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.
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.
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
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.