Sulaimania, Iraq – There is a now iconic photograph of Hero Ibrahim Ahmad in the Zagros Mountains, taken sometime in the 1980s, at the height of the Kurdish resistance against Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. She is the only woman among a band of male guerrilla fighters – a slight figure in the midst of brawny rifle-toting, mustachioed men. She is wearing Kurdish military fatigues, her long, dark hair braided Pocahontas style.
In those days, it was rumoured that she went by the name of “Diana” – some say it was her nom de guerre. Many Kurdish fighters assumed alternative names in combat, as per Middle Eastern tradition. This was mainly for security reasons but also perhaps for a measure of drama. Diana appeared to be an appropriate sobriquet for this Kurdish warrior-princess; was Diana not the Roman goddess of the hunt?
“No, no, no,” she says. “It had nothing to do with Roman goddesses. Diana – Da-ya-na – was what my older son called me. Daya is Kurdish for ‘mommy’. For some reason, he couldn’t say Daya, and called me Dayana. And it stuck.”
At the age of 67, Hero is more elder stateswoman than warrior. She appears at the door wearing a simple black dress, a well-tailored cream jacket and black pumps – every inch a lady. She ushers me into her living room, adorned with paintings of horses and battle scenes by local Kurdish artists.
Battles are an integral part of Kurdish culture. At every point in history, Kurds have battled against one enemy or another. In the last century alone, they have fought against the Ottomans, the British, and the Baathists. Nowadays, it’s the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Since the war began a year ago, Western media has salivated over the Amazonian fighters on the front-lines of the clashes with ISIL. Whether along the Iraqi, Syrian or Turkish borders, Kurdish women have been photographed brandishing Kalashnikovs, bandoliers slung across their chests.
Touted as a novelty or the Orientalist man’s fantasy, the irony of religiously conservative men being whipped by empowered women no doubt struck a chord in the West. And yet, these Amazonian fighters are nothing new in Kurdish culture and history.
A generation ago, Hero was among the 50 or so women who joined their husbands and brothers in the war of resistance against Iraq’s Baathist regime. They were known, in Kurdish, as “Zhini Shakh” (women of the mountains). Hero’s husband was none other than Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and later, Iraq’s first ethnic Kurdish president. But that wasn’t her first foray into the mountains to join the armed struggle for Kurdish independence.
Hero was 10 years old when Iraq’s newly installed monarchy was overthrown by a coup d’etat – in what came to be known as the July 14 Revolution. Initially, it appeared as though Brigadier General Abd al-Karim Qasim’s republican regime would be friendlier towards the Kurds. All Iraqi citizens were proclaimed equal, irrespective of ethnicity and religion. Political prisoners were freed and those Kurds who participated in the 1943 – 1945 Kurdish uprisings were granted amnesty. But within a few years, Baghdad’s relationship with the Kurds deteriorated.
The Kurds of the north attempted to negotiate autonomy with Baghdad, and after a series of unfulfilled agreements, the Kurds decided to wage war against the Iraqi establishment in 1961.
Hero’s father, Ibrahim Ahmad, was secretary-general of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). When the Iraqi army marched into Sulaimania, he took his wife and seven children to the mountains.
“My father believed in the equality of women and men,” she recalls. “I am the eldest child of my parents. When I was born, my father threw a party in my honour. That was unheard of in my day. Nobody celebrated over the birth of a daughter – only for a son.”
Later on, before she married the young, charismatic lawyer-turned-politician Jalal Talabani, Hero was approached by the KDP-affiliated Student Union to enlist as a full-fledged member.
“They asked me to join the party but I refused,” she recalls. “There was a big discussion about me in the mountains. They said, ‘How dare she refuse?’ My father defended me and said, ‘She has the right to decide. If she would like to join, she is welcome, if she doesn’t, she doesn’t have to.'”
Not without my husband
By the time Hero went to the mountains again to resume the armed struggle in the late 1970s, she was married and had two children of her own, Bafel and Qubad. Too young to join their parents, the boys were left in the care of their maternal grandparents in London. Hero had opted to fight alongside her husband.
In 1974, when fighting broke out between the Kurds and Baghdad over the failure to implement the 1970 Autonomy Agreement, the US, the Shah of Iran and Israel began covertly funding Kurdish rebels against the Baathist government. In retaliation, the Iraqi government cracked down heavily on the Kurds and a year later, on March 6, 1975, Baghdad signed the Algiers Accord with Tehran to settle the dispute over the Shatt al-Arab (Alvand Rood in Persian) waterway in return for Iran ending their support for the Iraqi Kurds.
With the Kurdish uprising of 1974 (or what the Kurds call the “Ayloul Revolution”) in tatters, the Baathist regime resumed their aggressive Arabisation programme of the oil-rich areas of Kirkuk and Khanaqin, among others. Arab families from the south were relocated to northern areas, notably to Kirkuk. By the late 1970s, hundreds of Kurdish villages were burned down, particularly along the border regions, to deter the Peshmerga from restarting the resistance. More than 200,000 Kurds were deported to other parts of the country and often prohibited from even visiting Kurdish areas.
“After our marriage, we lived in Baghdad for two years. But because we were under pressure from the government, suspected as dissidents, we had to leave for Cairo,” Hero says. It was during this time that she completed her psychology degree at Mustansariya University in Baghdad and gave birth to her first son, Bafel.
Well, I never killed anyone, if that’s what you’re asking. I was given a pistol, and I was trained to use it but I never used it to shoot at anyone.
The failure of the Kurdish uprising led to the fragmentation of the KDP and on June 1, 1975, Talabani and other notable figures from the Kurdish movement formed the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
By 1977, Talabani and his deputies had returned to the mountains to wage a new war against Saddam’s Baathist army.
Two years later, Hero could no longer stand life in exile while her husband was in the mountains, so she headed back to the mountains and joined her husband at the PUK’s base camp on the Iraqi side of the Iran-Iraq border.
Asked what role she played on the battlefield, Hero says: “Well, I never killed anyone, if that’s what you’re asking. I was given a pistol, and I was trained to use it but I never used it to shoot at anyone.”
“But I was treated the same as the men,” she insists. “It depends on you. If you are afraid, they will treat you like a woman.”
She says she wasn’t keen on doing the housekeeping either, and quips: “I tried to cook, but nobody liked my cooking.”
Shooting the footage
What Hero did shoot in the mountains, however, was perhaps just as significant to the war effort. She filmed the video footage – on an old VHS camera – that brought the struggle international attention. She was able to show how the Baathist regime was bombarding the Kurdish rebels by air. Some of her most striking footage was filmed in the immediate aftermath of the bombing of villages in the Jafati Valley in 1987. As the village smoulders, the ruins of the schoolhouse and its books can be seen, and then two young children who survived the attack come into focus and vividly describe what had just happened.
“We were bombarded daily from the air. We were always moving. Once they found our positions, we had to keep moving,” Hero says. “But there was no interest at the time. With the Iran-Iraq war going on, the world did not want to hear anything negative about Saddam Hussein’s regime.”
In 1988, a British journalist offered to broadcast the footage in the UK.
Soon after it was broadcast, the Iraqi ambassador in London gave a televised interview, claiming the footage was fabricated, she says. Still, the images were powerful and did have an impact on European public opinion about the Kurds and their struggle for nationhood.
Hero had long understood the power of the media, having learned English through films, but it was her epic war-time videography that gave her first-hand experience, and she learned what impact visual media can have when used responsibly.
After the first Gulf War in 1991, the US and its allies imposed a no-fly zone over northern Iraq and helped establish the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). After a period of infighting in the mid-1990s, the two Kurdish factions agreed to a power-sharing deal, with Erbil and Dohuk under KDP control, and Sulaimania and its environs under PUK jurisdiction.
When much of the movement was in exile in Iran following the Anfal campaign against the Kurds in 1988, her husband, who was based in Tehran at this time was reluctant for her to join them.
“My husband told me I couldn’t go with him because I’d have to wear the hijab and he knew I would never wear the hijab,” Hero recalls. “Then one day in 1989 he called me and said, ‘I know you like gardening. I put a small garden in our house in Tehran.”
She laughs: “And that was how he persuaded me to join him.”
In 1989, while still in Iran, Hero co-founded the PUK’s Women’s Union. This set the tone for much of her work that would follow, after returning to Sulaimania, during the 1990s and into the early 2000s. It was at this point that she channelled her efforts and resources towards humanitarian and social work. In 1997, she launched KHAK TV and in 2000, she launched KurdSat, a satellite television station. She also oversaw the publication of Kurdish newspapers and magazines.
“I started the media organisations mainly for the children of Kurdistan,” Hero says. “The idea first came to me during the civil war, when the KDP and PUK were fighting each other. Each party had its own flag, its own banner. Green for PUK and yellow for KDP. During that time, I went to visit somebody’s home and met their children. They had been fighting over colours. Their son liked the KDP and wanted yellow, and the daughter liked the PUK and wanted green.”
Hero says the incident saddened her.
“It struck me that young children who ought to be playing with colours, were instead associating green and yellow with politics,” she says. “If you look at the KHAK TV logo, there is no green in it. I wanted to break this pattern of thinking and somehow depoliticise our children.”
But her foray into the media was not her first project aimed at children. In 1991, she founded Kurdistan Save the Children (KSC), the oldest local charity/NGO in the Kurdistan region. Over the years, KSC implemented many projects, from drives to collect food and clothes for refugees to education and healthcare initiatives that have helped thousands of children across the region.
It also established cultural centres for working children, intended to ensure that they are not abused by their employers and that their creative energies are channelled into constructive endeavours, such as music, art and sport. Hero also set up halfway houses for children who are abandoned by their impoverished parents, as well as homes for the elderly.
In the ongoing refugee crisis resulting from the war against ISIL, KSC has been one of the most active NGOs aiding children in the camps.
‘To hell with what everyone else thinks’
In spite of her extensive humanitarian and social work, Hero has not been spared the vitriolic attacks routinely levelled against Kurdish public figures in the media. There is without doubt a malaise and disillusionment in Kurdish society as a result of the stagnating economy and overall dissatisfaction with the regional government’s performance.
Over a decade after the US-led invasion ousted Saddam and his Baathist regime, average Kurds in the semi-autonomous northern region still endure daily hardships, including a chronic lack of electricity, and budgetary problems have left civil servants unpaid for months.
As many Kurds grow increasingly resentful of having to make sacrifices yet again for a nationalist cause, their politicians’ chief preoccupation has been “the presidential crisis” – Massoud Barzani’s refusal to step aside after his term expired on August 19.
Some observers say Hero has been the victim of a smear campaign and may have received far more than her fair share of usual criticism over alleged corruption and abuse of power – mainly as a result of the inordinate influence she wields as a woman in what is still a male-dominated society. After all, she has always been Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, and not simply, Mrs Talabani.
“They say in the newspapers that I am a rich woman,” she says. “I am not rich. I have never cared about money. Somebody once wrote I have $20bn!”
But she shrugs off the critics. Not one to court the media, her quiet and reserved nature is sometimes portrayed as cold and distant in the local press.
“I never care what anyone says about me,” she says. “If you care, you must only care about what your gut says. If your gut is telling you, you are right, then you are right. The worst thing in a human being is to have an internal struggle. You must listen to your gut, and to hell with what everyone else thinks. “
Hero has also been vilified in conservative religious circles due to her outspokenness and her no-nonsense attitude towards religious freedom. A few years ago, for instance, she wrote a controversial column in the local KHAK magazine criticising Islamists for attempting to Arabise the Kurdish region.
“Basically, what I wrote was that there is no need to oblige members of the Islamist party to change their Kurdish names into Arabic ones,” she says. “If someone’s name is Kamran or Kawa, they are asked to change it. Why is it necessary to Arabise the names of their followers? Will God not listen to our prayers if we are Kurdish?”
Her column was prescient as this phenomenon is now affecting the persecuted Yazidi community of Iraq.
Perhaps as a result of the often brutal media scrutiny, Hero remains a very private person, and rarely attempts to either set the record straight or publicise her work.
During her husband’s nine-year term as Iraqi president, she shirked the title of “First Lady”. If it had to be any title at all, she preferred “Dada” – big sister, in Kurdish – an affectionate title bestowed upon her by the people of Sulaimania for her humanitarian efforts.
Indeed, for many young Kurdish women today, especially in Sulaimania and other districts under PUK jurisdiction, Hero is considered a role model for having challenged convention and assumed a role equal to men in all spheres. Yet, it would be unfair to ignore sentiment in other quarters, where she is resented – even derided – as a privileged woman who had the luxury of living life on her own terms, and pursuing quixotic dreams in the mountains while other women had no such options.
Hero wears her achievements lightly, and doesn’t believe she has done anything spectacular.
“In my city, in Sulaimania, we have always held progressive views on women and on our freedoms,” she says. This is in contrast to other parts of the Kurdish region, which are more religiously conservative and tend to follow tribal customs.
Hero draws her own inspiration from Hapsa Khan, an iconic Kurdish feminist, who initiated radical social changes in the 1930s and 1940s, opening one of the first schools for girls in her home.
She walks over to an oil painting hanging on the wall of her drawing room.
“This is Hapsa Khan,” she says. “In the 1920s, she went to the bazaar with a group of ladies and tore off her veil. This was really scandalous in those days. It is scandalous even now. Can anyone do it now? Can anyone do this in Afghanistan? She was very powerful.”
In fact, contemporary Kurdish history is replete with examples of brave women who have rebelled against convention. There have been women who have been heads of tribes, such as Adila Khan, who ruled in Halabja at the turn of the century until her death, instituting important initiatives such as building and presiding over a court and prison; Mastura Ardalan, a novelist who wrote controversially about religion in the 1920s; and Leila Qasem, a political activist executed in Baghdad in 1974, for her activities against the Baathist regime.
And then of course, there was Khuska Halima (Sister Halima).
“She came from a village and became a commander of a Peshmerga unit in the 1970s,” recounts Hero. “There is a now famous story of a man who went up to her and told her that he was hungry. He expected her to get him some food. But she stood up and said, ‘Then give me your rifle, I will stand guard.'”
Hero speaks fondly of her maternal grandmother, Selima Abdullah, whom she describes as feisty.
“My grandmother was from Van, from Turkish Kurdistan,” she says. “I grew up on her stories of her childhood, the hard times they went through, and finally how she and her family had to flee the city during World War II.”
“She was probably my greatest inspiration, a really strong woman,” she says.
When she was thinking about going to the mountains to join the Kurdish resistance, Hero remembers her grandmother’s misgivings were less about propriety and more about her health: “She told me, ‘You will die. Not because of the fight but because of hunger.'”
“My grandmother was modern for her times. Even in her last days, she was religious, but she was a great woman.”
Over 50 years have gone by since Hero first joined the Kurdish resistance in the mountains. Having witnessed two of the most significant existential battles of her generation – against the Baathists and now ISIL – the mantle has now passed to another generation. But this time, there appears to be no question over the role women are playing on the battlefield.
Last October, a blond, fair-skinned Kurdish fighter, called Rehana, became the poster girl of the Kurdish resistance when it was reported she may have been killed in battle. The media frenzy sparked debate -mainly among Western watchers of the Middle East – over how much actual fighting Rehana and other Kurdish women were engaged in. Were they on the ground fighting, or were they deployed as a PR gimmick?
Hero is adamant: “They are not decoration. They are very brave. I have met many of them. They are more involved in the fighting than we [the previous generation] were.”
According to Sheikh Jaffar, commander of the Peshmerga’s 70th brigade, there are 1,000 female Peshmergas on active duty across northern Iraq and along the Syrian border.
“They have a regiment, they have their own commander, and their own martyrs,” he says. “They are on the front-line, like the men, and they get killed. They are women trained for combat, female Peshmergas. If you look at the Peshmerga women in Syria, they fight better than the men in some cases. They have the ability, and in Kobane, it was the women fighters who pushed ISIL back.”
Today, Hero has a granddaughter of her own. Asked what battles she and her generation of Kurdish women are likely to face in their lifetime and what advice she would give her, Hero smiles: “My own grandmother didn’t tell me what to do, and I will do the same with her.”
After some thought, she adds in a jaded tone: “But they will be fighting too. Our battles aren’t over.”
Follow Tanya Goudsouzian on Twitter: @ummanais