"We want to prove to our male-dominated society that men and women are equal," said Lt. Col. Naheed Ahmed Rasheed of the women's Peshmerga force in Suleimaniya. "While women were not taken seriously by men in many fields, we will prove we can do everything they can do."
Just outside Suleimaniya, around 500 women are trained in the usage of weapons, tae kwon do and military discipline. Supported by Iraq President Jalal Talibani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the female unit was established September 11, 1996, the first of its kind in Iraq. Nevertheless, it was tradition for women to accompany their fathers or husbands who were members of the Peshmerga into the mountains during the past decades of the Kurdish struggle.
Until 1991, the women's function was not to fight, but to cook and take care of the wounded men. "Because of cultural issues in this male-dominated society, we were not allowed to fight," said Maj. Amena Ahmed Mohamed. This changed during the Kurdish Uprising in 1991, when women also joined the battlefield. In 2003, the female force earned a lot of respect when they participated in the liberation battles in Khanaqin and Kirkuk.
Peshmarga literally means "those who face death," but it is also explained as "those who are ready to die." Most of the women have deep feelings for their home country, and are ready to fight if necessary. "But in those peaceful days we used our weapon as a pen, like a writer who wants to express his opinion," said Lt. Col. Rasheed. The female troop, Unit 106, along with units of male Peshmerga, takes part in the protection operation in Kurdistan Region, including disputed areas like Khanaqin and Kirkuk. They guard and secure hospitals, the women's prison, shelters and government buildings. They also work at border patrols.
One of their goals is to fight for women's rights. The force supports the campaign to end violence against women, which was launched by the government and the United Nations in the region for two weeks and began on November 25. Former Peshmerga have also become members of Parliament to try to improve women's rights. They achieved changes in the law on polygamy and maternity leave. Nowadays, female sniper units are some of the best in all of Kurdistan.
At the third checkpoint of the headquarters of the PUK Peshmarga force in Suleimaniya, two women standing erect in grey and green military uniforms hold AK 47s. "We are proud of ourselves," said one lieutenant. "In our culture, men see women as weak and soft. Among our male colleagues, we proved equality and built a good reputation. Before, women were, no matter how high the rank, excluded from saluting. They even paid them extra because of this," she added.
But it is not only about recognition. Most women join the force because they want to defend their country, and they dream of a big, independent Kurdistan. "Hopefully we will have our own country, but we want it to happen with peace. Through fighting, you will never been able to establish a country," noted Maj. Mohamed.
Continuing the work of assassinated family members is another reason to join the force. "I joined them because I lost 22 members of my family during Saddam's time and in the civil war. I want to continue their great work; they are heroes. They fought for our country," said the Major.
The walls in the offices of the unit show many portraits of Talabani and of Hero Khan, his wife, during their Peshmarga past. "Mam Jalal [Talabani] supports us openly; the PUK aims for women's freedom." This encourages them to take the next step--to become one battalion and be part of the regular army. We do not want to be an isolated unit."