We are world's last line of defence against terrorism - Kurdish female fighter

When mothers, daughters and wives have to leave their loved ones to fight for the survival of nations – you know the war has reached its darkest stage. These women, the Valkyries of the modern era, are not afraid to risk their lives, as the stakes this time are very high. The Kurdish female battalion instills fear into the zealots of the Islamic State, holding the line alongside men of the Peshmerga against the extremists. Who are these women? Why are they taking up arms, and what are they leaving behind? We posed these questions to the All-female Peshmerga Battalion Commander, Colonel Nahida Ahmad Rashid.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Kurdish female fighters are on the frontlines along with men, fighting against the Islamic State today - why have you taken up a man’s job? Why did you choose the army life over family life?

Nahida Ahmad Rashid: Several generations of my family lived under anti-Kurdish regimes in Iraq. The Kurdish people have survived oppression, genocide, our history, our culture was nearly destroyed. Joining the Peshmerga, protecting our homeland is an honor for all of us - men and women alike. Today we live in a free Kurdistan, but women are still joining the Peshmerga, we’re prepared to fight shoulder to shoulder with men…

SS:When the regiment was founded, you were fighting against Saddam Hussein’s regime, for Kurdish rights and freedom - why did you stay at Peshmerga when the fight against Saddam was over?

NAR: Women have always been part of all the Kurdish uprisings, along with men. After the toppling of Saddam’s regime and the liberation of Kurdistan, we went into politics, became part of the Kurdish government. There weren’t enough fighters in Kurdistan, so women took up arms.

It all started off from a small group of women, who wanted to join the Peshmerga. I am one of the founding members of the Women’s battalion. We were initially backed by Jalal Talbani - a Kurdish politician who later became the president of Iraq. That’s how we built the women’s regiment. Today it’s a regular unit, there are around 600 women serving in the female battalion. It includes women from all over Kurdistan, regardless of ethnicity or religion - for instance, there’s Sunni and Shia Arabs, Turkmens, Christians and Kurds serving in the regiment.

SS:From what I understand the woman’s role in the Kurdish society is limited to family and household duties, yet you are accepted in the army. Do you get more respect as a woman with a gun?

NAR: Women Peshmerga fighters are not only soldiers; we are also mothers, wives, and sisters. Many of us have families, husbands, and children. But family never gets in the way of our job, we are still full-fledged fighters. There are girls who are engaged, there are those who have two or three kids at home. We even have a mother and daughter serving together in the regiment.

Today, Kurdistan is undergoing major change. There is no more talk of gender discrimination. The Kurdish women who take up arms to defend their country alongside men are living proof to that. And we are always ready to stand up for our country, the rights of women and all the communities in Kurdistan.

SS:You said you have children – what does your family think of your job? Do your children maybe want to join the Peshmerga too?

NAR: When it comes to family… my daughter is eleven years old, and she already has a strong sense of national identity, she wants to protect her homeland. And while there are no age limits for aspiring Peshmerga fighters, she is certainly still a child, and what she needs to do first is finish school and get professional education. In any case, joining the Peshmerga is something you do of your own accord. There are many women among us who are still studying in university; they’re encouraged to continue their studies. We are considerate of the needs of female students and young mothers too. For example, after having a baby, a woman can go on maternity leave for six months. Until the baby is 18 months old she doesn’t have to be on duty every day, it's enough if she attends regular military drills.

SS:Do you serve in the same conditions as men do? Do you undergo the same training? Do you receive the same pay?

NAR: Definitely, of course! Our regiment was formed 18 years ago and the whole purpose of its creation was equal rights, freedom. We wanted to put an end to discrimination against women. We weren’t even paid at first, but we didn’t care. Money didn’t matter to us, we wanted freedom, democracy. Defending our homeland was all that mattered. We were so scared of losing our new-found freedom.

Today women take part in military training more often than the male Peshmerga. Competing against men, our female soldiers take first and second places. We use all the same weapons men do.

At first we were trained by male officers, but now women took over that task.

Right now I can say with confidence that male and female Peshmerga are equal. We work with men during military exercises. As I said, women are taught how to use all types of weapons, just like men. We have a female sniper team, female mortar gunners, units that are equipped with heavy machine guns and other heavy weaponry. We even have female tank crews. Our regiment is part of a well-trained, well-equipped modern fighting force.

SS:What are women’s stronger points compared to men in battle? Men are undoubtedly stronger physically, but women are said to be psychologically more endurant. How does that show on battle field? Are women more fearless?

NAR: What you are saying is central, vital for all people, regardless of their sex, of their personal traits of character, level of courage and diligence. There are girls who charge into battle in the first line, leaving men behind. We use the same kind of weapons in this war as men do: we fight with rifles, grenade launchers, heavy machine guns. Personally, I see no essential difference between a female and a male Peshmerga.

Of course, not all women can become Peshmerga fighters, just like not all men can qualify for this. Whoever wants to be a Peshmerga has to have an iron will. It’s that iron will of today’s Peshmerga soldiers that give them strength to confront the most barbaric enemy of all time - and win. Considering all this, I don’t see a significant difference between myself and a male Peshmerga, even if he is my superior. For example, on the front lines I can be commanding one flank, and my male superior would be holding positions on the other flank. And the success we get would be our common success.

From the very beginning we have been on the frontline in this war with ISIS, we are the first to fight. We fought both in Kirkuk and at the Hanakin front. Our women get killed in this war. The deputy commander of the regiment, that is to say, my immediate deputy, was killed last November. She was a captain, a skilled shooter and a sniper. She was better at fighting off enemy attacks than any man, and it was thanks to her that the enemy failed to reach our positions. She left behind two daughters, one was barely 3 years old and the other was about 9 months old, not even 1 year old. She had never mentioned being a mom and having two small kids. She used to say that it was her duty to combat the foes of humankind and was prepared to give her life for her country.

My battalion is very close to ISIS positions, so we have been shelled much more than any other unit. We never agree to be put to alternate sectors where there is less fighting or in the rear.

SS:Can you tell me, what was your biggest most dangerous battle?

NAR: This isn’t our first war. We’ve been through many fights already. Let me tell you about our role in the fight against Saddam Hussein. We were on the front line near Kirkuk and Khanaqin. Several of our fighters were wounded. We were the first women’s unit to enter Kirkuk in 2003 together with the Peshmerga brothers. We were fighting side by side. The local residents – women, children, and the elderly – welcomed us with excitement, asking us to free them from Saddam’s regime. The same happened in Khanaqin. And back in 1995, we were fighting against Islamist terrorists. So this is clearly not our first fight.

This time around, we’ve been fighting along the Kirkuk-Khanaqin line since June. When our division was preparing for an assault near Al Bashir, the women’s unit armed with heavy machine guns, grenade launchers, and sniper rifles reached the front at midnight. It was an intense and difficult battle. The enemy was fighting back, fiercely trying to repel our attack, but the Peshmerga won the battle. Terrorists had to retreat leaving many dead behind. That’s when we saw that they were beheading their wounded so that they aren’t captured.

Last October we were in another difficult fight. We were attacked from all four sides. Suicide bombers were trying to get to our lines, to blow themselves up amid the Peshmerga, so that they could puncture our defense. But our regiment demonstrated outstanding bravery on the entire front, and the enemy was unable to break through.

Today our members are fighting right on the front line, in actual contact with terrorists. In the last battle, we lost several people, including a general. It was a tough affair, but we hit them hard with our mortars, machine guns and grenade launchers - they were forced to pull back.

SS:You just mentioned the Islamic State - ISIS is imposing fundamental rules against women, promoting sexual slavery… what happens to a woman-fighter if she falls into the hands of ISIS?

NAR: Women are the main target of ISIS in their assault on Kurdistan. The entire world saw what they did to women in Shangal. They made them slaves, gang-raped them, and sold them on the market. ISIS rejects any kind of human values. They even torture children! So they really hate the Peshmerga women, and they instruct their militants to kill us first. A Peshmerga woman is a particularly valuable trophy for ISIS terrorists, as they don’t believe women should be fighters, or should even sit at the same table as men. They are convinced that women should stay at home and just wear a hijab all the time.

But we the Peshmerga women have our own rules too. We swear an oath that the enemy will never seize us alive. Each of us carries a spare bullet as a last resort so that this doesn’t happen. If they treat ordinary women and children so ferociously can you imagine what they would do to a female Peshmerga fighter? We’re not afraid of ISIS; it’s them who fear us. They believe that if they die from a hand of a woman they will not go to heaven, and will not be considered Jihadi martyrs. And that helps the Peshmerga women stay fearless when facing the enemy.

SS:What happens to an ISIS fighter falling into the hands of a woman regiment? Has that ever happened? Or they’d rather kill themselves?

NAR: Yes, we saw wounded terrorists in the fights near Al Bashir. But as I’ve said, jihadists behead their own wounded with their knives before leaving the battlefield. 00.19.38

SS:You’ve fought ISIS on the frontlines - What was it like? Are they well-equipped?

NAR: Clearly, all weapons of the retreated Iraqi army landed in the hands of the IS terrorists, which means that they are equipped with modern arms. Moreover, they also receive help from outside. Whereas the Peshmerga fighters mainly have light arms and rifles, which are far from being new. However our willpower and bravery made the enemy kneel before us.

SS:Do you receive any kind of help? Are you receiving help from the U.S. and its allies like the Iraqi military is?

NAR: As a Peshmerga member, I am grateful to all the nations that have provided us with air support and supplied us with arms. But unfortunately that is not enough. The terrorists have seized state-of-the-art weapons from the Iraqi Army, and quite a few neighboring countries supply them with military hardware. Nevertheless, we thank the international coalition for providing both moral and material support to us. The air strikes have played a major role. Coalition jets bombed terrorist positions and strongholds, inflicting serious damage. Once again, we are thankful to all the members of the coalition. But unfortunately, such help hasn’t been sufficient. Indeed, countries like the United States and Germany have provided us with weapons and miliitary instructors and other support, which was highly useful. But let us not forget that the Peshmerga are singlehandedly resisting international terrorism, which threatens the entire world, including Europe. It is evident that if the terrorists were to succeed in Kurdistan, people in other countries will be sharing the plight of the Kurdish women and children in jihadist-controlled areas.

SS:What more do you need? Do you need weapons?

NAR: We certainly do need weapons. We need qualified military instructors to train our troops. We need support in all of these areas from the anti-terrorist coalition.

SS:Why are the Kurdish fighters a stronger force than the Iraqi military? Iraqi soldiers ran for their lives when they faced ISIS.

NAR: The thing is, the Iraqi Army was corrupt and demoralized. It was formed in a highly sectarian environment – I mean the Sunni-Shia strife, which is a very dangerous factor. The Iraqi Army has never been a truly national army. Besides, it still is very poorly trained. It had vast stocks of of weapons and ammunition, but it had neither the skill for using them nor the morale befitting a national army. To be honest, you could say they weren’t a real army at all. They had no proper discipline. They have proved unable of even protecting themselves. ISIS managed to infiltrate the officer corps, and the Army eventually surrendered all its territory to the jihadists. The Iraqi Army has essentially defeated itself.

SS:Are you only fighting inside Iraqi Kurdistan, or are you moving into areas of Iraq proper?

NAR: As you can see, we are currently posted at the edge of Kurdistan. Our mission is to guard the border. We are ready to engage the enemy anywhere if we get the order. But this is a decision that only the political leadership can take. At the moment, the Peshmerga are on the front line, protecting our nation’s boundaries.

SS: I am listening to you and I am amazed at how brave Kurdish women are - But tell me something, how is it that Kurdish women are fighting on the frontlines, but back home they are subject to nasty things like genital mutilation and honour killings? Do you feel the service in the army makes things better for women in the whole Kurdish society?

NAR: Right now we do our duty as members of the Peshmerga. In the meantime, we, the women of Kurdistan, stay active in our country’s political and social life. We work with all women’s rights groups, confronting violence against women. The government is now also helping prevent violence against women. It’s true that we were isolated from the rest of the world for quite some time. Those who ruled Iraq and Kurdistan before did everything to keep our society backward. We still have prejudices. But together with women’s groups we’ve gone a long way. It’s safe to say that violence against women is gradually on the decline. As for honor killings, seen as revenge, they are still common. However, this is a problem not just for Kurdistan. Many countries suffer from this. Violence against women in general is an issue in all countries, including those in Europe, the US, but violence just takes a different form.

When we talk about rights, about freedom and democracy, I would not say these concepts are deeply ingrained in nations around the world. In Kurdistan as well - it’s not complete. We do have democracy and freedom. I can surely speak for women, at least they are free and it’s up to them to choose their profession. We work hard to ensure the legitimate rights of women are respected. We have a law in place that bans domestic violence. The parliament of Kurdistan passes laws to protect women. The country now has a 30 percent quota for women at every level of power. Our women can now play an important role in decision-making, including in parliament and executive agencies. Thanks to this move we now have fewer problems. But it doesn’t mean we don’t have any left. We live in a society where Islamist parties are still strong. They pretend to be protecting Islam, but really that’s just a cover to trample women’s rights, including their right to make their own decisions. This is still a barrier on the way to full empowerment.

SS:Colonel, you – personally, do you envisage a different life for yourself sometime in the future? If there’s peace? Would you like to have a life different from that of a fighter?

NAR: I dreamed a long time of joining the Peshmerga. I grew up in a family where many, including my brothers, fought in the Peshmerga. When Saddam Hussein was in power, I was part of the political struggle. And I intend to stay part of the Peshmerga. I love what I do.

SS:We can hope, that one say there’s peace, in 10, 20 years, what then – would you choose a different job?

NAR: We, the Peshmerga, do what we have to do as a nation. We’ve taken up arms not to kill. We have taken up arms to raise vigilance, to regain our rights, women’s rights, and protect these rights. Initially, the idea behind the female unit was to defend what we already achieved – our parliament, our stability and security that the government of Kurdistan has attained.