ERBIL, Iraq—As the Islamic State fighters tore through northern Iraq in a murderous rampage, the women were called to come down from the mountains.
One woman known as Ozlem, a longtime fighter with a Kurdish guerrilla group, was sent to defend Makhmour, a town where some 12,000 Kurds had taken refugee. Ozlem, whose nom de guerre means “to be missed,” eagerly left to confront the enemy — the radical Islamic group also known as ISIS or ISIL.
“We knew what they did in Sinjar,” Ozlem said, referring to the recent slaughter of civilians from the Yazidi minority sect, whose surviving members fled into a forbidding mountain range in northern Iraq before.
PKK Commander Ozlem
“We came to Makhmour with so much aggression against ISIS,” she said.
For days, they heard how the Islamic State was advancing toward Makhmour, their black banner giving the fighters the appearance of a marauding army conjured up from a medieval past.
Then, the fighters arrived.
For the next 76 hours, Ozlem along with the rest of the Kurdish forces, battled the militants for control of the town, the women participating alongside the men in combat, as members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (or PKK) has always done.
In firefights with bearded, black-clad men, she came close enough to notice they were fighting in sandals and seemed apparently unconcerned with death.
“In clashes with other enemies, soldiers defended themselves, because life was important to them,” Ozlem said. “You usually lay down and shoot from the ground or from behind something. They were standing up — exposed — and shooting.”
A Peshmerga fighter leads training exercises on a base in northern Iraq.
Ozlem and other women who were part of the battle say they took special pleasure in fighting the notorious radicals whose barbarism, especially towards women, has left a scuttlebutt trail in every town they have taken.
“They’re the enemy of women, but not only women,” Ozlem said. “They’re the enemy of the entire region and entire world.”
The Islamic State militants came dangerously close to Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq.
The PKK not only called upon defense forces from its mountain base but a flood of ethnic Kurds also volunteered for the fight. Many are women, now training others as their more seasoned comrades-in-arms fight on the front lines.
In the fighting force, as many as 40 percent are women, who undergo the same combat training as men, with a supplementary course on women in war, according to commanders. Gender equality is a fundamental feature of the PKK, which was founded as a Marxist-leaning organization.
Adept at psychological warfare, the Islamic State wants to inspire terror through its brutality.
“Having women face them directly sends a powerful message,” says Meral Zin Cicek, the president of the Kurdish Women’s Relation Office in Erbil.
“Having women on the front lines is a way of confronting the fear of ISIS.”
While women of the PKK and its affiliate in Syria—the YPG, another gender-mixed force that has been fighting the Islamic State in the Kurdish region of Syria for three years—see far more action than women in other Kurdish armed groups, the eagerness to confront ISIS is all the same.
The commander of a 500-strong all-female unit of Peshmerga fighters says that after the events of Sinjar, everyone from lawyers to university professors and government workers asked how they could help.
Her own daughter, just 10 years old, who happily marched alongside a unit of women training, told her that she wanted to join the Peshmerga to avenge the deaths of all the children who died in Mosul and Sinjar.
“As Peshmerga, it is my duty to go to war, but it is not the duty of civilians,” said Colonel Nahida Ahmad Rashid. “Yet even civilians are so disturbed by ISIS—they are raping women, degrading the value of women, brutally killing people—they want to do something to stop them.”
Adding to their inspiration is a widely held rumor that the radical fighters believe that if killed by a woman they will not go to paradise. Though disputed by experts, it is the gospel among the women of Colonel Rashid’s regiment.
Shanaz Bakir Ahmad, a 19-year-old RPG specialist, says she is ready to go to the front lines for this reason.
“We’ll take the fight until the last drop of blood,” she said.
So far, enough volunteers have offered to fight that she has not yet been called. Instead, she has been delivering weapons to the front lines in Jalawla, another Kurdish town under threat.
Nasik Qader Mohammed, 39, has also volunteered.
“I have a high morale and am ready to take my gun and go,” she said.
She is now manning checkpoints and participating in supply runs to the front lines along with her daughter, 19-year-old Shanaz Bakir Ahmad, an RPG specialist, who is part of the same unit.
Peshmerga, the main defense force of the Kurdish region of Iraq is now collaborating with the PKK in some areas, including Makhmour, after initially being beaten back by the Islamic State. Men from both groups stand side-by-side at checkpoints, ushering in the refugees who are slowly returning to their town a month after the Islamic State was ousted.
Still, residents are jittery and want the PKK fighters to stay. The lean and sunbeaten men and women patrolling the camp are happy to oblige. Zinarin, a 33-year-old PKK veteran, who describes the Islamic State as a “dirty organization,” says she will stay as long as any threat remains.
“We want to defend our people,” she said.