year-old in Iraq was killed by her 45-year-old husband on the suspicion she harboured feelings for a boy.

In an article for PassBlue Suzan Aref, director of the Women Empowerment Organization, called it “a patriarchal system” where representation of women in legislature was largely symbolic, and was altogether missing from the executive and judiciary sectors of government. The female unit in Peshmerga, in contrast, is a considerable grassroots achievement. All 550 female soldiers in the 2nd Battalion are volunteers. One tells the New York Post “It’s an honour to be part of a modern Muslim country that allows women to defend the homeland.”

“We carry weapons not to be like men, but for peace,” said Rashid in the AFOSI report. “Our voices were caged for so long. We feel we now have the right to speak out and be heard. For this reason, we fight.”

Photo Credit: Jan Sefti

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