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  • Kurdish Female Fighters: Symbols of strength in women’s rights and the war on ISIS

    Who are the Kurds?

    Kurdistan is a territory in the south of the Caucuses in the mountainous regions that primarily intersect Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.  The Kurdish people have been fighting for independence for over a millennium, but their current efforts can reflect the most recent century of their history; fervently fighting neighboring entities for their chance at independence – but non of their efforts have proven successful.

    The current population of the Kurdish people stands between 10 and 15 million.  The group’s massive population and long-standing yet fruitless fight for statehood has led the region to be known as the“Invisible Nation”.  They are a group of non-Arab people who speak a language related to Persian and are predominantly Sunni Muslim.

    Map of Kurdistan region and intersecting nations. Source: Wars in the World

    Why does this matter right now?

    he terror group ISIS that has swept the Middle East is aligned with extremist Sunni Muslims – killing Christians, Shia Muslims, and any others who do not adhere to their means of extremism in their wake. The Invisible Nation of Kurds, although predominantly Sunni, have served as THE front line against ISIS since the group’s rise in 2014 – holding areas like Kobane lest they fall to the terror group.

    Centuries ago, the Kurds were fighting ethnic groups like the Yazidis (you may recognize the groups name from the headlines of Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar).  But today, Kurds are joining – and often leading the fight for the survival of this very ethnic group.

    However, some of the bravest fighters in the war on ISIS are the women of Kurdistan.  Women that have certainly caught the eye of the West.

    Female Fighters of Kurdistan

    In November 2014, Ruwayda Mustafah Rabar posted an article in Global Voices calling attention the Western ‘obsession’ with the Kurdish female fighters – noting that the women of Kurdistan have been fighters for centuries, and only recently have we chosen to acknowledge their existence.

    However, I think the obsession she notes – is more of a captivation.  Most notably due to the fact that the West – and America in particular – have been bombarded with images of what Muslim women look like, what their place in the Arab world is, and what their attire is meant to look like – through Western lenses, of course.  The Kurdish female fighters do not fit into any of these little boxes the Western perspective has designed for them – so naturally, like anything that doesn’t fit our predesigned molds, they have become a cultural fascination, as opposed to be recognized for the norm of this beautiful cultural diversity that has existed for centuries.

    And what else could lead to this obsessive fascination? The fact that the Kurds have units composed entirely of female fighters.  In the US, a nation that prides itself on striving for equality, women are not currently permitted in combat after being banned in 1994 – although Leon Panetta announced in 2013 that the Pentagon would lift the ban, it will not become effective until 2016.

    Kurdish Peshmerga Forces. Source: Flickr

    So why is it that a Muslim ethnic group has created entire units of female fighters, when the Western pillar of equality has not yet done it? Because the Kurdish forces are fighting a psychological and ideological war as they see to #PsychOutISIS.  ISIS terrorists allegedly believe that they will “go straight to hell” if they are killed by a woman, and these brave women make that a certainty when they fight.

    In an interview with Richard Engel, one of the leaders of the Kurdish female fighting forces in Kobani gave some background to their reasoning for joining their men on front lines and blazing their own path against ISIS.

    “We stand and fight, especially here in the Middle East, where women are treated as inferiors. We stand here as symbols of strength for all the women of the region.” 

    From here in Washington, DC – I can honestly say that they are symbols of strength for women far beyond the region – and though I cannot join their fight I can share their message.  They make it clear that #WomenCanChangeTheWorld

    All female Kurdish forces. Source: Right to speak

     

     

     

     

     

     

    SIDE NOTE: Why did we focus on the Kurds this week? 

    Taking a look at the women of Kurdistan may seem a bit out of our science and STEM-focused wheelhouse. Aside from our goal to promote strong and inspiring women, the people of Kurdistan were a group I had wanted to shed a light on in particular.  My own relatives are members of an ethnic group with a state that never was – Pontus. Pontus was a Greek region of Asia Minor on the south coast of the Black Sea – the Pontian Greek people were ethnically cleansed from modern-day Turkey at the beginning of World War I. I see so many of the struggles and cultural triumphs in the people of Kurdistan that the Pontian community shares, so next week we will be diving further into who the Pontian Greeks were – and are today.  Stay tuned to hear about this and other missing history that may not have made it into your old social studies textbooks.

  • “We Fight Our Country’s Battles In The Air, On Land and Sea”

    We fight our country’s battles

    In the air, on land and sea;

    First to fight for right and freedom

    And to keep our honor clean

    - US Marine’s Hymn

    Coming from a country like the United States, where one can easily make the argument that women have close to, if not the most rights in the world, watching countries in the Middle East, especially with what is going on now with ISIS/ISIL/IS, can be incredibly heartbreaking for many reasons. Despite our continuous political arguments over women’s issues, as a nation, the United States continues to be a champion for women’s rights globally. An article marking the eve of International Women’s Day back in March put it succinctly “From ‘honor killings’ to legal restrictions, women in the Arab world face challenges foreign to Westerners.” And yet, only in January 2013 did the USA revisit the effort to put women back into our combat forces, including special operations. Israel, Canada, France, amongst others, are just some of the few nations that already send women to combat.

    The reason we did this special episode series of ‘Women Warriors/Female Fighters” for #AVProject was because we wanted to highlight some inspirational women, both historical and contemporary. Clearly, in only 2-3 minute segments each, we can only chat about a very tiny select few heroines (and we encourage YOU to send in your favorites!) but there were a few certainly worth mentioning.

    This episode, “Eliminating ISIS/ISIL/IS Terror: By Air” focuses on the contribution of Major al-Mansouri- the United Arab Emirate’s (UAE) first female pilot to fly an F-16 fighter jet and lead the UAE’s air strikes against the Islamic State* against Syria. Not only is she fighting against an active terrorist group, she was one of the first women to join the UAE Air Force academy after women were allowed to join, graduating in 2007. In the media, she has been referred to as ‘Lady Liberty’ and her attack as ‘Operation Desert Maiden’. This milestone was in part due to Major al-Mansouri’s passion as well as the fact that the UAE is known to have the most liberal views on women’s rights in the Middle East. In stark contrast, Saudi Arabia doesn’t even allow women to drive cars or vote, amongst other oppressive laws.

    When I first became aware of the Major’s achievements, I read that as a teenager, she too had dreamt of becoming a pilot in the armed forces. Unbeknownst to some (mentioned in this episode), I got my private pilot’s license while I was in high school at Republic Airport in Long Island. Although I never made it to the armed forces (the farthest I got was visiting the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs), because I was instead drawn to archaeology, I still always dreamed I would use my skills as a pilot for my career one way or the other. (Side note, in 2005 I did volunteer to build a life-size version of Wiley Post’s Lockheed Vega, the “Winnie Mae” for the National Park Service as part of Historic Aircraft Restoration Project). I rationalized in graduate school, once I went from air to sea with maritime archaeology, that eventually I could still fly planes for aerial remote-sensing surveys of underwater sites. Years later, it is still a goal of mine, however one that is as of yet, unfulfilled.

    What I hope that our audience takes away from this episode and mini-series, is that despite impossible barriers, the human spirit finds a way to persevere. In this case, women throughout history have been often unsung heroes and it’s high time that their achievements be publicly lauded.

    “A woman’s passion about something will lead her to achieving what she aspires, and that’s why she should pursue her interests.”- Major al-Mansouri

    *The modern activities of IS are hereafter referred to only as ISIS or ISIL, because ArchaeoVenturers refuses to acknowledge active terrorists/jihadist militant groups as a legitimate state/entity

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