Pacing back and forth, Lieutenant Kuchar Salih Haji leads her all-female unit in drills from their base in Erbil. At 28 years old, she’s a top-ranking female commander in the peshmerga, the army of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The enemy is miles away. But these women are ready.
“If ordered, the peshmerga is willing to defend any oppressed people and sacrifice their blood for them,” Kuchar said.
The peshmerga — its female fighters included — have been fighting ISIS since the terrorist group swept through Iraq in 2014.
Unlike most other militaries in the region, the peshmerga (which translates roughly to "those who face death") allows women to serve in its ranks.
“We feel like they treat us like they treat the men,” said Vice Officer Zozan Sharif Ali.
Ali, 29, doesn’t hesitate when asked if she and her fellow soldiers are feminists.
“I don't see any difference between the genders, between male or female," she said. "What are we doing here maybe it could be a message for other peoples, for other women to stand up and say that, "we can do what men can do."
Explaining her motivation to fight, Ali brings up ISIS's treatment of women.
Women and girls living in the self-proclaimed Islamic State are subject to torture, sexual slavery and killing — all atrocities ISIS claims are justified in the Quran.
"That really affected me," she says quietly from a watchtower overlooking her base.
Kuchar, a bit more animated in her response, says she couldn't eat or sleep when she saw what ISIS had done to Kurdish and Yazidi women.
"That was an extra motivation for the Kurdish women to fight the bloodthirsty ISIS with more enthusiasm," Kuchar said.
Many of the female fighters interviewed by Circa felt it was their patriotic duty to join the peshmerga. More than one said she came from a long line of female fighters.
"We fight for our president and land to the last drop of our blood, and we do that proudly," said Kuchar, who credits her mother for encouraging her to enlist.
But for all their talk of an independent Kurdistan, the women maintain their true cause is much greater.
"If I didn't stand up against terrorism, tomorrow the terrorism could be in America, or in Europe,” Ali said.
“If the Kurds don’t fight for the rest of the world, who will?"
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