Iraq’s Largest Kurdish Faction Excludes Women From the Front Line
The KDP keeps women in logistics and propaganda — not fighting — unlike other Kurdish groups
A mortar round exploded close to her position. She was hit on the head and on the left leg. It was the end of 2003, the enemy was Saddam Hussein and Chinor Sabir fought alongside dozens of other peshmerga women to liberate Iraqi Kurdistan from the regime’s troops.
For several years she was crippled and had massive headaches, but it didn’t matter since that pain was the proof she did her job on the battlefield.
Twelve years later and Sabir is still at war, this time against Islamic State. But a lot has changed since she first picked up arms against the Iraqi dictator. The 35-year-old captain in the Hezi Zjinan — or Women’s Force that numbers 500 soldiers — is very clear.
“Women in the KRG [the Kurdistan Regional Government] are not allowed on the front lines anymore,” she said in her unit compound in the outskirts of Sulaymaniyah in late September.
Sabir has big brown eyes and dark long hair tied back in a ponytail. She is married to a general and they have no children.
Sabir is responsible for 110 women. They are stationed in Daquq, on the outskirts of Kirkuk and a hot-spot in the war against Islamic State. “We support our male peshmerga, we go to the battlefield and help with logistics behind the front lines,” she said.
They also help the troops’ morale since the peshmerga have not been paid for more than five months, and according to her superior, Col. Missrin, that is a very important job.
But the KRG decided to forbid women from active combat in 2013 after a survey among troops. “Our women fought for decades alongside men, but now we are in a different period of time. At the moment there is no need for them to be on the frontline,” said Amin, a civil affairs officer in the peshmerga.
So who are the women applauded as fighters around the world?
Female Kurdish fighters have been a regular feature in Kurdish and Western counter-propaganda. Women serving in the peshmerga are praised as heroes and been described as “badass.” The stories of deadly sniper women in Syria have circulated widely, contrasting with Islamic State which enslaves women. The narrative is that the Kurdish troops fight for women’s freedom and rights in the whole Middle East, not just in Kurdistan.
Ironically, there is a general belief that if a jihadi is killed by a woman he will not go to Heaven, but straight to Hell.
“That is one of the best incentives they could ever give us,” Nisir, a sniper, told me during a recent trip to the region.
All of this is true for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK — a Turkish group which NATO members consider a terrorist organization — and the Syrian-Kurdish Women’s Protection Units or YPJ. In these two Kurdish guerrilla groups, women are considered equal to men, and have the same responsibilities and duties on the battlefield.
The female fighters became so famous that H&M, a Swedish multinational retail-clothing company, produced a jumpsuit that resembled their uniforms. The company had to publicly apologize after a social media outrage.
But according to Kurdish scholars, the Western media has failed to recognize the different political backgrounds — and factions — and ignored the Kurdish tradition of women in combat. “There are many examples of women as warriors or leaders in Kurdish history,” wrote Dilar Dirik, a Kurdish activist and Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge.
In the 19th century, Kara Fatma led a battalion of 700 men, one of the tribal units created by the Ottoman Empire. She fought the Russian Empire and was able to insert 74 women into her unit’s ranks. Or as a more recent example, many women look up to PKK commander Beritan Dersim.
On Oct. 25, 1992, during the Kurdish civil war, Beritan expended all of her ammunition while fighting the peshmerga. Instead of surrendering, she threw herself off a mountain top. Many women in the YPJ adopted Beritan as a nom de guerre as a tribute to her courage.
But in Iraq, the peshmerga are principally divided between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) — the largest party in Iraqi Kurdistan — and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) which see each other as rivals. The KDP controls the north, including the capital Erbil, while the PUK governs the south in cities such as Sulaymaniyah and the recently annexed Kirkuk.
There is also military and political tension between the KDP and the PKK, some of which is vestigial and dates to the Kurdish civil war in the early ’90s.
While the PUK, which is seen as aligned with the PKK, doesn’t completely oppose women on the front lines, the KDP does not want female peshmerga near the fighting. But at the same time, the KDP doesn’t mind publicizing female peshmerga for propaganda purposes.
Furthermore, upon seeing the PKK and YPJ’s successes, the KDP tried to follow in their footsteps by widely publicizing two all-female battalions they created. But so far, none of these women have participated in active combat, at least against Islamic State. Instead, the fighters guard checkpoints, run logistics and participate in “organizing social activities.”
“We don’t want women to fight, there is no need to risk their lives,” said Helm Mozouri a KDP peshmerga general who believes women are not strong enough to be in combat.
The KDP also sent the popular singer Xate Shingali, who goes by the name Hellyluv, to form an all-Yazidi battalion. “We have had only basic training, and we need more. But we are ready to fight ISIS anytime,” Shingali told The Daily Mail in August. Stationed just outside Dohuk, the “Sun Girls” have not yet been deployed.
On the other hand, the Sinjar Resistance Group has an all-female unit trained by the YPJ and which is active around the city of Sinjar. Most of these Yazidi women escaped Islamic State and see the peshmerga as traitors.
“They left Sinjar without even shooting a bullet. They abandoned us. We are alive because of the PKK and the YPG. They came to save us,” said a woman who adopted the Kurdish name Berfin as a tribute to her saviors.
Now she fights to take her city back.
Nearly 300 miles away from Sinjar in Sulaymaniyah, Chinor Sabir has nothing but respect for the YPJ and PKK warriors. “They made us proud. They are fighting so well and because of them the Kurdish cause is now known all around the world,” she said.
Sabir misses fighting and being on the front. “I did my duty, now times have changed. We have rights and we have land. Men don’t need us anymore.”