When the Iraqi army retreated in the face of the Sunni extremist group ISIS in recent weeks, another army moved in. It was the peshmerga — the militia of the Kurdish people. The peshmerga have long been known for their discipline and toughness — and for including women.
Female fighting brigades are extremely rare in the Arab Middle East, but the peshmerga women's unit has some history. “The unit has actually been in place since 1996, and it was put in place to help fight Sadaam Hussein loyalists,” says Shaimaa Khalil of the BBC. “Rarely have they been on the front line, but really more as back-up fighters."
Khalil has been reporting on the women now training as peshmerga. She says many Kurdish women fighters are telling her they don't just want to play a role protecting the borders of Kurdistan — they want to defend other women who are being attacked by ISIS.
"Since the fighting started with the fighters of ISIS, many women have started volunteering to the unit saying they want to go to the front line and fight, as well," she says. "As women, they understand what it's like [for women attacked by ISIS] and they want to be there for them."
The unit has several hundred women, including many mothers. One has three children. Another mother, a divorced parent of two teenaged boys, has been a member of the unit for eight years.
“I was quite surprised, actually," Khalil says. "I thought I would go and meet relatively young, single women who have just left school or have just graduated from college, but actually, I have met a number of mothers."
She says the moms she meets say their children and husbands are all proud of them.
“[There’s] a lot of support in the society, a lot of family support for these women, because people know that they’re fighting a very, very tough fight," Khalil says. "But also, in a way, they know that these are pioneers, not just in Kurdistan, but in the region.”