As the Islamic State continues its bloodly advance across Syria, Kurdish Iraq and the region more broadly, questions about the decades-old struggle for Kurdish self-determination have returned to international attention. At the same time, the fact that women have increasingly been on the frontlines of the fight against IS has not just captured curiosity, but has also fed fantasies of writers and readers in the West. Many commentators have depicted these women fighters as the most satisfying of all antagonists to IS expansion: What could be better than a IS soldier being killed by female peshmerga, thereby robbing him of the heavenly fruits of martyrdom?
In the past months, interest in Kurdish women fighters has gone beyond the basic discourse about war. Their images became frequently featured in media accounts of the battle for Kurdish territory, and representations of these female fighters have ranged from medieval heroine to “poster girl.” Indeed, global fashion retailer H&M was forced to apologize after launching an advertisement campaign showcasing a new khaki jumper openly inspired by those worn by female Kurdish soldiers. The debate around whether or not “peshmerga chic” should be considered offensive was begun.
No different from any other form of fetishistic objectification, and despite the awe that female peshmerga seem to generate, these sorts of representations deprive these women of their individuality, reduce their struggle to sheer contingency and provide a sanitized image of war and life on the front line.
When these images are turned into people with voices, however, the story changes.
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Captain Rangeen Yusuf, deputy commander of the 2nd Battalion of Unit 106, greets us on the doorstep of her modest house on the outskirts of Sulaymaniyah, the second largest city of Iraqi Kurdistan. She’s wearing a long maroon chenille dress with golden embroidery, a dress that older Kurdish housewives often wear. Her melancholy smile makes her look much older than her twenty-five years. Captain Yusuf’s three-year-old-daughter holds her chenille dress tightly. She has a grave face, and peeks at us from behind her mother's legs.
We had spent the afternoon at the head-quarters of the 2nd Battalion of Unit 106, the only all-female battalion in Iraqi Kurdistan, and Captain Yusuf invited us to her house for tea. She got home less than an hour before us and, when we arrive, the wet concrete floor reveals that she had just finished cleaning the house for the unexpected guests, as is the custom in the proverbial Kurdish hospitality. The main door opens to the front room. We settle there, eat watermelon and drink tea. She apologizes that she couldn't make dinner for us: “My husband and I were both on duty and didn't have time to cook,” she says. “We can get some take away, if you want to stay with us.”
Captain Yusuf sits cross-legged on a cushion on the floor and as she feeds her younger daughter and engages her husband, Syaman, 41, in an animated political discussion. They disagree on matters of realpolitik, and on the possible influence of Turkey in local politics, but share an unquestionable faith in the Kurdish cause and the inevitability of self-determination.
Syaman is also a peshmerga; his rank is lower than his wife's, but he has no problem with that. The fact that his wife has a better educational background, Sayaman tells me, means she has a bright professional future ahead of her in the Army. His gentle face turns into a cheeky smile as he jokingly points out, “Sooner or later I'll have to stand up and salute my wife every time she comes back home!”
Both Captain Yusuf and Syaman come from peshmerga families. Rangeen lost two bothers to the struggle, as well as her step-father. Syaman's sister and nieces are also fighters. Neither family believes in the stigma that is still attached to women joining the peshmerga: people often believe that the women who enroll do so because they are aimless, homeless, or with no family to provide for them, and hence find support in the military institution that feeds and shelters them. They both shake their heads energetically. “We don't care what people think. We do this for our country. We all need to do our part.”
Captain Yusuf adds, “Do you know what peshmerga means? It means 'those who face death.' We know this very well, but we also know how to shoot.”
Months later, Syaman's hopeful words about his wife's bright future resonate tragically in my memory: Captain Rangeen Yusuf was killed on the frontline of battle on October 11, 2014. She was shot in the neck during a firefight with IS in the district of Daquq, 40 kilometers west of Kirkuk. There haven’t been any magazine articles about her. Instead, Rangeen’s name will be remembered by her comrades-in-arms as one of many martyrs who died for the Kurdish cause.
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Even though Kurdish society is largely male-dominated, women have always been an integral part of the struggle for independence. During the late 1970s, as the conflict between the Kurds and the Iraqi central government intensified, women began to actively join the peshmerga in the mountains. After Hero Khan, the wife of former Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, Narmin Osman was the second woman to “enroll” with the Peshmerga in 1979.
I met Narmin Osman in her office in the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Sulaymaniyah. She wore a black designer suit with a beautiful masculine cut and sported a perfect French manicure. Narmin Osman is remarkable. After her days as a fighter, she fled to Sweden in 1984 as a political refugee, then returned to serve the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) before becoming the Minister of Women Affairs in the Iraqi Transitional Government (soon after the fall of Saddam Hussain). Following that, she served as Minister of Environment and acting Minister of Human Rights in the Iraqi central government for seven years. She is now a senior and respected member of the PUK politburo.
In Narmin Osman's account of the early days of the struggle, the personal and the political are deeply intertwined: the choice to fight for the liberation of her country is undistinguishable from the necessity to strive for personal freedom.
When she was a young bride in her early twenties, Narmin Osman's husband, political activist Daro Sheikh Noori, was taken prisoner and locked up in Abu Ghraib. He was later released in an amnesty, but only after he agreed to permanently cease his political activities. Had he been caught in futher political activism, they were warned, he would be executed without trial. Narmin Osman remembered the visits to Abu Ghraib vividly - the psychological pressure and the humiliation she had to undergo every time she went to see her husband. She recalled being laughed at once when, in exasperation, she told one of the prison's guards, “When I become a minister, I will close all the jails.” Thirty years later, her eyes water a little when she talks about the day when, as a minister, she was present at the dismantling of Abu Ghraib as a political prison (that is, before becoming the infamous military jail under American control).
“No dream is ever too big,” she reflected.
Mrs. Osman takes great pride in what has become now of the role of women in the Kurdish armed forces. In Iraqi Kurdistan, the option of a career in the military for women is a recent development, and for the moment is limited to those of the 2nd Battalion of Unit 106, as there is no other official outlet. The Battalion was established November 11, 1996, as a voluntary force, and by 2001, eleven women had joined and trained alongside their male counterparts. It now counts more than five hundred female cadets.
Things, however, were very different thirty years ago. Life in the mountains was alien and scary. Giving up on the Kurdish struggle was not an option for Narmin Osman, hence she left her baby son with her mother and joined her husband in the fight. She recalled her first day in the mountains, heading to the peshmerga's safe house. It was November, and she and her sister-in-law where escorted by a group of smugglers on horses (it was the first time either had ridden one). “It was a terrifying experience,” she said. “We rode for three days in a zigzag between Iran and Iraq, trying to avoid army check-posts. The snow was up to my knees. The mountains where very high, and the path really narrow. I don't think I ever looked down. Once we reached the base at Khala Chwala, I promised myself that I would never go down again. 'What did I do to myself?', I thought once I arrived. We thought we would never survive.”
The trivial difficulties of daily life were the initial challenges that a mixed battalion had to face. Using the bathroom and taking care of personal hygiene when they were menstruating became problems that needed practical solutions. They learned to adapt and slowly life became easier. They made friends with women in the villages, taught them to read and write and, in return, were introduced to the wisdom and tradition of the mountains. They learned how to cook on an open fire, sleep on the floor and, in time, they set up a clandestine radio station and a hospital, which became their main responsibilities. More women started to join and the peshmerga community grew stronger. The mutual trust derived from the necessity of putting their lives into one another's hands blurred the strong gender boundaries that characterize Kurdish society.
Narmin Osman's memory and words give body and blood to the narrative that surrounds today's female presence on the frontline. There is no glamour in war - neither for men, nor for women. There are sore feet, cold hands, mud and stench. There is the exhilaration of victory and the terrible abyss of loss. And there are politics, both personal and collective.
Accounts that overlook or, worse, purge from the record the complex realities of war are simply dishonest: Narmin Osman is adamant about that.
“Iraq has changed forever; if not in its geography, in its politics. It will not return as it was. It is time for the Kurds to make clever decisions before another stupid man makes a stupid mistake and compromises our future. It is time to act and act now: an opportunity like this will not come again. This is only the beginning; we have a long way to go. Do you know why the Kurdish struggle can only succeed? Because ours was not a dream. We have never fought for our dreams, we have just fought for our rights.”
Francesca Recchia is an independent researcher and writer who has worked and taught in different parts of the world, including India, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine. She is interested in the geopolitical dimension of cultural processes and in recent years has focused her research on urban transformations and creative practices in countries in conflict. Her work is grounded on an interdisciplinary approach that combines Urban, Visual and Cultural Studies. Francesca was a Research Associate at the Centre of South Asian Studies. SOAS, London, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College of London, has a PhD in Cultural Studies at the Oriental Institute in Naples and a Masters in Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She is now a Visiting Lecturer at Università Bocconi in Milan. Francesca is the author of three books: The Little Book of Kabul (with Lorenzo Tugnoli),Picnic in a Minefield and Devices of Political Action: Collective Towns in Iraqi Kurdistan (with a photo-essay by Leo Novel). She is currently based in Kabul where she was the director of the 4th Afghanistan Contemporary Art Prize. Follow her on Twitter at @kiccovich.