Whilst the West flounders around cluelessly in the perplexing world of Middle Eastern politics, women are on the frontline in the fight against IS
It is not often that women take centre stage in the Middle East. However, we had seen an improvement in the role of women in society in some Middle Eastern countries in the past few decades, with more freedoms on how to dress and the opportunity to work outside of the home. In Syria, for example, young women were free to wear mini-skirts and make-up prior to the recent uprising and ensuing civil war. It is a very different picture to today's Syria. In no way forgetting the atrocities committed by the Assad forces against Syria's civilian population, it is true to say that prior to the uprising women had a far better standard of life than they do now in areas under the control of IS or other Islamist groups such as Al Nusra. In Raqqa, the IS stronghold, women who wear the hijab are not considered demure enough- they must make a choice between the full niqab or a sentence of lashes. They go about their daily business fully covered and sporting Kalashnikovs, even when taking their children to school, a far cry from the carefree images of relatively liberated young Syrian women a decade ago. Educated women are particularly targeted by IS, a human rights activist having been executed in September for having condemned IS bombing of mosques and shrines in Mosul. There are reports of routine rape and the selling of 'enemy' or 'infidel' women into slavery, whereas women, many coming from Europe, who sign up to fight with IS, often end up as housekeepers, wives, mother figures for orphans, and work on IS propaganda- always kept in the background and in the home. Their place in society, even for those sharing the same ideology and willing to fight, is one where they must be seen (barely), but not heard; their duty is to serve unquestioningly, draped in black.
People must not mistake this image with many Western Muslims who chose to wear the veil- indeed, the right to freedom of expression is one of our fundamental rights, and the right of a woman to choose whether or not to cover herself should be for her and her alone. Unfortunately there is a danger, given the images of IS being panned daily on our TV screens, that Islamophobia, already a huge problem in the West, could increase even more. However, we must differentiate between the completely different situation of women in IS controlled areas where a blatant lack of freedom, choice, and humanity is shown to non-fighters and particularly women, and has led them to shed their previously liberal lifestyle for one of sobriety and conformity. Not that they have much choice in the matter.
Ironically, it would seem that those the IS fighters claim to be subordinate and unworthy in contrast to their own male warrior ego, may actually be their biggest fear, and ultimately, their biggest downfall. The female warrior.
In the Kurdish areas of Northern Syria and Iraq, particularly around the town of Kobane which has been in the news a lot this week, womens'-only brigades, some up to 700 strong, made up of students and even mothers, some fighting from the age of 16, are repelling IS. Female Kurdish fighters have been reported as laughing at the sight of fleeing IS fighters returning in the direction from whence they came, as they saw comrades gunned down by women. And their secret weapon? That IS believes that being killed by a woman will deprive them of their 72 virgin reward in paradise, and instead they will be sent straight to hell. What better tactic than to instil fear into the hearts of those who have raped, pillaged and tortured their way through Iraq and Syria for the past number of months?
Nesreen, a commander in the Kurdish Female Freedom Fighters, (YPJ), said to Australia's 60 Minutes Programme: "My first responsibility as a commander is to prove that women anywhere can have a will and a reason to exist...I see no difference between female and male, both can join together to fight ISIS, because now we are living in a dangerous situation here, ISIS have come to our area, destroyed everything, damaged everything, killed the children and kidnapped the women". The women of the YPJ are considered as some of the bravest and most committed of the Kurdish forces. Women' victories even motivates the men to be stronger and tougher fighters, according to another female combatant. They prove that it is a lie that women cannot fight. Nesreen also has male fighters under her command.
This is a tactic which avoids airstrikes, limits civilian casualties, and has a real chance of stopping the advance of IS. The problem is the YPJ are considered terrorists by the EU and US due to their struggle for Kurdish independence against Turkey. It has been reported today that Turkey has begun conducting airstrikes this morning- not against IS, but against Kurdish separatists. IS have reportedly thanked Erdogan for his "help" in their capture of much of the town of Kobane, but say that Turkey is "next". With so many actors and so many interests in this geographical area, it is difficult to see a workable solution or coherent strategy to resolve this crisis.