Kurdish Women Warriors

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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.

Sharia Law and Women

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Silence never won rights . They are not handed down from above; they are forced by pressures from below. – Roger Nash Baldwin

Imagine this scene.  A Christian woman is accused of burning her Bible. An angry mob drags her from her home shouting God is great. Instantly a crowd gathers and begins to berate her as it is whipped into a frenzy by the accusers.  Her eyes are filled with terror as she tries to shield herself from the blows of the ever increasing mob. No one tries to protect or rescue her from this hideous attack even though police officers are present.  Blood runs down her face when someone hits her in the head with a brick. As the violence escalates, she is hit with bats, stomped on and run over by a car before being dragged behind it. Then she is set on fire and her limp body thrown on the bank of a river where onlookers take pictures of her mutilated body.

In a real situation we would ask her if the accusations were true, and if they were some people would be shocked and angrily denounce what she did, but they wouldn’t kill her. A few true Christians would go to her and listen to her reasons for burning the Bible. Perhaps she is grieving or going through a personal crisis and feels God is not listening to her. Most people would just shake their head and walk away. Modern Christianity condemns the sin but not the sinner. Redemption is always within reach.

Last week in Kabul, Afghanistan  28-year old Farkhuna was accused of burning a Koran and the above scenario was her fate. Investigators have found no proof at all that she burned a Koran and have concluded she was totally innocent. It is reported she had disagreed with the local mullah for his selling charms to women at the mosque, resulting in him making the false accusation. He has since been arrested along with 12 others including nine police officers. A prominent  Kabul cleric praised her attackers and said the  crowd had a right to defend their Muslim beliefs at all costs. He stated “I am warning the government not to arrest those who did this, because it will mean an uprising.”

Obviously the billions of dollars the United States has pumped into Afghanistan to promote rule of law and insure human rights has been a shocking failure. While President Ashraf Ghani condemned the killing and a public outcry called for more arrests, I am skeptical that justice will be served.

In 2009, an Afghani woman named Gulnaz was raped by her cousin’s husband and she became pregnant. She was then charged with adultery under Sharia law and sentenced to 12 years in jail. She was offered the chance to be released if she married her attacker. She refused. The decision resulted in world-wide criticism for Afghanistan’s horrendous human rights violations. American attorney, Kimberley Motley, submitted a pardon application to then President Hamid Karzai and eventually she was released. Most of the women in prison in Afghanistan are there for “moral” crimes –rape, adultery and failure to obey a husband.

While I was in Afghanistan I came to understand the word “chattel”. I was on a mission to do a market walk and I was waiting in our armored vehicle while our security force scanned the market to make sure it was safe for us to get out. I amused myself by watching the activity in the market out of my window. A man in a white Toyota pulled up near us and I saw that he had three goats in the back seat of the car. He got each goat out and tied them up near a stall. Then he went to the trunk of the car and opened it. A woman, I assume his wife, got out of the trunk wearing a royal blue burka, a garment that completely covers the body and only has a small grill across the eyes. It was a warm day and I don’t know how long she had been shut up in that trunk but a burka is hot and smothering. I was sick in my soul and I thought, “This is what chattel is. She is not even good enough to ride in the front seat. She is not even as valuable as the goats.”

If we heard of such things happening in the U.S. we would be shocked. A woman beaten and burned, a rape or locking someone in the trunk of a car-these would be considered crimes and hopefully someone other than the victim would be held accountable. And considering there is a 97% illiteracy rate in Afghanistan, the people who beat and burned Farkhunda have probably never read a Koran. A Christian loves and reveres their Bible, but the book itself will never mean more than the words it contains, for they are something that cannot be destroyed. A Christian carries the word of God in their hearts and those words include forgiveness, tolerance, love and peace. If Muslims want the world to accept Islam as a peaceful religion then they need to stand up and condemn the atrocities that are being committed in its name. Religious fanatics exist in every religion and they certainly don’t speak for everyone, but to say nothing is a form of passive approval and that is unacceptable.