In northern Iraq the threat posed by ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has led to over 10,000 Kurdish women joining militias and training for combat. Most of these women are Sunni Moslems but in late 2015 Yazidi women who had been captured and raped by ISIL succeeded in getting support for a battalion of Yazidi women who had been sex slaves of ISIL and, obviously, escaped. Over 2,000 Yazidi slaves (most of them women) have escaped from ISIL so far. But the Yazidi women could not escape the experience.
The Middle East is one of those regions where female virginity is a big deal, sometimes a matter of life and death for women who lose it before marriage and then sometimes get murdered to salvage family honor. Getting captured and raped during war is not as bad but it does still stigmatize the victims. One way honor can be restored is via revenge. Taking up weapons and killing the culprit makes the woman less of a victim and more admirable. The Yazidis, who usually live among Kurds, are largely regard as Kurds but ones who have developed very different religious and social customs. Most Moslems consider the Yazidis heretics or pagans. The Kurds came to the aid of the Yazidi in 2014 when ISIL sought to kill or enslave all Yazidi in northern Iraq. The Kurds also helped arm and train Yazidi men to form more militias. By late 2015 this led to the appearance of the “Sun Ladies” (former sex slaves now armed, trained and seeking revenge) and now there are enough of them to form a separate battalion. ISIL is still holding at least 3,000 Yazidis captive and one objective of all these Yazidi militias (and Kurds in general) is to free the slaves.
The Kurds reacted to the appearance of ISIL near Kurdish territory in other ways. By the end of 2015 2,000 Kurdish women had volunteered for combat duty. Another 5,000 had volunteered for support work in the combat zone. This is nothing new for the Kurds, or many other peoples around the globe.
Throughout history women have often served in irregular combat organizations. In modern times, with the arrival of lightweight firearms, more women became capable of handling direct combat. This is because before modern firearms were developed in the 19th century lots of combat was dependent on muscle, which men have a lot more of.
Despite this inability to compete with men in the muscle department women often served as archers, using the small, shorter range short bow that did not require the big muscle of longer range bows. These women became accurate archers because in many cultures women used short bows to hunt small game near their camp or village. Men used more powerful bows for big game. But the short bow could kill a man, especially if he were not wearing a lot of armor. A skilled female archer could regularly get face shots, as they were accustomed to hitting small targets like rabbits and birds.
Despite being Sunni Moslem, the Kurds do not have a lot of restrictions on women. In fact, a lot of the clothing and behavior restrictions associated with Moslem women are, as many Islamic scholars will point out, based on cultural customs not religious scripture. In the Middle East for example, women in many ethnic groups, and of all faiths (including Christians) have ancient customs about women being well covered when in public and generally staying at home. The Kurds have little of that cultural baggage and they do have a tradition of women going to war, especially in self-defense militias. This was also the case in Israel during the 1948 war and their Arab opponents were enraged (and humiliated) when they found that the “soldiers” who had just defeated in one encounter or another were female. ISIL will be similarly unamused when they get the same treatment from Kurdish and Yazidi women.
Russia, and other countries, discovered during World War II that women, in general, made better snipers. But that was something any student of archery through the ages could have told you. Since World War II warfare has come to depend more on brains more than muscle. This has made women competitive at more jobs in regular armies.