Sulaymaniyah, Iraq — During my visit last month to the headquarters of the Iraqi Kurdish fighters, the Peshmerga, here, I discovered how women are defeating ISIS. Since ISIS fighters believe that they will not go to heaven if they are killed by a woman, this belief decreases their desire to become a martyr and makes them vulnerable when they face women fighters.
Seven miles away from Kirkuk, a large city in northern Iraq, the sound of a loud gunfire exchange between ISIS and the Peshmerga can be heard. At this battle field, it was interesting to see how ISIS troops avoid combat when they realize those Peshmerga forces are women. They do not retreat because of the gentleness of these ferocious crews, but because of their belief that if they get killed by women they cannot go to heaven and enjoy being with their virgins. This creed makes ISIS vulnerable when they are facing women Peshmerga, those brave fighters who are not able to afford winter clothes for their children.
After passing several inspection kiosks, the pretty smile of Rangin Yousef, whose picture is placed on top of the main entrance of the women’s Peshmerga’s base, known as Unit 70 in Sulaymaniyah, conveys a warm welcome to the arrivals. Rangin was a young woman Peshmerga who lost her life on October 4, 2014 when she was fighting against ISIS in the Daghogh region of Iraq. Immediately after entering the base, the inadequacy of facilities is revealed; it looks like all buildings need extensive repair. There are several young ladies standing outside of the main building who accompany me to the office of Colonel Nahida Ahmad Rashid, the commander of the women’s Peshmerga regiment in Iraq.
Nahida is one of the sixteen women who initiated Unit 70 in 1996 with the help of Imam Jalal Talabani, former President of Iraq. Unit 70 is the only regiment for female fighters in Iraq. Despite being tough fighters, Nahida and her team are very friendly and they look delicate. Most of the women fighters have their makeup on and when I ask them if being a fighter downgrades their femininity, they answer, “no”.
There are 500 women fighters in Iraq; usually 100 to 120 of them are fighting ISIS in a battle zone running in front of male fighters. The rest are active in Sulaymaniyah, protecting the base, a hospital and two women’s domestic violence shelters. Nahida describes their smart strategy in fighting against ISIS: “There is a huge difference between extremist fighters and regular fighters like us. We fight to be alive; they fight because they want to be dead. This is something that makes ISIS fighters so strong.” She continues, “however, there is a way to destroy their barbaric courage. ISIS fighters believe if they are killed by women they will not go to heaven. When they see women fighters standing against them they flee, because of their fear of being killed by us. That is the reason we run in front of the men in the battlefield.”
About her squad, Nahida says: “They are brave women who fight in two battlefields at the same time. One is ISIS; the other is patriarchal society that prohibits women from being fighters”. She sighs and continues: “Our country is not in a good situation. We are under constant threat from different terrorist groups with ISIS at the head. The price of oil has dropped, so the government cannot take care of its responsibility to pay its militia. We have not received our 500,000 Iraqi Dinar (400 USD) monthly salary for four months; this amount is the lowest minimum wage in Iraq.”
At this time one of the fighters asks if she can add something; she does not want to introduce herself. “I fight with these savage people (ISIS) because I want to keep the world safe for everyone.” She points towards me and continues: “You are my American sister, I want you and your family to be safe, and I want to bring peace to my own land as well”. She stops for couple of seconds and then continues, “we are not fighting for money, we do not care about money, but we really need it, I cannot buy warm clothes for my two young kids, I cannot even afford enough food for my family.”
Commander Nahida speaks about her idea of having a daycare facility in the base for those fighters who have young children. “We need to have a new building in the base for a daycare center; unfortunately we cannot afford it”. She continues, “there are so many enthusiastic applicants who want to join us without any expectation, the problem is we do not have enough uniforms and sufficient weapons to recruit them”. Commander Nahida states, “Despite all the scarcity, we have the privilege of a sisterhood network. Here women support each other. We have monthly meetings on the base. The members of our team who are specialists in domains such as lawyers, doctors, psychologists, and teachers offer their services to their colleagues freely.”
She continues, “One of our important responsibilities when we are not on the battlefield fighting against terrorists is to raise the awareness of women. They need to know about their rights. They need to know that they are equal with men. In the women’s regiment we have Christians, Yazidis, Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Arabs, Kurds, and Fars. We do not look at each other differently, we are all sisters who share the same goal, which is defeating terrorism and bringing peace back to our world.”
“How do you see the future of your country?”, I ask. Their answer is clear: “Bright, because our country has us, the women Peshmerga who fight for the peace of the world with old and broken weapons, with empty pockets, but with a great heart full of love for everyone.”
“What is your message to those who are reading your story?”
“See women Peshmerga and support us to close the door of heaven to those ferocious fighters (ISIS). They are not just our enemy. We need to be introduced, can you do it?”, they answer.
It was heartbreaking to see those heroines are unable to support the basic needs of their families while they are sacrificing their lives to keep us safe. “I will do my best,” I promise.
Based on my observation of the women fighters, ISIS’ extreme ideology makes its fighters strong and at the same time weak. They aspire to be killed on the battlefield because they believe losing their lives in battle against unbelievers leads them to heaven; this belief makes them strong. But their enthusiastic ardor evaporates when they face women fighters, because they are convinced by their belief that losing their lives in battle at the hands of women does not send them to heaven; this element makes them weak.
ISIS fighters are similar to a Manchineel tree (the most poisonous tree in the world) that can only dry out if its root is attacked. ISIS’s root is its ideology; supporting women Peshmerga, who ISIS fighters are not willing to confront, is one effective way to dry their roots.
Rashin Khosravibavandpouri is an Iranian-born journalist and a member of Massachusetts Peace Action’s Middle East Working Group. She recently received her masters degree in Political Science and International Relations from Suffolk University in Boston.