The video for this story, from the Women and War series, can be viewed here.
In Souleimaniya, in Iraqi Kurdistan, Nahida is the CO of the Women's Unit in the Peshmerga Army in her region. Nahida's dream started when she was only fourteen; she used to carry messages and weapons to the Kurdish resistance forces fighting against Saddam Hussein's regime.
She said: “My brothers were Peshmerga soldiers; my uncles were Peshmerga, my whole family was Peshmerga. One day, Saddam's troops executed my uncle. They dragged him behind a tank. The regime was persecuting the people, and the women in particular. This is why I decided to become a Peshmerga myself.
In 1988, Saddam Hussein's chemical offensive ravaged Iraqi Kurdistan. Three years later, Nahida enrolled as the first woman combattant with the Peshmerga, which means “those who face death”. A member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, she convinced the Nationalist party leader and current president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, to create the first Women's Unit in the Peshmerga in 1996. It now numbers some 500 women.
But they still face prejudice. Nahida said: “When I became a Peshmerga, and I was at the military academy, there were people who threw rocks at me. They said “what, a woman soldier?” They even spat at me. But when Kurdistan was freed, we were part of it, with our weapons. Just like the men. Our society is still a male-dominated, tribal society. We have to change this. We are against this mentality, we are fighting for progress.”
For Nahida, handling guns is not the only thing young recruits need to be taught. Aside from protecting the territory, the female Peshmerga unit is fighting it's own kind of war, against attitudes. The unit often shelters women who are mistreated and threatened by their families in a region where so-called honour crimes are commonplace. If an agreement with the families can't be found, the Peshmerga take endangered women to refuges, which are kept secret to avoid reprisals. Nahida said: “Fighting for women's freedom is part of my struggle. These women are deprived of all rights, they have no home, no way back. I believe that such injustice committed against these women, by husbands, fathers, brothers, is an injustice committed by the whole of society.”
Her unit also tries to help the most deprived. Sometimes using their own resources. They take goods to single women in a village a few miles away from the camp.
It's social work but it doesn't make Nahida forget why she became a soldier. Although peace is now established in the villages of Iraqi Kurdistan, the ghosts of history are never far from her mind. Nahida said: “We are worried that war may come from all sides of Kurdistan. You know, there are tensions between Shi'tes and Sunnis all through Iraq. And there's an invisible hand from our neighbouring countries, interfering in Iraq's internal affairs. We are afraid of that. Being a Peshmerga is not just words. We always fear that the situation might deteriorate, that there could be a civil war. And we are prepared for that, and work to keep things calm and safe.”
What Nahida wants the new generation of female Peshmerga to have is an awareness of their rights and responsibilities in a land where the future, she say, has still to be defined: “My dream was always to have a free and independent country, which would save us. As a Peshmerga, I will lobby until we become a State. I'm a soldier who is defending peace. I like to sit at the negotiation table, to find solutions through diplomacy. But if someone endangers that, I will defend myself. And I will sacrifice my life to peace. I will sacrifice my life for peace. If I have to, I will give my life for that.”