Kurdish Women Fighters and their social life

Women‌‌ 12:13 PM - 2014-11-09

Kurdish Woman Fighter and their social life

As soon as 2016, American women in the United States military will begin serving in combat roles for the first time. Across the world, in what some might think of as an unlikely place, it’s an age-old practice.
Women have been fighting in Kurdish paramilitary outfits, known as the Peshmerga, for years, according to Ahmad Khalil and Karen Leigh of Syria Deeply. “Kurdish women, regarded as some of the most liberal in the region, have a decades-long history of fighting,” they write. “Many have fought with the P.K.K., an internationally recognized terror organization that works with the Y.P.G., in southern Turkey.”
Now many have taken up arms against the encroaching Islamic State. “About 30 percent of the People’s Protection Units (Y.P.G.) — the armed wing of the P.Y.D. — is now female,” Syria Deeply reports.
“Long derided as backward, Kurds are now increasingly seen as heroic by many secular, liberal Turks who are anxious about the march of radical Islam,” remarks Asli Aydintasbas in an Op-Ed for The New York Times. Why? “On battlegrounds in Iraq and Syria, Kurdish men and women fight side by side, resisting and dying together.”
One such female fighter, a 24-year-old named Avesta, was profiled by Foreign Policy last month. “Avesta, whose nom de guerre is the same as the holy book of Zoroastrianism, a religion that Kurds consider as their original creed, commands a group of 13 fighters, eight of them female, from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party,” writes Mohammed A. Salih, “a rebel group that has fought the Turkish state for three decades in pursuit of Kurdish rights.”
“Avesta is no stranger to combat,” he explains. “The P.K.K. has fought for three decades against the Turkish military, NATO’s second-largest. Avesta fought in major P.K.K. battles against Turkey in 2012, 2008 and 2005.”
And she and her fellow fighters are well prepared to take on ISIS as a result, she says. “The Islamic State fought rigorously. But it was not as severe as our previous fights with the Turkish army,” she told Mr. Salih. “The Turks have warplanes and air power.” But ISIS’ soldiers “were not as capable fighters as their propaganda claimed. They mostly fought from afar with heavy weaponry like mortars and artillery.”
Some have said the use of female fighters against ISIS is nothing more than a stratagem cooked up by Kurdish leaders. Because ISIS’ primitive, oppressive attitudes toward women and extremist interpretations of Quranic law, it was thought that they might be afraid of dying at the hands of a woman. “The theory is that ISIS fighters believe if a woman kills you, you don’t get to go to paradise,” writes Zack Beauchamp for Vox.
That’s probably not true, he says. “The truth is that ISIS’ approach to women is much more complicated — and troubling — than Western stereotypes about Islamists would suggest. ISIS has its own female brigades, and the group uses them to enforce its deeply misogynistic ideology,” he explains. “The ‘ISIS is afraid of female fighters’ theory comes from a stray quote in a Wall Street Journal piece about Kurdish advances against ISIS. It quotes a female Kurdish soldier as saying, ‘The jihadists don’t like fighting women, because if they’re killed by a female, they think they won’t go to heaven.’ Note that it’s not an ISIS fighter, a scholar, or necessarily someone who’s interrogated an ISIS fighter: just a random Kurdish soldier, who may not be super-familiar with ISIS’ ideology.”
And despite their valued place in Kurdish militia forces, the station of ordinary women in Iraqi Kurdistan — where Kurds from the ethnic majority — is complicated. “The Iraqi Constitution says men and women are equal in Iraq,” writes Suha Audeh for Niqash, an Iraqi news agency. “There is even a quota system saying that a quarter of all MPs in Iraq’s parliament should be female,” she adds. That said, the practice of “honor killings” still persists in Iraqi Kurdistan — the killing of a family member, typically a wife, sister or daughter, for bringing perceived shame upon the family. Refusing to enter into an arranged marriage or engaging in sex outside of wedlock are common motives.
“More than 12,000 women were killed in the name of honor in Kurdistan from 1991 to 2007,” report John Leland and Namo Abdulla for The New York Times. “Government figures are much lower, and show a decline in recent years, and Kurdish law has mandated since 2008 that an honor killing be treated like any other murder. But the practice continues, and the crime is often hidden or disguised to look like suicide.”
“For many women in Kurdistan, life is anything but honorable,” write Johanna Higgs and Liga Rudzite for PassBlue — an independent digital publication covering the United Nations. “Women cannot have a boyfriend, but it’s an honor for a man to have a girlfriend. A divorced woman is like a disease, whereas a divorced man is just a man. A free woman is a bad woman, but a free man is a righteous man. Though there are new laws in Kurdistan promoting women’s rights, they are not accepted generally.”
The pair spoke with Suzan Aref, the director of the Women Empowerment Organization, a nonprofit group devoted to women’s rights headquartered in Erbil, the de facto capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. “It’s a patriarchal system and everything is run by men,” she said. She added, Ms. Higgs and Ms. Rudzite write, “that women have seats on the legislature, but they are symbolic and that women are not represented in the executive and the judiciary branches of the Kurdish government, which is a self-ruling body separate from the Iraqi government in Baghdad.”
The women of the Peshmerga, however, may be the key to upending Kurdistan’s gender inequities. When a Kurdish woman fears she may have somehow tarnished the family honor, and has been targeted by a vengeful male relative, the Peshmerga will provide her with a safe house, “and try to negotiate settlements with the families,” Niqash reports. What’s more, fighters have to be literate to join the Peshmerga, according to Jeremy Bender of Business Insider. Its female fighters aren’t just trained in ammunition and hand-to-hand combat, but politics and human rights, too.
Life for Kurdish women may not be perfect — but they are making strides toward equality that are anything but “symbolic.”


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