Perhaps one of the most profound moments on my recent trip to Northern Iraq for my women's rights foundation Project Monma, happened just minutes away from the frontline with ISIS. With the help of two Yezidi men I was taken to meet a small group of the female fighters of the Peshmerger. Situated on a base just outside the mountains surrounding Mosul, I found a small group of Kurdish women who have literally taken up arms to fight against the barbarism of the Islamic state.
They are called the Hiza Agre, or Fire Force.
With airstrikes taking place in the distance, we were invited into one of their offices and offered small cups of tea. We then settled down to discuss why the women decided to join the armed forces of Kurdistan. I had travelled to northern Iraq to learn more about how the presence of Isis in the country had affected women. Amidst stories of brutality, fear and truly absurd discrimination, I heard about the female fighters of the Peshmerger. Women who have moved past cultural barriers that would typically prevent a woman from joining an armed group and are fighting on the frontline with Isis. I wanted to know why they decided to join the Peshmerger. The women were clad head to toe in military uniforms, each with a Kalashnikov slung over their shoulders. Fariba, one of the fighters from a village near Erbil settled into one of the chairs with her weapon casually leaned up against her and explained why she decided to join the Peshmerger, 'Isis says that when a man kills him he goes to heaven, when a woman kills him he will go to hell. I have come here to kill Isis.'
When ISIS first emerged in northern Iraq they attacked the small town of Sinjar that is predominantly populated by the Yezidis. Thousands of men were killed and many of the women were taken to be sold as sex slaves in markets in Mosul and Raqqa. These women have taken up arms with the Peshmerger, to take back their sisters from the hands of Isis.
Asima previously a fighter for the PKK, said that when Isis came to Sinjar she decided to join the Peshmerger. Her goal, to fight against Isis.
Another woman says life is not always good in Kurdistan, she joined the Peshmerger to be free.
Suddenly, everyone stands to attention and a woman in her early 30s with a military uniform enters the room. Captain Shaima, the commander of the unit. After greeting each of the men in the room she came to me and smiled broadly. I explained to her why I have come, she nods her head enthusiastically and we settle down to talk.
I ask her about their daily lives and she tells me that their days are filled with learning to use guns and training to fight Isis. They do so on an entirely volunteer basis, none of the women are paid.
Their presence as women in the area is significant, Captain Shaima explained to me. 'Isis doesn't come to their base because they know there are female Peshermerga here, they're afraid that they won't go to heaven.'
'When the men in the Peshmerga see women killing Isis, he becomes very strong,' she says.
When I asked the girls where they found their courage, one woman answered casually, 'there is no difference between men and women, we are like lions.'
Lions they are.
Next to the female station we were told that there were two American volunteer fighters fighting with the Peshmerga. Curious we asked if we could meet them. They agreed and took us down a dusty road past sheepherders and a small Arab Muslim village. I saw the dust settling from the airstrikes in the distance and glanced at the sheepherders who couldn't have been more than 20 years old, they seemed unfazed. Entering the base we moved past a young group Kurdish Iraqi soldiers to a container like building where we were introduced to the foreign fighters.
Sitting in the small room, Tony Tata from the US was filled with praise for the female Peshmerger and told me he would stand with the female fighters any day. 'Their heart for their country is above anything. They are phenomenal, if I was told I was only going to fight with them I would say good luck to my brothers, I'm going to fight with my sisters. Kurdistan will be proud of them.'
The respect that I felt for this small group of women was profound. What I met that day was a group of warriors who held a tremendous amount of bravery, courage and determination. They are not only standing up against the violence and oppression of the Islamic State but are challenging their own cultural norms and taboos that would typically prevent women from being part of an armed group in Kurdistan. I watched as Commander Shaima entered the room and commanded attention. I saw the women handle their weapons with precision and a notable calmness. As I glanced towards the mountains, knowing that Isis was not far, the courage that I imagined it must take these women to not only be present here but to go head to head in battle, takes tremendous strength. They made me feel proud to be a woman and I like Tony, would be proud to these women any day. If these women can find the force to stand up in the midst of war, to the threat of a violent armed force and worse, an oppressive culture, so can I stand up. So can all of us.
And so can you.