Co-authored with Jason Iliou. Published in Athens Views (print – no longer in circulation) on 29 August 2014
From the vast media coverage of the Iraqi conflict and the emergence of the Islamic State (IS), the role of female Peshmerga fighters is insofar underreported. In Kurdish it means fighting to the death, but the Kurdish fighters formed after the fall of the Ottoman Empire are now famous for defending Kurdish existence in Iraq. During the 20th century the Peshmerga engaged in guerrilla war with Iraq and during the Iraqi invasion in 2003 they joined forces with the US. Contrary to media claims the Peshmerga are not exclusively female fighters but include an all-female unit in their ranks who, since the recent Iraq crisis, have sworn to fight the Islamic State.
The IS has been on a bloodied rampage, raising international attention and causing an outrage around the world with its brutal executions and fervent prosecution of religious minorities and Christians. Kurdish resistance mainly relies on the Peshmerga who have been trying to protect both the Kurdish community, as well as other ethnicities.
Despite various financial and organisational issues the Peshmerga have vowed to resist the IS. “After the fall of Mosul, we [declared to] all the parties in south Kurdistan that our guerrilla forces are ready to defend our people in south Kurdistan. (…) Iraq will never be the same again,” a member told the Guardian.
Peshmerga’s all-female combat unit is a rather rare occurrence in the Middle East. Although women started having a more active role after their unit was established in 1996 in order to help fight Saddam Hussein’s offensive against Kurds, most of them held mainly administrative positions.
The IS’s cruel and hateful stance against women gradually changed that. Ever since the start of the IS insurgency, female fighters have been on the frontline. The IS has been forcing sexual jihad and forced marriages leaving no other choice for local women than to join Peshmerga ranks and fend off the paramilitary organisation. Hundreds of women have willingly undergone intensive military training to effectively take on the Islamic State.
“Female fighters stand ready for any sudden attacks, as they have a military background that they acquired in previous battles, including the battle of liberation of Iraq in 2003, and their participation within the two axes of Khanaqin and Kirkuk,” a Peshmerga woman leader told the Al-Monitor.
In the current conflict, the main struggle for Kurdish fighters is to remain focused on their nationalist roots – the creation and protection of the Kurdish state. However, as has happened in the past, at the end of each conflict, women fighters usually return to their traditionally established roles. Nationalist struggles tend to use women either as fighters, symbols, or both, with the vague promises of future equality.
The current crisis poses an opportunity for Kurdish women. Although their reality is unlikely to change, the women’s ability to stand tall against oppressors, moving higher in the military ranks should give them the right to demand a more active role in the Kurdish society.
On the other hand, despite supporting a devout oppression against women, the IS has often been associated with women leaders in its fight against Western imperialism.
Often dubbed “Lady Al-Qaeda,” Pakistani Aafia Siddiqui, linked to 9/11 ringleader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was once on the FBI’s most-wanted terrorists list. Captured for attempting to kill Americans in Afghanistan, US educated 42-year-old Siddiqui has been at the centre of attention in several prisoner exchange negotiations between the US and Islamic terrorist organisations.
In 2012, the Taliban were insistent that Siddiqui was part of a trade for Sergeant Bergdahl, who had been missing since 2009.
The Islamic State had been far more determined to have Siddiqui released in exchange for James Foley, who was seen beheaded in a video released just last week, and more recently for an American 26-year-old captured in Syria last year.
But as far as the IS considers Siddiqui a vital asset to their cause, the White House would never go into talks with the terrorist organisation steadfastly refusing to put her release on the table, despite risking the lives of American citizens at the hands of the IS.
Female fighters and ringleaders have certainly been added to the war rhetoric, so unlike their traditional role in Islamic societies, which remains passive and underprivileged.
If interested in issues concerning gender and feminism in the Middle East have a look at this list of recommended readings. The list is being updated regularly.