by Darien Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh is a contributor for War is Boring and Reverb Press. He serves on the Board of Directors for Auntie Bellum.
Musa, a 25-year-old Kurdish marksman, stands atop a building as he looks at the destroyed Syrian town of Kobanî (also known as Ain al-Arab) on January 30, 2015 (Photo: Bulent Kilic).
When all-female units of Kurdish fighters helped retake the Syrian city of Kobanî from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in early 2015, they didn’t just help capture a strategic piece of real estate from the most loathsome international terrorist group operating today. They also captured the attention of international media. The fighters were members of Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), all-female equivalents of the People’s Protections (YPG) units that lead Kurdish efforts against ISIS in the Kurdish strongholds of northern Syria, a region known as Rojava (“the west”) to many Kurds.
London’s Independent reported that the YPG were “a vital force” in the battle for Kobanî. Slate highlighted the comparatively progressive role of women in both military and civilian life in Rojava, due in part to women being equally included at every level of government and a constitution that guarantees gender equality. Al Jazeera likewise noted that the women of the YPG are “[N]ot just wielding guns […] They’re wielding ideas, leading a feminist movement for parity in politics and society.” NBC.com published a photo essay by Erin Trieb in which Trieb writes, “Most of the YPJ soldiers are unmarried and have chosen to dedicate themselves to the struggle, adopting practices of discipline, training, austerity, charity, and, most importantly, ‘Haval’, their motto, which means ‘friendship’ in the Kurdish language.”
There are up 10,000 women, or roughly one-third of the Kurdish fighting force in Syria, enlisted in YPG units. They’ve seen action in Kobanî, Al-Houl, and several other towns and villages. Units of Kurdish women are also fighting alongside male Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq.
YPJ soldiers outside of Kobani in February of 2015.
Does Getting Killed by a Woman Also Kill a Jihadist’s Hopes of Eternal Paradise?
The fact that ISIS, a group notorious for its extreme oppression of women and the deplorable violence it commits against them, is facing a formidable fighting force of women on the ground carries a sense of poetic justice with it. That sense is heightened, and at times perhaps even sensationalized, by a belief among YPJ members and other female combatants that the conservative brand of Islam some ISIS fighters adhere to makes them especially terrified of being killed by women.
“They think they’re fighting in the name of Islam,” a 21-year-old YPG soldier fighting under the nom de guerre “Telhelden” (Kurdish for “revenge”) told CNN. “They believe if someone from Daesh [ISIS] is killed by a girl, a Kurdish girl, they won’t go to heaven. They’re afraid of girls.” Another female Kurdish fighter named Haveen, who is stationed in Sinjar, put it more harshly. “I like that when we kill them they lose their heaven,” she told the Independent in a recent article. “I don’t know how many of them I’ve killed. It’s not enough. I won’t be happy until they’re all dead.”
There’s some dispute over whether or not ISIS fighters actually suffer from this fear, but even the British Ministry of Defense is pushing the rumor. Regardless of whether or not a majority or any ISIS fighters share this anxiety, one thing remains certain: Women combatants are definitely killing ISIS fighters, and more and more of them are signing up to do so. The YPG in Syria might be the most famous women fighting ISIS, but they’re certainly not the only ones. There are also all-women units of Yazidi militias in Iraq, the Coalition also just finished training a unit of 120 Kurdish women to assist in the impending assault to wrest Mosul back from ISIS, and at least one female fighter pilot has participated in airstrikes against ISIS.
The Syrian government’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA) enlists women as snipers and commandos, and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main rebel group fighting against the Syrian regime, also has all-women fighting units. There is scant evidence that female soldiers with either the SAA or the FSA have engaged directly with ISIS to any considerable extent. It appears that, for now, those units remain on fronts in western Syria, where they’re more likely to engage each other than ISIS. However, should the fronts or demands on the ground shift, it’s reasonable to assume women from either of those forces would also see action against ISIS.
In other words, women are playing a huge role in combat operations in Iraq and Syria, and ISIS is taking fire from them on multiple fronts.
A member of a Female Commando Battalion of the Syrian Arab Army prepares a weapon at the frontline in the government-controlled area of Jobar, a suburb of Damascus, March 19, 2015 (Photo: Omar Sanadiki / Reuters).
Death from Above, Courtesy of the UAE’s First Female Fighter Pilot
When the United States and several Arab nations began their air campaign against ISIS targets in Syria in September of 2014, Major Mariam Al Mansouri led aircraft from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Mansouri, who pilots a F-16, was one of the first women to graduate from the UAE’s air force academy, according to the New York Times. She then became the nation’s first female fighter pilot.
UAE ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba described Mansouri by saying, “She is a fully qualified, highly trained, combat-ready pilot, and she led the mission.” He couched his discussion of Mansouri’s and the UAE’s involvement in the strikes in the language of the struggle between moderate and radical Islam. “I think it’s important for us moderate Arabs, moderate Muslims, to step up and say this is a threat against us,” he said of ISIS. His comments hinted at the stark differences between the lives and roles of women in ISIS society and that of the UAE. The latter is still conservative by Western standards when it comes to gender politics, but the differences between the UAE and the ISIS “caliphate” in those regards are enormous nevertheless.
There are female fighter pilots in the U.S. Air Force, but there is little evidence that women have flown in any of the missions targeting ISIS to date. That could change as all branches of the U.S. military, including the Air Force, prepare to welcome more women into their ranks.
Kurdish Women Have Been Fighting on the Ground in Iraq as well as Syria
All-female units of Kurdish soldiers have been fighting ISIS in Iraq for the past couple of years, just as their counterparts in Syria have. In 2014 War is Boring’s Matt Cetti-Roberts reported on the crucial role Kurdish women play in the grueling sniper warfare in towns and villages along the Iraq-Syria border. “The women here are constantly on watch,” writes Cetti-Roberts. “At all times, at least one of them is peering through the firing holes in the wall.”
He describes a woman sniper taking a shot on a suspected ISIS fighter: “One of the YPJ fighters grabs the Dragunov sniper rifle. Apparently, she’s seen something. Something that could be an Islamic State sniper changing position […]. Her finger rests lightly on the trigger. Slowly, she takes up the slack until the rifle fires […]. Whatever the sniper saw … doesn’t move again.”
More Anti-ISIS Women’s Boots on the Ground in Iraq
Women may soon begin to play a more direct and substantial role in anti-ISIS combat operations in Iraq. British and Dutch military advisers in northern Iraq recently completed training a class of 120 female Kurdish soldiers to join the fight to retake the embattled city of Mosul. The women were given infantry, counter-IED, and first aid training and will fight alongside units of male Kurdish Peshmerga on the front lines.
And Kurdish women won’t be the only women opposite ISIS on the frontlines in Mosul. There is also at least one battalion of Yazidi militia women ready to take the fight to ISIS in that city. The “Force of the Sun Ladies” is a brigade comprised entirely of former Yazidi sex slaves who escaped their ISIS captors and now want to help other captive women do the same. Yazidi women have been treated particularly cruel by ISIS.
The brigade consists of 123 Yazidi women aged 17 to 37. They will be fighting alongside Kurds in the battle for Mosul. There are supposedly another 500 Yazidi women waiting to be trained. Even if ISIS fighters don’t actually believe that being killed by a women will send them to hell, there can be few things more earthly terrifying than facing off against those you formerly enslaved.
There’s no shortage of women who are ready and willing to take on ISIS, but some of their male comrades have not always been so eager for them to join the fight. Kurdish culture is somewhat moderate for the region, but there are still conservative tendencies when it comes to gender roles. Fighting has long been associated with masculinity in much of the Middle East. In 2014 Colonel Viyan Pendroy, a female Iraqi Kurdish officer, told reporter Vager Saadullah that she and her soldiers wanted to fight ISIS but were often denied the opportunity. “We went to front lines many times to fight against ISIS, but our superiors usually tell us that there are enough men,” she said. Pendroy said some of the women returned the frontlines several times to assert that they were ready to fight, only to be turned away again and again.
As the war has dragged on, casualties have mounted, and women have proved themselves in combat time and time again, it seems that reluctance to allow them to participate is waning. That’s a moral victory for the women who want to fight ISIS, but, as they are fully aware, the battle ahead of them is a particularly brutal one. The horrific manner in which ISIS treats its prisoners is widely known, and women potentially face even worse treatment than men who are captured.
Tales of Courage and Tragedy
In October of 2014, as ISIS surrounded Kobanî and the city was about to fall, a YPG commander named Arin Mirkan found herself surrounded by ISIS militants and out of ammunition in the eastern outskirts of the city. Rather than surrender, she ran towards the militants blew herself up with a hand grenade, reportedly taking several ISIS militants with her.
It was the first reported instance of a Kurdish women acting as a suicide bomber against ISIS, and Mirkan became revered among Kurds for her sacrifice inspired the YPJ fighters who retook Kobanî months later. “Arin’s epic action […] was a symbol of our resistance and a manifestation of spirit of resistance,” Viyan Peyman, another YPJ commander, told the International Business Times in February of 2015 after ISIS had retreated from the city.
Around the same time that Mirkan sacrificed herself in action, ISIS militants beheaded three YPJ fighters captured during fighting near the Turkish border. The brutality women fighters face at the hands of ISIS militants has not been the only potential downside to their involvement in combat operations. On at least one occasion it appears that ISIS turned the Kurdish population’s familiarity with seeing female fighters against the local population.
In June of 2015, only a few months after Kurdish fighters retook Kobanî, dozens of ISIS militants disguised themselves as YPJ and YPG fighters to infiltrate the town and go on a killing spree. “It was around 4am when we heard loud gunshots and explosions,” a witness from Kobanî told Al Jazeera. “When we ran outside we saw [ISIS] fighters disguised as Kurdish forces yelling in Kurdish, ‘We are with you. We are from your side,’ then shooting randomly at people.” The militants used suicide car bombers and also randomly opened fire people in the streets. “They [ISIS] were disguised as Kurdish forces and had women disguised with them too,” the witness said. It was a bold and effective raid. Up to 300 people were killed. The raid would have undoubtedly still taken place and inflicted casualties without ISIS using women in the attack, but it does seem like the use of women disguised as YPJ fighters was strategic and probably contributed to the confusion on the ground.
A YPJ sniper takes aim from her position.
Another Chapter in the Long History of Women Combatants
Women have repeatedly proved themselves in combat throughout history. In modern warfare, the women who fought for the Republic during the Spanish Civil War, Russia during World War II, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces during the Cuban Revolution stand out as just a few of the many examples of women playing a crucial rather than supportive role in combat operations.
The YPJ and their female comrades-in-arms are the latest entry in this growing list of women warriors. As even more women gear up to join the fight for Mosul, the ISIS fighters currently holding the city must certainly be feeling a sense of dread, be it earthly or spiritual.