“The purpose of this centre is to provide a place they can get together and where they can get military training and some education,” says Hazel, a 35-year-old Yazidi woman overseeing a group of other Yazidi women in the Sinjar area, in northern Iraq. These women are some of the lucky ones – thousands of members of their ethno-religious sect, whose traditional home is in this part of Iraq, were captured, killed or displaced by the extremist group known as the Islamic State, last August. But they managed to escape or were never captured at all.
Most of the women building the centre – mixing cement and placing bricks – have come from nearby camps and many have brought their children with them. The atmosphere is lively and good humoured.
The building of the centre is being organised by members of the militias known as the Sinjar Resistance Units, who are defending Yazidi territory from the Islamic State, or IS, group – they are being guided in this by militias from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, more commonly referred to by their Kurdish acronym, PKK; the latter is a military organization fighting for Kurdish rights in Turkey designated as a terrorist group by some countries. Under the auspices of the PKK, a special women's section of the Sinjar Resistance Units was created early in 2015 with the assigned purpose of protecting Yazidi women.
My role isn't just to wear make up and dresses and get men to like me.
Even though the Yazidis are traditionally a patriarchal society with very strict customs around women's roles, many of the Yazidi women here are now being trained by the PKK fighters, who have a totally different kind of philosophy about what women can and cannot do on a battlefield, and in fact, in society in general. The PKK prides itself on treating both sexes equally and the female guerilla fighters from the group have made many international headlines. Which is why their recruitment of Yazidi women has the potential to change the way that the females in that secretive ethno-religious society see themselves and others.
PKK recruitment techniques are considered controversial by some – for example, families have been known to protest that their children have joined up and there are rumours about young men and women being pressed into PKK service; it's also common knowledge that women who run away to join the PKK often do so because they are unhappy at home with their traditional roles and there have been criticisms that the PKK are psychologically manipulative. On the other hand, the PKK were also integral to the rescue of the Yazidi people last August. The militia group opened and defended a humanitarian corridor that helped save thousands of Yazidis who were trapped on the mountain without shelter, water or food. For this, the PKK are increasingly seen as heroes and saviours.
“The Yazidi women here joined us because they saw how women could fight and how courageous they could be,” explains Hadar, a 32-year-old member of the Sinjar women's unit; she is supervising a group of female trainees aged between 16 and 24. “The Yazidi women suffered at the hands of the Islamic State and now they want to be able to protect themselves.”
The PKK used to have difficulties recruiting women – in many local social circles it is not acceptable for women to be in the military, particularly in Yazidi tribal groups – but Hadar says the IS group's attack on Sinjar has changed all that. “When we go to meet the women in the camps or in their homes now, they welcome us and interact with us happily,” Hadar says.
Hadar believes that more and more Yazidi women are volunteering to work with the PKK but she would not give any numbers as the issue is a sensitive one.
The Yazidi women who want to join the Sinjar Resistance Units get between six and eight weeks training, both theoretical and physical. Women are taught about Yazidi history, the status of women throughout history and female roles in society. They are taught about equality and the principles of the PKK philosophy. Women who cannot are also taught to read and write.
The women also get training on a variety of different weapons, from Kalashnikovs to sniper rifles.
Our task ends when we can create a free society where there is equality between men and women.
After the women have completed their training they are assigned to a variety of different duties, everything from the intelligence services to frontline combat. Others are also required to proselytize on behalf of the group, spreading the PKK's feminist and socialist philosophy and encouraging new volunteers.
“I joined for personal reasons,” says Kolan, a 17-year-old who is now a member of the Sinjar militias. “I decided to do this after I saw the injustice that Yazidis suffered – and that Yazidi women in particular were suffering.”
The teenager was in school before the IS group attacked and her life completely changed after this. She refuses to go back to school because she now believes what she is learning here is far more important than what she would be learning there.
Kolan and other women live in a small office at the foot of Sinjar mountain; she works in media relations and has filmed a number of training sessions. Most of the days, when they're not working at their assigned tasks, the young women here spend their time cleaning or cooking or learning more about the PKK's philosophy, by listening to speeches and broadcasts.
“I have learned that as a woman I too have rights as well as duties,” Kolan says. “My role isn't just to wear make up and dresses and get men to like me. I learned that my role also involves protecting myself and my people. When they need me on the battle front though, I will be ready.”
The all-female units belonging to the PKK have strict rules and regulations. One of the best known is the one that forbids any romantic relationships between male and female soldiers. This applies to the Yazidi women recruits too. However one of the PKK rules that doesn't apply is the one about being able to leave the group's service; basically once you join the PKK you are in the group for life - or you risk being labelled a traitor.
“But because we are working in their territories, we can't apply our own rules so strictly,” Hadar explains. “So every Yazidi woman has the right to join us but she also has the right to leave whenever she wants to – although we would certainly try and convince her to stay and fight for her homeland.”
Those Yazidi women who have decided they are in it for the long run say they want to do more than see the defeat of the IS group. “Our task ends when we can create a free society where there is equality between men and women and where we have social justice,” says Hazel firmly.