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How Kurdish women soldiers are confronting ISIS on the front lines

In Iraq, an all-female unit within the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, is on the front lines of a fierce battle against the Islamic State. Martin Himel reports.

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  • MARTIN HIMEL:

    Walk along the streets of Kurdistan's second largest city, Sulaymaniyah, and you'll instantly notice that it looks nothing like most of the images we see coming out of Iraq.

    By all appearances, this oil rich city in northeastern Iraq is thriving. Shoppers fill the streets without apparent fear of terror bombs, roads into and out of this city of over 800,000 are safe and well maintained.

    But what is most striking in this overwhelmingly Muslim region, is that women enjoy much more freedom than in many other areas throughout the Middle East, even as you'll see later, serving in all-women fighting units taking on ISIS.

  • BERYTAN:

    I am not just doing this to protect myself but also to protect women.

  • SHAHO BURAHN ABDALLA:

    So we have our own culture and in our culture we respect women a lot more.

  • MARTIN HIMEL:

    Dr. Shaho Burahn Abdalla lectures at Sulaymaniyah University.

  • SHAHO BURAHN ABDALLA:

    And that allows women to have and exercise their own rights. The hijab is not compulsory, politically in Kurdistan we have a relative democracy so our rules are not based on Sharia, or strict Islamic rules.

  • MARTIN HIMEL:

    But last summer an ISIS invasion came very close to destroying all these achievements in Kurdistan's autonomous region.ISIS pushed to within thirty miles of the capital Irbil. During this offensive, they took hostages, and raped and sold into slavery thousands of women.

    Now Kurdish women, who are part of what's known as the PKK Militia, are fighting back. 27-year-old Berytan is one of them.

  • BERYTAN:

    As a woman when you take your rifle, go out , and get ready to fight against them, even if you don't kill them, you are fighting against their mentality.

  • MARTIN HIMEL:

    We met Berytan after driving a hundred miles from Sulaymaniyah into more central Iraq.

    Security is so precarious we had to change cars three times to get there, fearful one of the drivers might betray us to try to collect the 80,000 dollar reward ISIS offers for the capture of an American journalist.

    En route, it became clear how fluid the battle lines can be. The Kurdish fighters, for example, command this main highway but ISIS positions are just 400 yards away at that hilltop.

  • BERYTAN:

    ISIS is over there.

  • MARTIN HIMEL:

    The lines are porous and can be crossed by mistake.

    Once we get there, Berytan is showing newly-arrived women soldiers the front line — the villages across the field are under ISIS control.

  • BERYTAN:

    As you know, I am a sniper. In the last battle, I killed three of them and injured one. This was in the last operation.

  • MARTIN HIMEL:

    The gunfights occur regularly. Even so, the women fighters stand above the protective bulldozed berms to see the enemy.

  • BERYTAN:

    Those houses that you see are under ISIS control, but when we start our operation, we will control them.

  • MARTIN HIMEL:

    ISIS warriors believe if they die in battle, they receive the 72 virgins of paradise, but if they are killed at the hands of female fighters, they go straight to hell.

    What do you think of an enemy that says they go straight to hell if they are killed by a woman?

  • BERYTAN:

    When I fight against them, I feel stronger, empowered because when they see women, they go weak at the knees. Because according to their belief, they must not be killed by a women. When they see us, they prefer to run away not to be killed by us.

  • MARTIN HIMEL:

    The stakes are very high. If you get caught they will make you into a sex slave. You would be raped. How does that make you feel?

  • BERYTAN:

    We say that we have the power and morale to go and rescue those women. At the same time, we will kill ourselves, not let them capture us, not to face the same situation. I am not the only one who thinks like that. All our women fighters will not surrender.

  • DAVID PHILLIPS:

    When you look at the founding charter of the PKK, it's about Kurdish and female emancipation. Same thing is true for the PYD, the Kurds in Syria. They've institutionalized a different role for women than we see in the Arab parts of Iraq and Syria.

  • MARTIN HIMEL:

    David Phillips of Columbia University is an expert on Kurdish affairs. He served as a policy advisor under presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama and has recently written, "The Kurdish Spring: A New Map of the Middle East."

    He says the United States was slow to recognize the threat last summer after ISIS seized territory in Iraq and Syria and believes the United States should supply more weapons to the Kurds, including the PKKs female units.

    Women fighters accounted for 40 percent of all Kurdish fighters battling ISIS in the border town of Kobani.

  • DAVID PHILLIPS:

    The Kurds are the point of the spear fighting against ISIS in all of the countries in the middle east.

    And the struggle against ISIS is an ideological struggle of those that share western values of pluralism and tolerance against those who are fundamentally intolerant and seek to kill their adversaries.

  • MARTIN HIMEL:

    But supporting the Kurdish fighters is a complicated decision for American policy makers, because for decades Kurds seeking their own homeland have launched attacks in Turkey, prompting the United States to brand the PKK as a terrorist organization.

    The U.S. now risks alienating Turkey if it supplies heavy weaponry to the PKK, including its battle-tested women fighters.

  • DAVID PHILLIPS:

    Some of them are widowed from Turkish military operations in the southeast. Others are just committed to the Kurdish cause and have taken up arms because there's been no political recourse for them in Turkey.

    It's a continuation of the PKK's mobile approach to fighting for Kurdish rights wherever Kurds are oppressed. Not only in Turkey but in Syria, Iraq and Iran.

  • MARTIN HIMEL:

    But now, Kurds face a much more serious existential challenge: Containing ISIS and it's extraordinarily harsh treatment of women.

    And so these women fighters have decided to devote their lives to confronting the threat. All have agreed not to marry or to have children. Their fighting unit becomes their family.

    Why do it?

  • BERYTAN:

    If you want to protect yourself and live free, you can't reach it in our traditional marriages. The slavery begins in the family. When you follow the mentality, that you should marry at a certain age and have children, you then choose to live in a cage.

    I didn't want to belong to anyone and I shared this directly with my family and also with my friends.

  • MARTIN HIMEL:

    In many ways, Berytan and these fighters feel they are married to the fate of their people. ISIS is determined to destroy their society.

    Now, they hope America will supply the heavy weapons to help these fighters defend their homeland.

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