A while ago, I posted about the supposed institution of "Sexual Jihad" in Syria. The idea is that young men from around the region get radicalized and go off to fight for either side, and the young women do their part by providing the front-line troops with sex. Aside from whether the story was even true as presented, it was based around the idea that housekeeping and sex are the only roles open to women in the conflict. I wasn't sure to what extent women were participating in the actual fighting, so I was glad to read this excellent article from Al-Monitor titled "Using Women to Win in Syria."

Apparently, there are a number of battalions of muqatilat, or women fighters, with colorful names like the Daughters of al-Walid, Lionesses for National Defense, Loyalty Battalion, and Our Mother Aisha Brigade. The article makes the point that they're almost entirely sectarian, with the Lionesses being all Alawite, and the name Aisha chosen as a slap to Shiites. As far as what role they play in the field, it depends on the individual group. The Loyalty Battalion is associated with Islamists that frown on women in actual combat, but need a female auxiliary to search and interrogate women and girls and for other roles proscribed for men. One thing they all have in common is that the particular value of a women's battalion for propaganda and practical purposes is very well recognized.

The main reason these Sunni female battalions matter, however, has to do with the support role they play behind the scenes. Ikhlas, for example, distributed food rations and monetary allowances this Ramadan to residents of Aleppo’s Ard al-Hamra district — hit by a bombing that reduced vast swathes of the area to rubble in February — and the similarly destitute Sakhour neighborhood. The situation in Syria is so destitute that the owner of several hospitals in liberated Syria told me that "those who can feed people can rule people.” Ikhlas and other women are being used by Islamists to feed their way to victory.

“Women are more dangerous than weapons,” said an activist with the Syrian Emergency Task Force who is close to the Supreme Military Council and the FSA in general. “If you want to spread your ideology, the best way to do it is through women.”

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Another excellent article is a profile of the female leader of a mixed-gender rebel group in Aleppo. Commander Engizek is a Kurd, like every other member of her Committees for the Protection of the Kurdish People (YPG) brigade, and she comes across as a serious individual. The Kurds take their female militias seriously, train them heavily, and have a long tradition of women participating directly in combat. Even so, taking up arms seems to require something of a break with society.

Most of the female fighters have given up all hopes of having families of their own some day. Engizek, for one, is staunchly opposed to marriage. “Marriage is enslavement,” she said. “I don’t want to be a slave, my girls don’t want to be slaves.”

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As they say in the article, a woman can pull a trigger as well as a man, creep through some rubble-strewn building as quietly, and stay up listening for infiltrators just as intently. Women seem perfectly capable of the grind of urban combat, so it shouldn't be a surprise to find them filling those roles, particularly when both sides are desperate for reinforcements. There are some funny quotes, like from one buffoonish fighter who finds the muqatilat quite shocking indeed. The idea that women shouldn't take up the gun is then presented to a group of armed women and promptly dismissed as "retarded." Commander Engizek also opposes the rising influence of jihadi groups, who of course are completely obsessed with enforcing strict gender roles, among numerous other things. “We are not willing to collaborate with those who don’t accept women’s rights. As a group we cannot accept that. As a woman, I cannot accept that.”

Last I heard, the YPG was in all but a state of open warfare with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Al-Qaeda linked group. They and the ISIL are slugging it out for territory in and around Ras al-Ayn, and the Turks are suspected of backing the Islamists in order to restrain Kurdish power in the region. It's complicated.