Unto the Seventh Generation

Spring has arrived and with it the pilgrimage season. I have recently returned from a trip to the Kurdish region of Iraq (KRI). Not as a pilgrim this time – I was there to interview female Peshmerga for my history of Women Warriors. Given that most wars are largely fought by men, the book looks for answers to one question – what causes some women to take up arms?

Peshmerga means ‘those who face death’ and there are many extraordinary Kurdish women who have done just that. I interviewed younger generation fighters; professional soldiers dressed in fatigues; their dark hair tied back beneath deep red berets. These are the women so often portrayed in the western media of late; pressed from the same iconic mould as the fiery Amazons, they stir a deep-seated admiration that harks back to Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of love and war. The older women I interviewed, the women my age, wore regular street clothes and belied any female warrior stereotype – ancient or modern. Mothers and grandmothers, engineers, doctors, teachers, translators, guerrilla fighters, secret agents. You might sit next to them on a bus in central London, or New York or Paris and never for one moment guess at their battles fought, or what they once endured. Each had lost countless family members and risked their own lives to defend something greater than themselves – their kin, their culture, their homeland.

Despite differences of political and social context, the two age groups of women have much in common. Mentally resilient, physically tough, highly disciplined, dedicated to the cause – for all, the goal of self-determination justifies the risks involved. The older women once fought against a Baathist regime who tried to bomb the Kurds out of existence. Now the adversary is ISIS, a baggy coalition of merciless idealogues seeking to overturn everything that has been gained in a century of struggle. Furthermore, this enemy believes that women deserve no rights at all. Not now, not ever. 

When I encounter things which fall far outside my own experience, I often struggle to make sense of motives, beliefs, behaviours. But if I’m lucky, a spark jumps across- connecting something I do know to the thing I don’t know. This is what happened in Kurdistan.

When researching my previous book ‘We are Pilgrims’, I encountered an idea that appears in many faiths – namely, an action or ritual observance thought to be capable of redeeming not only the individual, but their descendants for generations to come. It appears, for example, in the ancient text of the Mahabharata which directs pilgrims to the great river Ganges so that ‘by holding that sacred stream, touching it and bathing in its waters one rescues one’s ancestors to the seventh generation.’

This concept took on new valency for me through my encounter with the Peshmerga. Many of these Kurdish women are second or third generation fighters: their parents and grandparents, and in some cases historic female leaders of their tribal groups stand as their role models. These are people who can and do look back at the sacrifices already made by the generations that have gone before, valuing what has been gained through this and from their own struggle. And who, looking forward, see what the future might hold for their own children and grandchildren depending on whether the cause is won or lost today. Why do these women take up arms? Because to act, to fight, to risk all, is to ‘rescue their ancestors unto the seventh generation’. 

Child’s toy – used by ISIS as a detonator for an Improvised explosive device – courtesy Kurdish IED Museum

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