A Kurdish Face

  • Published
  • By Special Agent Tracy Simmons
  • AFOSI Detachment 113
(On May 2, 2008, Major Marcia Cannonier, Master Sgt. MaryAnn Cox, Master Sgt. Kristie Veal, Tech. Sgt. Laurie Raven, and Staff Sgt. Kristine Knudson, all from the 506th Expeditionary Medical Squadron, Kirkuk Regional Air Base, Iraq, and I sat down with Lieutenant Colonel Nahida Ahmad Rashid, Major Lami'ah Muhammad Qadir, Major Aminah Ahmad Muhammad, Major Nasaleen Hamad Al Mustafa, 2nd Lieutenant Ragin Yusif, and Sergeant Hanan Muhammad, from the 6th Brigade, 2nd Battalion. 

After our meeting with the Peshmerga soldiers we all realized what a unique and rare experience we had just encountered. These women left a lasting impression in each one of us. These women survived Saddam Hussein's regime, built an all female soldier battalion force, and fight everyday for human rights. We all agreed we wanted to carry their story home. "Most Americans are only seeing and hearing the bad things occurring here in Iraq. Americans also need to see the impact we are making here," said Staff Sgt. Knudson. Below is their story...)

Nestled in a the northern portion of a country struggling to rebuild and re-establish itself, is an area paving its own way and setting an example for an entire nation. Within the area known as Iraq's Kurdistan Region is a group of extraordinary women who not only fight side by side with their male counterparts, but who serve as the voice for thousands of women trying to regain their identity and dignity amidst years of repression under the regime of Saddam Hussein. These are the women of the Pershmerga Force, also known as the 6th Brigade, 2nd Battalion Women Forces. Their faces represent the tortured, the oppressed, the assaulted, but more importantly the future.

The 2nd Battalion was officially recognized November 11, 1996 by now Iraq's President, Jalal Talabani and since then, the four founding members have built a force of 560 officer and enlisted female volunteers. "I remember being told women could not bear arms like men. This just made us more determined," said Lieutenant Colonel Nahida Ahmad Rashid, a founding member of the 2nd Battalion. Prior to becoming Peshmerga soldiers, the founding members were clandestine members of the political party known as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). "We were politicians first and then joined Peshmerga forces to fight the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein," said Rashid. "During the former regime women caught expressing their political beliefs were hanged, raped or killed. We wanted our rights back and to be treated equal."

The life of a Peshmerga is not easy. They require all recruits to be at least 18 years of age and have a minimum of a high school diploma. Deputy Commander, Major Lami'ah Muhammad Qadir, a founding member of the Peshmerga, explains that "The training for the women is exactly the same as the men," which includes 45 days of training for enlisted personnel and a two year academy for officers. Once trained, the women are on the frontlines, fighting side by side with their male counterparts. In 2003, members of the 2nd Battalion joined with other Peshmerga and Coalition Forces during the liberation of Iraq. The women fought throughout Northern Iraq and according to Qadir, "still bear the scars from the gun battles they encountered during these fights." In late 2003, the women convinced the PUK to allow them to continue fighting. Qadir then led a team of 2nd Battalion soldiers into Qanakin, to secure and protect key elements within the city.

Rashid recounts that female soldiers must be strong physically and mentally, "The girls are often teased by their male counterparts. During training the women carry the names of those female martyrs killed by the former regime. This gives them the strength to endure those who don't believe in their abilities." But rather than give up, the women of the Peshmerga persevere. The founding members rely on lessons learned from the past to guide decisions regarding policy and programs for their soldiers. Rashid explains that they have gained acceptance "Through our struggles and by doing a better job."

Amid the life of a soldier, however, the women still struggle to improve both their own lives as well as the lives of those around them. Within the Peshmerga, the women can pursue career advancement, including promotions in rank or from enlisted to officer. They have also mandated one of the best maternity programs available allowing a soldier to have 6 months of light duty while pregnant and 6 months of leave after the birth of the child. The soldier is further exempted from night duties until the child is one year of age at which time the soldier can return to her original duties without penalty. The PUK even offers a pension for those women who serve until retirement.

Aside from their own battles, the women of the Peshmerga have taken up an additional one - that of fighting for women's rights. According to Rashid, the practice of "honor killing" still occurs within their culture. "Honor killings occur when a male family member feels a female family member has shamed the family by either having premarital sex, or a boyfriend the family disapproves her having," said Rashid. "We {the Peshmerga} provide safe houses for these girls to come and stay. We also negotiate with the family for their safety. We let their families know if the accused female family member disappears, or anything happens to her, the family will be brought to justice," explains Political Officer, Major Aminah Ahmad Muhammad, another founding member of the Peshmerga.

Rashid and Muhammad further explain that under Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party leadership, Kurdish children were often kidnapped and sold in the streets for as little as $5. Since the Ba'ath leadership would not allow the children to be adopted by the Kurdish people, most of the children were taken out of Iraq to areas like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Many of the young girls were sold into slavery. Rashid states that they are fighting for the return of these children. "We have attempted to write these governments and have these children brought home. So far we have received no response," but they will "...continue to fight for our daughters throughout the world."

The women of the 2nd Battalion don't consider themselves heroes and they say they aren't trying to be like men, they are fighting for something more important and more enduring to their hearts - the fight for the future, both their own and that of their children. "We carry weapons not to be like men, but for peace," said Lieutenant Colonel Nahida Ahmad Rashid. They admit that they are still only at the beginning stages of change. In fact, they continue to be detained and persecuted for their beliefs, but now they have a voice and they are speaking up. "Our voices were caged for so long. We feel we now have the right to speak out and be heard. For this reason we fight," said Rashid. And fighting they are, fighting against injustice, fighting for women's rights but mostly fighting for the future of their own country.