The Coalition Just Formed a Fighting Unit of 120 Kurdish Women
Troops to join offensive to free Mosul
British and Dutch military advisers in Northern Iraq have wrapped up training for a class of female peshmerga fighters. The foreign instructors trained 120 Kurdish women in infantry tactics, first aid and counter-IED skills.
This is the first time the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition has trained Kurdish women. These troops will reportedly serve as part of a peshmerga infantry battalion and will fight alongside their male comrades on the front line.
“They have a unique psychological advantage over Daesh as the terrorists believe that if they are killed by a woman they will not go to heaven,” stated a U.K. Ministry of Defense press release. “They are due to play a key role in the operation to retake Mosul, dealing with civilians who may have been victims of Daesh sexual violence.”
Women have long played an important role in Kurdish military history, particularly as guerrillas fighting Turkish and Arab rulers. But their level of participation has varied wildly depending on the faction.
Female guerrillas with the YPJ and PKK — sometimes mistaken for peshmerga by western audiences — are the most visible. During fighting for the Iraqi-Syrian border town of Rabia, War Is Boring contributor Matt Cetti-Roberts captured a series of images of a female sniper team as they scanned for — and shot at — suspected enemy fighters.
While Kurdish culture is relatively progressive by regional standards, and Kurdish women play important roles in business and politics, many Iraqi Kurds hold conservative views about gender roles. Traditionalists prefer to see women in the home, as far as possible from the front lines.
The Iraqi-Kurdish peshmerga has been far more hesitant to field female fighters compared to the PKK and YPJ. Though Iraqi-Kurdish women fought in the past as irregulars, the peshmerga has evolved from a scrappy collection of rebels to a de facto — if factionalized — army that serves the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government.
Though several women are members, they’ve mostly been relegated to roles as clerical workers and nurses, not fighters.
Women have been eager to volunteer, however. In 2014, War is Boring correspondent Vager Saadullah attended a graduation ceremony for a group of female peshmerga fighters. Peshmerga Col. Viyan Pendroy, a female Kurdish officer told him that her troops were willing — and capable — of fighting the Islamic State.
“We went to front lines many times to fight against ISIS, but our superiors usually tell us that there are enough men,” she said. Their superiors repeatedly sent them away, though some of the women made their way back on occasion to tell the men they’re willing to fight.
At the ceremony, a female fighter named Aveen Sidqi Nerway told War Is Boring that she’d been with the peshmerga for two years, and unlike many other women had seen brief combat. Nerway added that her husband is a peshmerga fighter, and that her father and other family members are peshmerga veterans.
At top — female peshmerga fighters train under the watch of a British military adviser. U.K. MoD photo. Above — peshmerga fighter Aveen Sidqi Nerway demonstrates how to disassemble an AK-47. Vager Saadullah photo
Recently, some peshmerga women have served as rear-guard troops protecting facilities in liberated areas close to the front line. As Kurdish forces pushed farther into Iraq’s Ninevah province and more men went to the front, more opportunities are gradually opening up for women.
The recent batch of Western-trained female peshmerga seem to be poised to take on a role similar to the cultural support teams the United States fielded in Afghanistan. Women received extra training and accompanied Green Berets, SEALs and Rangers on missions where they were likely to encounter local women.
These support teams were primarily sent out to gather intelligence and to assist in humanitarian roles — not combat. But the circumstances of Afghanistan’s asymmetric battleground makes no distinctions for “non-combat” personnel. Women soon began accompanying their male counterparts on deadly raids into areas where combat was a certainty.
Securing Mosul will likely be the most challenging part of the anti-Islamic State campaign in Iraq. If coalition-backed forces manage to enter the city in the coming months, it’s likely that clearing out the insurgents will take considerably longer.
The coalition and Kurdish forces have emphasized a need to have women on hand to deal with local women the Islamic State has kept as sex slaves. The group is keeping thousands of these women and girls in Mosul. Some who survived captivity and managed to escape the city have recounted their experiences, including being bought and traded.
Several female Kurdish fighters War Is Boring has interviewed have cited the Islamic State’s pervasive sexual violence and enslavement of Yazidi women as major reasons why they’ve joined the war, explaining that it gives them a particularly strong drive to fight.
While this war has turned thousands of innocent women into victims, for many Kurdish women it’s been a chance to prove themselves as warriors.