“We wanted to have what the civilized nations do,” Col. Nahida Ahmed Rashid, the head of her brigade of the Kurdish YPJ, or female Peshmerga forces, tells the Daily Beast’s Susannah George. Like their male counterparts, the female Peshmerga fighting the Islamic State see the cause of women on the front lines as a symbolic fight against a repressive, and regressive, ideology.
George embedded with Rashid and her unit in Iraq as they returned from the battlefield for extended training. This brigade, the 2nd Battalion, had recently lost one of its most esteemed members– a third-generation female Peshmerga who Rashid notes she hoped would succeed her. Rangin Hamlawa joined the Peshmerga alongside her mother, Nasreen, who proudly displays her photo in her office, and tells George, “I’m glad my daughter died for a cause.”
Rashid notes that, since the death of her deputy, more recruits have requested to join the battalion than ever before, so much so that, for the first time in 18 years, she has had to reject women because she does not have the resources to train so many. George reports that it has also made the women in the battalion eager to return to the battlefield once their increased training with heavier weapons is over. Says Hamlawa, Sr.: “now all I want is to return to the battlefield to continue that work.”
While the YPJ has been fighting since the days of Saddam Hussein, their effectiveness in particular with regard to the Islamic State have made them an international symbol of women’s rights and resistance against jihadist ideology. In July, Col. Rashid noted that she had sent forces to Kirkuk to fight ISIS, and that her ten-year-old daughter was demanding to come along. Since then, the YPJ’s effectiveness has become increasingly clear: Islamic State jihadists believe that they are not entitled to the riches of the afterlife if they are killed by a woman, so female soldiers are the only ones they fear. Dying by the hand of a male Kurd, the terrorists believe, will lead them to Heaven as martyrs.
In one particularly stark example of YPJ success, a soldier initially identified as “Rehana” was said to have killed more than 100 soldiers single-handedly. While it was ultimately unproven that Rehana was the woman with those kills under her belt, and Islamic State jihadists claimed Rehana was killed, YPJ officials confirmed that one woman had, indeed, killed that many soldiers, but refused to identify her by name for security reasons.