MAKHMUR, Iraq — It’s an Islamic State fighter’s worst fear: to be killed by a woman.
In northern Iraq, where Kurdish forces are rapidly regaining territory held by the Islamic State, that’s becoming a real risk for the extremists.
There are plenty of female Kurdish soldiers on the front lines. They’re smaller than their male comrades, but they talk just as tough as they prowl the battlefield clutching automatic rifles and vowing vengeance for those victimized by the Islamic State.
“We are equal with the men,” said Zekia Karhan, 26, a female guerrilla from Turkey who is with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK. “Every responsibility for a man is the same for a woman. We are treated equally, and that is why we are fighting.”
The female PKK troops accessorize their olive drab uniforms with colorful scarfs, but they’re as thirsty for battle as anyone.
“I fired on this position from the mountain,” said Felice Budak, 24, another PKK fighter from Turkey, as she stood next to a window pierced by several bullet holes in Makhmur, a town that the PKK helped recapture from the Islamic State this month.
Budak said she wasn’t scared during the battle.
Islamic State fighters “are very scared of death because they are only here to kill people,” she said. “I don’t mind doing it over and over again. I’ve already fought in Turkey, Iran and Syria.”
The leftist PKK has been fighting the Turkish government for decades and is classed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. But its fighters have been going into battle alongside Kurdish peshmerga in recent weeks and are credited by some locals with turning the tide of battle in Iraq.
The female PKK troops get fired up when they talk about the mass rapes and sex slavery that has been a hallmark of the Islamic State.
“Everywhere they go they kill and do bad things in the name of Islam,” Karhan said. “They captured a lot of women and they are selling them in Syria for $100. They rape women and behead them in the name of Islam.”
Karhan said she’d heard stories about the extremists’ fear of being killed by the opposite sex. In northern Iraq, it is said that the Islamic State fighters, who are exclusively male, believe that they won’t be admitted to heaven if they are killed by a woman.
At Makhmur, that may have been the fate of several Sunni extremists gunned down by the PKK.
“Nobody knows if there is heaven or hell,” Karhan said. “How can they know they will get 27 virgins? To me Kurdistan is heaven and Kurdish women are angels. Heaven is no place for terrorists.”
Budak said that she would could go shopping, wear makeup and buy nice clothes if she stayed in Turkey, but then she wouldn’t have her freedom.
“I am happy here with my freedom in my own country,” she said.
The PKK commander in Makhmur, Tekosher Zagros, praised his female troops but got upset when a linguist confused his group with the peshmerga — Kurdish government forces.
“Not peshmerga,” Zagros grumbled in broken English. “Guerrillas… partisans.”
Zagros was also upset that the PKK hadn’t received support from the Iraqi government. He noted the terrorist designation by the U.S. and NATO.
“We understand it is because of Turkey,” he said. “Turkey is your friend. But you can see now that we are fighting the terrorists. It is clear now who are the terrorists.”
Zaynab Olivo contributed to this report.