When they see a woman with a gun they’re so afraid they begin to shake. They portray themselves as tough guys to the world, they see women as just little things-but one of our women is worth a hundred of them. – Kurdish woman fighter
Recently images and stories are emerging from Syria of the Women’s Protection Unit (WPU), a 7,000-strong Kurdish military group. These images of young women taking up arms against ISIS has become an Internet phenomenon and put a face on the war against terror. The Kurds are an Iraqi ethnic group, mostly inhabiting Iran, Syria, Iraq and Turkey, a geo-cultural region often referred to as “Kurdistan”. They are mostly Sunni Muslim but are adherents to a large number of different religions and creeds. The Iraqi Kurds have mostly been pro-Western, despite our reluctance in the past few years to address their pleas for support.
In an area where women face extreme subjugation, these women fighters clad in camouflage and body armor are a stark contrast to the burka clad, veiled women we normally associate with the Middle East. While it is tempting to paint these women taking up arms as merely a zealous patriotic desire to defend their land against a monstrous invader, it is more complicated than that. Patriotism and a desire for freedom certainly is a big factor, but serving in the WPU also provides women an avenue to escape abusive marriages and other forms of repression. While Western media and Kurdish leaders don’t hesitate to use the images of the women fighters as a propaganda tool, the WPU and the Peshmerga, the national military force for Kurdistan, provide a network of support for women who might otherwise be locked in the struggles of a repressive society.
Kurds are the most progressive in an area of extreme conservatism but life for women is still not a bed of roses. Human Rights Watch reports that 60% of women in Kurdistan have been victims of female genital mutilation and forced marriages are common. The Kurdish women fighters have been instrumental in the war against ISIS especially in the town of Khobani, where they have been defending the city from radical jihadists since September of 2014. One young woman explained her enlistment in the military, “I didn’t really have any other ambitions. I just wanted to live a free life, as a woman, to be able to see our reality, and have our rights and just live.”
Kurdish women have been training and fighting for decades, especially under the highly oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein, it is just now that we are hearing of them in the Western world. While their bravery and heroism in battle is undeniable, I think the bravest revolution they are waging is against the oppression of women. These women are fighting against stereotypes and they belong alongside the Tuskegee Airmen, the Navajo Windtalkers and Russian sniper Lyudmilla Pavichenko of WWII. Their love of country, freedom and the camaraderie they share as they fight their battles inspire me. I salute you, brave warriors. Your victories are our victories.