Meet the Peshmerga Women Fighting ISIS

Kurdish peshmerga women fighters during combat skills training at their camp in Sulaimaniya, northern Iraq, on September 18, 2014. Ahmed Jadallah/reuters

This article first appeared on The Daily Signal.

Lt. Colonel Nahida Ahmad Rashid is a top-ranking female commander in the peshmerga, the army of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Peshmerga (meaning "those who face death") are proving to be the most effective force in the Middle East fighting the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

Having fought bravely alongside other (all male) regiments since 2014 at Jalawla, Khanaqin and Dakuk, Rashid and her battalion of 600 women are undoubtedly important players in the ongoing war with ISIS.

I interviewed Rashid in late April this year. Living in Soran in northeast Kurdistan, I was taken by car on the three-hour journey to the battalion's base just outside the city of Sulaimaniyah.

My driver, Mr. Hakim, is the manager of the local branch of the PUK (the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), one of the two main Kurdish political parties.

We were accompanied by another peshmerga, Sarwar "Sam" Dargalaye. Being both an Iraqi and an English-speaking American citizen, he acted as translator as well as bodyguard. Although this region is relatively safe, the kidnapping of Westerners does occasionally take place.

Arriving at the main gate of the base we saw a large picture of Capt. Rengin Yousef, a shahid (a martyr), killed in October 2014 while fighting ISIS. She had been a sniper, "One of the best," Warrant Officer Zetun Kamal Marf, said to us later.

Yousef, 25, had been a mother of two young children, one less than a year old. "She had never feared death, she was proud to defend her country, her freedom," explained Marf.

Yousef is one of several battalion women killed in action. Talking to different officers on the base it became clear that these soldiers train together, fight together and face death together. For these women, the death of a fellow soldier is nothing less than the loss of a loved one, a valued family member.

After a brief tour of the main building and informative talks with Marf and other soldiers of various ranks, we meet Rashid in her office.

Although feminine, possessing a warm demeanor and an affable sense of humor, she is every bit a commander: a disciplined and decisive leader.

Modest and unassuming, few people are aware that Rashid is, among other things, highly proficient in the martial art of taekwondo.

Through a translator, I asked Rashid why she chose a military career.

"Joining peshmerga, defending our country and families, fighting for our freedom, is an honor for us all, both men and women," she replied.

Like many Kurdish families today, Rashid's father, brothers and other relatives were members of peshmerga.

Her desire to fight for her country is rooted in the terrible things she experienced as a child growing up under the rule of former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. When she was young, Rashid witnessed Iraqi soldiers tie her uncle to a tank, pull him along the road, then throw his lifeless body into a pit.

This was the period of Al-Anfal, Saddam's campaign of genocide against the Kurds and other minority groups. Villages and towns were destroyed; people forced from their homes and moved to settlements little better than concentration camps. An estimated 182,000 Kurdish civilians were killed in that campaign.

As a teenager Rashid, living in Chwarta, a town near to Sulaimaniyah, became a tanzeem, one who secretly helps peshmerga residing in the mountains by providing food, clothing, and ammunition. She also passed on information about the strength and location of the Iraqi forces.

Courageously, Rashid carried out attacks on members of the Mukhabarat–the Iraqi Secret Service. The Iraqis, however, became aware of her activities.

"I ran away to the mountains" she stated defiantly, and from that time onward, she lived as peshmerga. "I didn't want to be a good student," she says smiling, "but only a good peshmerga."

Rashid tells me how, as a young, inexperienced peshmerga, she was surprised that they didn't kill captured Iraqis. Her instructor told her: "We have humanity. We are human not animals, we take care of prisoners."

This humanitarian ethic has characterized the peshmerga throughout its history. Even ISIS fighters are treated humanely if captured.

In 1995, Rashid met Jalal Talabani, the primary founder and leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and later president of Iraq. She suggested to him the idea of a woman's military base. Talabani agreed and Rashid became a leader of a small group of peshmerga women fighters, the original nucleus of today's battalion.

"I wasn't scared," she said facetiously. "Only scared of my worried father. I had to go on duty as a soldier in secret from him, and even my husband didn't know," she laughed.

After graduating at the Qalachwalan Military College Rashid served as a peshmerga officer, this time fighting Ansar al-Islam, a militant Islamic group appearing in north Kurdistan in 2001.

"It was a very hard fight," she explained. "They were the same as Daesh [the name Kurds use for ISIS]. They were cruel, inhumane, treating women very badly."

While we talked, Chai (a hot, sugary tea) and fruit was regularly served by a soldier in her early 20s, dressed in army fatigues, her hair in a ponytail underneath a peaked cap.

Rashid was relaxed, friendly, candid. I jokingly said her name is easy to remember, as my wife is also called Nahida. We laughed and showed each other photographs of our spouses.

I asked about her family. She told me with maternal pride that she has "one beautiful daughter, aged 12."

"How does your daughter feel about you being a commander in peshmerga?" Rashid laughed again.

"She is proud of me," she said, "and she would love to be peshmerga when she is 16. She often says Daesh is bad, killing children like her."

There is a long tradition of female peshmerga. Kurds are proud of the "Zhini Shakh" (women of the mountains), those who fought as guerrillas against Saddam in the 1980s. Various names are revered, such as Khuska Halima (Sister Halima), a peshmerga commander in the 1970s; Leyla Qasim, a student activist executed by Saddam in 1974; Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, a pioneer fighter and the wife of Jalal Talabani.

These peshmerga women of the past and the present are not amazons or super humans, as has been portrayed occasionally by the media. Such a sensationalized image belies the fact that, yes, such women are extraordinary in their courage, determination and self-sacrifice for others, yet they are ordinary women: wives, mothers, and daughters.

By the manner of the soldiers entering and leaving Rashid's office, it is clear she has the respect of those under her command. But I also noticed an almost palpable oneness between her and her officers, an equality, a "sisterhood" united in fighting a common foe.

I asked Rashid, "Are women peshmerga treated the same way as men?"

"Today there is absolutely nothing different," she replied.

She informed me: "When I first served as peshmerga many men looked at me critically. But I asked them directly, what's the difference between me and you?"

"It was very hard for a woman," she says. "Religion and culture have held women back. But I am glad we have managed to change the opinion round."

She continued to talk about gender equality. "Today the training is the same for both men and women. We are being trained by the British Army. The training is hard."

She told me that one of her soldiers had recently broken her wrists while training.

"We train like men, we fight like men and we are prepared to die like men," she said with conviction.

I spoke of the need for unity between the different groups within peshmerga, particularly the rivalry between the PUK and the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party). She agreed. "I don't care who belongs to my party. I respect peshmerga. Without unity we are nothing."

"When I am in uniform, I am peshmerga. When I wear a party dress I can wear either green or yellow," she said, humorously. Green and yellow are the colors of the PUK and the KDP.

There was obviously no shortage of women recruits. In the time I spent talking with Rashid, parents arrived in her office with their daughters, requesting enlistment into the regiment. One woman, now retired, who had previously served with the battalion, expressed a wish to return and fight ISIS.

"I would like to take them all," states Rashid, "but we do not have the funding."

Kurdistan is presently facing a severe economic crisis. Soldiers, like all public sector workers, often do not receive their pay, and ISIS is proving to be a determined foe. Almost 1,400 peshmerga have been killed and 7,500 wounded by ISIS since Aug. 2014. I asked Rashid how she maintains morale amongst her soldiers while facing such daunting issues.

Without hesitation, she told me: "We are all very proud to be peshmerga. We love humanity. We know what to do. We fight to protect our country, to protect humanity."

She looked at me pensively, "Peshmerga never kills the old, women, children, the innocent and defenseless. Daesh kills anybody and everybody, it doesn't care, it has no morals. This makes us strong."

Peshmerga are proving to be much better fighters than the Iraqi army. I asked Rashid why this is so.

"Although they have the best military equipment, the Iraqis are not a real army," she said.

"They do not have the will to fight. This was seen when they first faced Daesh in 2014, they dropped their weapons and ran. Today, they have good weapons but as we have seen, they are nothing."

She paused and stated: "Weapons do not make an army, it is self-belief. We believe in what we do."

I remind Rashid that ISIS sees female peshmerga as a specific threat and danger. They believe, if they are killed by a woman, they will be denied the rewards of paradise.

"Yes, we realize the dangers. Daesh are especially cruel to women. We believe it would be better to kill ourselves than be captured by them," she replied.

Partly tongue in cheek, I asked what she would say to President Barack Obama if she was invited to the White House for tea.

She smiled and said, "We Kurds are happy for the help you gave us in removing Saddam Hussein. We are grateful for the help the West is giving us in fighting Daesh. But we need you to help us completely remove Daesh."

"We fight with basic weapons. We need more, better weapons," she said imploringly. "Much of the aid that the west is sending peshmerga never reaches us as it is sent through Baghdad, which fears the Kurds gaining independence."

"One more thing," she said, again smiling. "We, like you, love freedom and democracy. Please be nice with the Kurdish people."

Simon Ross Valentine is a freelance writer writing a book about the peshmerga.

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