So the Peshmerga, Iraqi Kurdistan’s army and the main force battling Islamic State militants in northern Iraq, includes female recruits. They’re media darlings—and a welcome contrast to Islamic State’s rigid subjugation of women.
The narrative of women soldiers fighting against violently misogynistic religious extremists is an appealing one. Sure enough, foreign reporters have fallen madly in love with these Pesh women.
But this celebration of the liberated Kurdish woman warrior is overblown. Kurdish society is still deeply conservative by Western standards. And almost none of these women have done any actual fighting.
Kurdish women have occasionally seen combat, but mostly as members of leftist Kurdish guerrilla groups like the Turkish PKK. On Sunday, an Islamic State mortar strike near Kirkuk killed Nigar Hisseny, a Kurdish Iranian refugee woman serving alongside male fighters loyal to the Iranian Kurdish Freedom Party.
But Kurdistan’s Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs hesitates to send women to the front. Their main use for the lady fighters is as propaganda. The ministry likes to parade the women in front of Western camera crews. There’s little indication that the Kurdistan Regional Government plans to actually send these women into battle.
But that’s doesn’t mean the women of the Peshmerga don’t want to fight.
Peshmerga colonel Viyan Pendroy says there are more than a thousand Pesh women. She insists that all Peshmarga women are highly trained and perfectly capable of using their weapons against extremists.
But some Pesh commanders disagree.
“We went to front lines many times to fight against ISIS, but our superiors usually tell us that there are enough men to fight ISIS,” Pendroy tells War is Boring. She explains that leaders almost always send the women away, saying they will call if they need them.
Pendroy says most women are doing administrative and clerical work for the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs. But the pressing need for troops—which has led desperate KRG officials to allow aging veterans to rejoin the Peshmerga—has opened up more opportunities for women.
Peshmerga commanders have deployed some women soldiers to help guard facilities some distance from the front. This puts the female troops within quick traveling distance of the fighting. “Sometimes they go to the front lines to encourage Peshmerga forces and tell them that they are ready to fight ISIS alongside the men,” Pendroy says.
The colonel is the head of the Peshmerga Cultural Center in Dohuk. She says that after Islamic State seized the Yezidi town of Sinjar, driving tens of thousands of its residents onto Mount Sinjar to starve, many women came to the center demanding to join. Far more than the Peshmerga could accommodate.
“Unfortunately most of our Peshmerga trainers are on the front lines,” Pendroy explains. “They were only able to accept 33 female recruits.” Pendroy adds that after the current class finishes its training, they should be able to admit more women.
Pendroy stays busy with her own duties. With so many male officers leading troops on the front line, she’s assumed more responsibilities in Dohuk. This includes commanding many of the men defending the city.
“After ISIS attacked, more than a thousand male volunteers came to our center,” Pendroy says. “Now they are in charge of providing safety to Dohuk city under my supervision.”
She says that as a military professional, she has no problems managing her troops, whether they’re male or female. The colonel insists she has no patience for sexism. “If they were not happy, you wouldn’t see them working with me,” she says of her male subordinates.
Although they mostly spend their days on base marching and doing drills, the women under Pendroy’s command say they want to fight.
Tanya Zikry is a 27-year-old lawyer who joined the Peshmerga following Islamic State’s invasion of northern Iraq in June. “As a lawyer, my people need me when the country is safe,” Zikry says. “When there is war, people need me as a Peshmerga. That’s how I provide protection to my people.”
Zikry says she isn’t afraid of the militants. “When you are ready to be killed for your land, there is no fear from death.”
She says she has been to the front lines, but only to encourage the male soldiers. She says she wants to return … and fight with the men.
Jeehan Koremarki, 31, left her job at a local newspaper in order to join the Peshmerga. She admits that she was uncomfortable handling weapons at first—firing them scared her. But she says that the training made her more confident.
Koremarki says more Kurdish women should enlist. “Kurdistan needs women fighters.”
Twenty-eight-year-old Aveen Sidqi Nerway says she has been a Peshmerga for two years. Her husband is a Peshmerga fighter, as well—and her father and other family members are former Pesh.
Unlike most of the others, she says she’s actually been in combat, if briefly. And she says she’s eager for more. She says she wants to prove she can fight the militants. “They came to occupy our land and raped Yezidi girls, so we have to defend our dignity and honor.”
Nerway probably won’t be battling the extremists any time soon. Still, she says she’s happy to continue her family’s military tradition. She says that when her fellow Kurds see her in uniform, they tell her they’re proud of her and happy to see she has the courage to fight.
Even if she doesn’t get to.