“We want to defend our country,” Zeba said, “because this is a dirty war that victimizes mostly women and children.” Photo by author
DOHUK, Kurdistan Region,Kurdish-- women who enlisted in the military to fight the Islamic State (IS) have found they are not welcome on the frontlines.
“We need to show that we are different from IS, which will never let women fight,” says Vian Pendwi, a Peshmerga colonel who leads a 30-woman unit in the Kurdish city of Dohuk.
The Kurdistan Region soldiers are assigned with guarding Peshmerga who have returned from the frontlines in Iraq, providing logistics support for the troops and organizing social activities.
Pendwi, 38, who comes from a Peshmerga family both her father and grandfather were fighters¾ had three months’ military training but was sent away when she reported for duty at the frontline.
When asked if she was disappointed that she can’t use her training, Pendwi pointed out that conservative Kurdish society considers fighting men’s work, and some families don’t want their daughters and wives on the battlefield.
“The Peshmerga are ashamed to fight next to us,” Pendwi maintained. “They say, ‘As long as we are alive we don’t want our women to fight on the frontlines.’”
Even more important is the risk that soldiers could be captured, which is further complicated by cultural issues involving women’s honor. IS considers females “spoils of war” and has reportedly raped and enslaved many civilian girls and women.
“It is a thousand times worse if women are made prisoner than men,” Pendwi said.
When Pendwi contacted the Peshmerga to create a female army unit, the initial answer was no. But that changed when they realized how active women are in the army of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot, the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) which has about 40 percent female fighters.
“They put women on the frontlines to fight IS,” Pendwi stated, “because the fighters are said to believe that they will not reach heaven if they are killed by women.”
When the Peshmerga recognized that women could be used as a special weapon against IS, Pendwi was allowed to create her unit. Her unit only received a week of training, during which they visited the battlefront “to take away their fear.”
A second all-female unit will be trained but aren’t expected to be deployed to fight.
Despite the Kurds’ long-standing reputation of deploying female fighters, most are from the leftist PKK and its affiliates. In Iraqi Kurdistan, only the Communist Party sent women to fight against Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The only women who have fought alongside Peshmerga in recent battles against IS in Iraq are from the Iranian rebel group the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, which is based in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Sulaimani also has a special battalion of a few hundred women who work mainly in logistics and management.
Pendwi’s unit also helps impoverished families of soldiers and is involved in vaccination campaigns for refugees in the Dohuk area.
They also wage campaigns against IS propaganda, targeting civilian women.
“IS uses fear as a weapon,” Pendwi said. “Women are always separated from the men. We show that women are strong; we tell them how IS fights and what their logic is.”
The unit was deployed to Dohuk when IS encroached on the city in August, leading civilians to flee out of fear. IS strategy involves emptying out an area which makes it easier to take over.
“That night we went out on the streets and called on people not to leave, promising them that we would fight for them,” Pendwi said.
It did not come to that, and now Pendwi’s unit is becoming restless. The women are getting frustrated, said Zeba Pendwi, 30, who serves under her elder sister. While Vian earned her stripes by diplomacy, her sister is more outspoken.
“We want to defend our country,” Zeba said, “because this is a dirty war that victimizes mostly women and children.”
The female Peshmerga are well aware that they may be killed, like the 20-year old Iranian Kurdish female fighter Nigar Hosseiny, who fought with the KDPI alongside the Peshmerga. They still are highly motivated, as one of the other members of Pendwi’s unit said.
“I want to fight, and preferably as soon as possible,” said the soldier, who asked to remain anonymous. “That is what we trained for. If they want me, I am ready.”