In a region known as Kurdistan (encompassing southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, and northern Syria), there resides a group of combatants, 30 to 40 percent of whom are women. Comparatively, women currently make up only about 14 percent of the American armed forces.
In fact, these female fighters make up the largest female combatant group in the world, fighting against ISIS for equality, civil rights, and independence.
Kurdish women have been included in armed conflicts since the 1880s. Syria, Iraq, and Turkey all have women-specific units known as the YPJ or PKK, working to protect Kurdistan’s 25-30 million citizens.
While they are often sensationalized by Western media outlets as attractive young victims of the oppressive patriarchy or considered terrorists by Middle Eastern media, not much is known about the women behind the guns.
A large portion of female fighters in Kurdistan are part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a Marxist Leninist group founded in 1978 that proposes “liberation for all” and includes religious minorities, dissidents, and women. Women combatants in Kurdistan fight alongside the men on the front lines, with female commanders leading both men and women.
In an area where female genital mutilation, child marriage, and honor killings are common, Kurdish women have a few more personal freedoms. They are allowed positions in the government and relaxed rules toward head coverings, for example.
“The most important thing, I believe, is that a woman is free to make her decisions for herself… We are not meant to sit at home doing housework,” says Zehra, a commander with eight years of experience.
Many of these women combatants join as teenagers, with or without the support of their parents. Some even go so far as to run away from home to join a unit.
Kurdish women fight for many different reasons. Some fight to protect their homeland, but a large number are escaping arranged marriages and the patriarchal culture that forces them to marry at a young age.
By taking on a traditionally masculine role, these women are changing perceptions of women’s place in society and in the military. In many cases, combat is the first time these women are experiencing freedom.
Women combatants in Kurdistan are not backing down in a war for equality and a better future. They fight for the hope of an independent country and a place where their daughters can live free to choose their own paths.
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