Wladimir van Wilgenburg

Kurdish tribal leader breaks taboo by accepting female fighters

A Kurdish Peshmerga from Syria poses in front of the Peshmerga base. (Courtesy of Wladimir van Wilgenburg)
A group of female Peshmerga fighters standing in front of the Peshmerga base near Naweran. (Courtesy of Wladimir van Wilgenburg)
Female Peshmerga
Syrian Kurdish woman poses for the camera with an image of Barzani on her vest. (Courtesy of Wladimir van Wilgenburg)
Sheikh Loqman is the head of the Fire Brigade volunteer forces, which is based on the international brigades that fought in the Spanish civil war. (Courtesy of Wladimir van Wilgenburg)
YPJ female fighters in Sinjar, Iraq (Courtesy of Wladimir van Wilgenburg)
YPJ female fighters in Sinjar, Iraq (Courtesy of Wladimir van Wilgenburg)

In the tribal-dominated society of the Kurdish region of Iraq it is still frowned upon for women to fight. Now a Kurdish volunteer unit called the “Fire Brigade,” led by tribal leader Loqman Sharafani, plans to deploy at least 30 women on the frontlines to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) in Naweran. The war against ISIS is slowly changing gender roles in Kurdish society.

“We are supported by Sheikh Loqman to have a female team to fight with our brothers,” says 24-year-old Asiba Nawzad, a second lieutenant with the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. “Normally, Kurdish tribes do not allow their women to fight, but Sheikh Loqman permits it,” she added.


Many Kurdish female fighters wanted to take revenge on ISIS for atrocities committed against hundreds of Yazidi women after capturing the city of Sinjar in August 2014. In Sinjar, some women already fight on the frontline with Peshmerga units, or with units of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Furthermore, a number of female fighters are deployed in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.



“I was in Istanbul with my husband for three and half years, and we were planning to move to the United States,” Nawzad said. “But when I saw what happened to the Yazidis in Sinjar, I was very sad. What would we do in an unknown country, while our women are raped and dishonored,” she told NOW. Nawzad’s husband moved to Germany, while she prepares to fight ISIS.


“It is important to fight after the enemy [ISIS] robbed us of our honor and this is why we also fight,” said 34-year-old Fariba Ali Omar, who wears a headscarf. “This is just the beginning, because the families do not know if the women are treated well and with respect,” she added. “If they knew, more would join.”


The women are not only trained by local Kurdish forces, but also by former US soldier Ryan O’Leary. He expects the unit will be deployed to the frontline in April or March. “Sheikh Loqman Sharafan is pretty open to allowing women to fight, culturally-wise this is something new, I would say, after being here [in Kurdistan] for 11 months.”



Although some journalists suspect these women are being used only for promotion purposes, O’Leary says this unit is different. “I have seen female units taking pictures with the press and then leave, but this is the first platoon size female unit with actual weapons,” he said.


While in the Kurdish regions of Iran, Syria, and Turkey, more females have been fighting with Kurdish parties, in Iraqi Kurdistan this is not the case. “They are a country like Israel, with a small population of 3 to 5 million people surrounded by enemies, they need to defend their country, and women need to step up,” O Leary said.


“Female Peshmergas are capable of doing it,” he added confirming they already arrested suspected ISIS fighters. “They arrested four guys out in the field, and handed them over to the security police.”

The Kurdish parties in Iraq, such as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), initially did not allow women in combat roles during their struggles against the Iraqi government in the 1970s and 1980s. As a result, women served as a supportive function in the Kurdish Peshmerga forces.


“This is a new start for us, a lot of women don’t know this, and it is not accepted yet [for women to fight],” said First Lieutenant Shema Sulaiman. For seven years she worked for the Peshmerga command in Duhok. “I wanted to use weapons. But they told me I could only work in the office, I didn’t become a Peshmerga for this reason,” she said. As a result she joined the volunteer unit of Sharafani.


Even after the creation of the Kurdish Autonomous Republic in Iraq in 1991, females in the Peshmerga forces mostly had administrative duties. Moreover, women play a limited role in Kurdish politics in Iraq because they face gossip and marginalization.


“After the liberation [in 1991], Kurdish women preferred to be involved in civilian life over the military, as well as fighting for their rights and taking positions in the society,” said Dr. Vian Suleiman, the Secretary-General of the Kurdistan Women Union.


“But now with the fight for existence against ISIS, Kurdish women put their freedom on the line, and we see a growing number of females joining the Peshmerga forces,” she told NOW.


According to Dr. Choman Hardi, the director of the Center of Gender and Development at the American University of Iraq - Sulaimani (AUIS), the lack of women in the fighting forces is due to the conservative Kurdish leadership in Iraq, compared to other Kurdish parties in other countries.


“The political leadership is conservative and doesn’t believe in women,” she said. “Also, in the 1970s and 80s the parties did not accept women as Peshmarga members because they feared backlash from the traditional Kurdish villages where they were based. They feared that incorporating women in their ranks would cause conflict between them and the community.”


This is different from the PKK that has been fighting against the Turkish state since the mid-1980s, who adopted a quota system from the beginning. “They included women on a large scale,” Hardi said. “Some men in the PKK were not pleased about this, but the law was enforced.”



In the Kurdish areas of Turkey and Syria, women play a dominant role in PKK-affiliated parties and administrations as co-governors, co-mayors, or even commanded their own female units. “This never happened in Iraqi Kurdistan, because the political leadership itself is conservative and patriarchal,” she said.


In the Kurdish city of Kobane, female members of the Women Protection Units (YPJ)—which is closely affiliated to the PKK— played a key role in breaking the siege of the Islamic State in October 2014. Recently, the "Lord of Women’s Victory" statue was unveiled in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah to value the role of female fighters in the struggle of Kobane.


At a conference at AUIS on February 11, Nasreen Abdullah, a YPJ female commander, said that her forces fought for the honor of the people of Sinjar. “We call on all Kurdish women to unite and to protect ourselves and our honor,” she stated. “Only Kurds work for Kurds, and as Kurds we should be united.”


However, this did not change the perceptions of women in Iraqi Kurdistan, who continued to see Kurdish female fighters in Syria and Turkey as different from their own in Iraq.


“The Kurdish parties here felt embarrassed that in the Rojava canton administrations [in Syria] women played a major role,” Hardi said. “They haven’t been able to achieve this in 24 years.”


“We are Muslim; we are not like those communists. We don’t let our women fight,” said a local taxi driver in Erbil.


Although the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) wants to appear progressive and democratic, by granting women their rights, Hardi says it’s still quite superficial and women play a marginal role.


However, this female unit in the Peshmerga forces wants to change this, but in a different way from the PKK. In the PKK, in general, it is not allowed for men and women to have relationships. Moreover, the PKK is more ideological.

“We are very different from the PKK. They are brainwashed by ideology and then they have to fight, we have freedom here,” said Xwala Tamer, a female fighter from Syria who carries with her pictures of Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan region and KDP-leader.


As a result, two Peshmerga fighters of the volunteer unit got married. “Life here continues, that’s different with the PKK. In the PKK, love is forbidden,” said Asiba Nawzad.


So far, only one or two female Peshmerga forces were killed in the fight against ISIS in Kirkuk, while in Syria, hundreds of women gave their lives for the Kurds. Thus, the war against ISIS is changing gender roles in the Kurdistan region.

A Kurdish Peshmerga from Syria poses in front of the Peshmerga base. (Courtesy of Wladimir van Wilgenburg)

We are very different from the PKK. They are brainwashed by ideology and then they have to fight, we have freedom here"