The campaign to reclaim territory from radical terrorist group ISIS in Iraq and Syria has seen remarkable success since the battles for Mosul and ISIS’ capital city Raqqa were launched in October of 2016. On December 9, 2017, just over a year after fighting began, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared an end to the war with the Islamic State, noting that Iraqi troops have regained complete control over the border with Syria. Similarly, in late October U.S.-backed forces claimed victory over ISIS in Raqqa. One important similarity between these military campaigns is that they are both marked by the alliance of typically opposing groups in the fight against a common enemy. This use of coalition forces, ranging from government-run armies, organized rebel militias, and the United States armed forces, has proven to be extremely successful. In both Mosul and Raqqa, an often-overlooked group also took up arms and joined the front lines: women. Their participation in this fight against ISIS has opened the door for improved gender equality across the Middle East.
In March of 2013, the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) established the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), an all-female military branch that presently consists of roughly 24,000 women. YPJ fighters have been on the front lines, fighting and dying alongside their male counterparts. In what is perhaps their most impactful mission to date, YPJ forces rescued tens of thousands of Yazidis from the Sinjar Mountains in northern Iraq after a ruthless attack by IS militants that left thousands dead and kidnapped. The work of the YPJ is helping to bring awareness to the plight of women in the Middle East, having gained widespread international recognition in the few years since its inception. An example is the story of Vancouver native Hanna Bohman, whose own experience joining the YPJ led to the creation of an American-made documentary about the all-female military division.
The Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq has also welcomed women in this fight, detailed in a Business Insider article from March 2017. According to Zack Bazzi, the Middle East project manager for Spirit of America, about 1,700 women serve in combat roles within the Peshmerga. Bazzi states that, in addition to fearlessly defending their homeland, these women want to send a message that “they have a prominent and equal role to play in society.” One female commander interviewed by the Spirit of America in partnership with The Kurdish Project said that women were “not meant to sit at home, doing housework.”
Noteworthy among the female combatants fighting IS is Wahida Mohamed, better known as Um Hanadi, who heads her own militia of 70 men in a rural Iraqi town 50 miles south of Mosul. The image of her holding the severed head of an IS fighter, which CNN reports she posted to her Facebook page, lies in stark contrast to the stereotypical idea of the Muslim woman as being timid and subordinate to men. She still considers herself to be a housewife, demonstrating that a woman’s traditional role in the home does not compromise her ability to serve as a military leader. Her command has garnered the respect of her militiamen, and has even attracted attention from the commander of ground forces in her local province, who has provided Mohamed with weapons and vehicles.
These fighting women have achieved a certain level of gender equality by proving that they are as fearless and brave as any man in the face of a formidable enemy. The structure of the YPG forces clearly demonstrates this equality, as reported by Seth Harp in a February 2017 Rolling Stone article. He states, “command positions are jointly occupied by a man from the YPG and a woman from the YPJ.” In addition, Harp notes that women go to battle “wearing the black flowery headscarves typical of Rojava, which the men took up wearing in solidarity with the women.”
Despite the strides in gender equality that have been made on the battlefield, many of the women fighting ISIS know that the struggle for women’s rights is far from over. They hope that the ferocity they showed on the front lines can serve as a catalyst in the fight against the patriarchal governments and societal norms that dominate the Middle East. In an article published by Reuters in August 2017, YPJ commander Sarya Mahmoud said that female fighters are giving hope to the women they liberated not only through rescuing them from IS control, but also by freeing them “from the male mentality.” Similarly, an opinion piece published in the New York Times notes that “female guerillas are meant to be seen as exemplars who show that female leadership is crucial in every sphere of society.”
While achieving monumental success against ISIS, these brave warriors have made tremendous strides in advancing women’s status. Although the gender divide that has persisted within these patriarchal societies is yet to be overcome, there seems little doubt that the women who risked their lives against ISIS will continue in their attempts to break down societal norms and achieve greater gender equality.