Standing on the frontline with ISIS in Northern Iraq, I stood flanked by a group of female Peshmerga soldiers. Just over the mountain behind the small Peshmerga army base, we could see a cloud of smoke shooting up into the air. The women pointed excitedly and shouted, 'they're bombing ISIS.'
I was on a trip to Northern Iraq to learn more about violence against women as part of my work with my foundation Project Monma, when I had the great privilege to meet this tremendous group of women.
On the other side of the mountain where this small army camp stood, was the Islamic state. A small village was situated in front of the army base and a group of young boys stood nearby, guarding a flock of sheep. I wondered what had brought these women here, to take arms against a group that have become synonymous with rape, torture and slave markets. As I found out, it was precisely because of these horrific deeds committed by the Islamic state, that these women had decided to take up arms. They wanted the Islamic state out of Iraq and they wanted to rescue the thousands of Yezidi women who have been kidnapped by ISIS and sold into sex slave markets.
This desire for justice had brought them to frontlines in Mosul and they were willing to risk their lives for what they believed in.
I was impressed.
I have travelled to Northern Iraq before to document the various forms of violence facing women in the region. It's not good. Women are up against extreme cultural ideals of honor and shame. They say that a woman's sexual behavior must at all times be under control of a man. A woman must never engage in a sexual relationship with anyone other than her husband, should she dare to do so, this would bring shame on her family. The only way then to restore the family's honor, is to kill her. This is otherwise known as an honor killing, which, are prevalent in the region.
Aside from these extreme forms of cultural ideologies, women deal with domestic violence, daily sexual harassment that include stalking, leering and what I came to observe as just blatant discrimination. Women seemed to be deemed as having less value than men and therefore deserving less honor, respect and rights, than men.
As one northern Iraqi woman said to me, 'it's incredibly unfair.'
Though what I have noticed not only in northern Iraq, but throughout the world, is that women are never given credit for the tremendous strength that it takes, to endure these extreme forms of violence and discrimination. Rarely does anyone acknowledge just how difficult it is to survive when you endure harassment on a daily basis or consistently be treated in a manner that indicates that you are second class. Nobody credits you for the strength that it takes to live an environment where your culture tells you that you can be killed for something as small, as wanting a boyfriend.
And it does take strength.
In a small Syrian refugee camp in the Beqqua valley in Lebanon I met with Om Noor. She had fled Syria after the war began with her five daughters. They fled bombs, bullets and sexual violence. Her husband abandoned them and they were left to fend for themselves. Arriving in Lebanon she had to find a way to survive and this has in part meant enduring relentless sexual harassment from Lebanese men. In Lebanon, it seemed that there was a perception that all Syrian women are prostitutes. As I came to learn, this was because as a result of fleeing war, many women were vulnerable and they were trying to survive admist severe economic difficulties in a climate that is hostile to women. For some Syrian women, prostitution has been a means of survival.
How Lebanese men seemed to be interpreting this situation was that, because these women were vulnerable, they thought that they could do as they pleased. They could assume that all Syrian women were prostitutes and could treat them as such. Rather than show sympathy towards women who were trying to escape war, they were instead using it to their advantage to be able to gain access to sex.
Women reported being asked for sexual favors in return for work, harassment on the street and being treated in a blatantly disrespectful way.
After speaking with several Syrian women in various refugee camps, it became apparent to me just how stressful their situation was, which was in a large part due to the harassment from the Lebanese men.
It takes tremendous strength to endure this type of situation. It takes strength to deal with leers and sexually degrading behavior on a daily basis, to be treated as if you are only a sexual object. It takes strength to know that your only choice is to sleep with a man you do not want to sleep with or watch your children go hungry. Yet on the several occasions that I met Om Noor and her daughters, in fact all the Syrian women I met in Lebanon, they held their heads high and smiled.
That takes strength.
There is no shortage of incredibly strong, powerful women within our world. I am sure that all of us can all think of a woman that we know that has been able to survive unspeakable violence, that has brought up her children alone or has been able to push past oppressive patriarchal structures just to be able to do the basic things in life that she wants to do, like work. I am sure that we all know a woman who has had to battle relentless sexual harassment when she has tried to go about her daily life at work, at school or on the street.
These women need to be recognized. It takes strength to endure the extreme levels of violence and discrimination facing so many women and girls around the world today. It takes strength to push past the discomfort of endless lecherous stares by men on the street and to believe that you have worth, when the men around you are treating you as if you don't. This is particularly so for women who have been able to survive these attitudes with limited education and few opportunities.
I want to recognise the strength of the so many tremendous, brave women that I have met around the world who have been able to do just this. Those like the female Peshmerga who have stood up against cultural norms that discriminate against women or Om Noor and the other Syrian women refugees who are surviving an incredibly unfair situation. I want to recognise all of the incredible women, strong women around the world.