THE LEVANT – Tekoshin stands on a mountain in north Iraq with a rifle slung over her shoulder and a grenade tucked into her belt, facing jihadists in “a struggle to liberate women”.
Women have been fighting alongside men in the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to wrest Mount Makhmur in northern Iraq back from Islamic State (IS) jihadists, whose treatment of women makes the fight especially personal for the dozens of female fighters on the mountain.
IS-led militants have overrun large areas of Iraq, and the group also controls significant territory in neighbouring Syria, enacting its harshly restrictive and brutal interpretation of Islamic law in both countries.
Tekoshin, 27, says she and other women are fighting the group not only because of the threat it poses to Kurds but because it “is against women’s liberation”.
“They don’t allow women in areas under their control to go to the market” and force them to wear headscarves, she says. “Our struggle against (the IS) is to defend women from them and from that kind of thinking.”
Women, men deploy together
Some 50 women are among the fighters on the mountain from the PKK, which launched an insurgency for self-rule in Turkey in 1984 and has been listed as a terrorist group by countries including the United States, but began peace talks in 2012.
At the entrance to the mountain town of Makhmur, “The Islamic State” was scrawled on a one-storey concrete house, but hastily painted over since the PKK took it back.
Tekoshin says women fought side by side with the men in the battle to force out the jihadists.
“We usually organise ourselves in groups of four women, and I command one of the groups,” she explained, wearing traditional Kurdish clothing usually seen on men.
“But when it comes to fighting, we break up and we and the men deploy together on different fronts.”
Kurdish women have fought alongside men for years in the PKK, its Syrian offshoot the People’s Protection Units (YPG), and to a lesser extent, the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces.
Asked whether she was married, Tekoshin laughs: “Most of us here aren’t married. I joined the PKK when I was 14 years old.”
Tekoshin says the PKK does not forbid its fighters from marrying, but that it is generally frowned upon.
More afraid of us
She also finds amusing the idea that the jihadists may have been surprised by coming face to face with women fighters.
“I think (IS) were more afraid of us than of the men,” she says, adding that she thinks “they believe they’ll go to hell if they die at a woman’s hands”.
While Tekoshin says she fights best with her Kalashnikov assault rifle, Saria, 18, shyly says she feels equally comfortable with both light and heavy machineguns and sniper rifles.
Saria grew up in northern Syria, and her two brothers and her sister are currently fighting against IS there, she says, adding that both her parents were in the PKK.
“When I was a child, I didn’t think I would be a fighter. But I realised how much my (Kurdish) nation needs me… and I chose this road,” she says.
“It is important for us to find our place in war, side by side with the men,” she says.
On the mountainside, the PKK fighters live a communal life. Normally they take turns cooking, but in wartime, male volunteers from nearby Arbil city take care of feeding the fighters.
For Shimal, a 26-year-old fighter, the anti-IS battle is as much about solidarity with women who have fallen victim to the jihadists as it is about the Kurdish national cause.
IS “turns women into slaves,” she says.