Female Kurdish fighters take arms against Islamic State extremists

BY Anya van Wagtendonk  August 21, 2014 at 3:36 PM EDT
SULAYMANIYAH, IRAQ - 2014/07/29: A woman Peshmerga (fighter) of the 2nd Battalion takes part in a military exercise. The 2nd Battalion,  is exclusively comprised of 550 female Peshmergas, which was implemented on 11/18/1996, and is the only female official branch of the Kurdish National Army. Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

A woman Peshmerga fighter of the 2nd Battalion takes part in a military exercise. The 2nd Battalion is exclusively comprised of 550 female Peshmergas and is the only female official branch of the Kurdish National Army. Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

After Kurdish and Iraqi forces recaptured a critical Iraqi dam from Islamic State militants Monday, much attention turned to the role U.S. airstrikes may have played in securing a victory.

Less attention has been given to an increasingly fierce segment of the Kurdish security forces, known as the Peshmerga: female soldiers.

These fighters follow a tradition of Kurdish women warriors. One all-female unit of the Peshmerga has operated since 1996, when women began combat training in opposition to Saddam Hussein’s regime.

That unit’s commander, Col. Nahida Ahmed Rashid, says more women are enlisting today to defend Iraq’s Kurdish region from Islamic State extremists.

“They’ve taken up arms and gone to battle to protect Kurdistan, but also to say that there’s no difference between men and women,” Col. Rashid said, adding that her troops have trained alongside special forces and SWAT teams.

And these soldiers don’t only swell the fighting ranks; they’ve recently become a part of front-line strategy.

“The jihadists don’t like fighting women, because if they’re killed by a female, they think they won’t go to heaven,” one female soldier said.

Women are also involved in Kurdish resistance to the Islamic State’s advances in Syria. Some 30 percent of the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) there, which also fights against Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, are female.

Such soldiers join up not simply to defend their cities from invading armies, said the commander of the first all-woman PYD brigade, but from the extremist ideas they would carry with them.

“I believe in a greater cause, which is protecting our families and our cities from the extremists’ brutality and dark ideas,” she said. “They don’t accept having women in leadership positions. They want us to cover ourselves and become housewives to attend to their needs only. They think we have no right to talk and control our lives.”