This year’s 201 women might be the first to graduate from the Zakho military academy

Kurdistan, Yesterday, at the Zakho military academy, a ceremony took place to mark the graduation of cadets who had successfully passed its military training courses. The ceremony was attended by President Massoud Barzani, who spoke to mark the successful passing out of the trainees into the military. The group included the first section of women to complete the academy’s training.

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At the ceremony, President Barzani spoke about the importance of recruits such as the ones there, emphasising how crucial their role was to the well-being of Kurdistan. ‘The world is proud of the peshmerga,’ he said, ‘since the Kurdish young men and women are bravely fighting ISIS.’ In his speech, he recognised both the importance of continuing Kurdistan’s fight against the current threats facing it, and the role that the peshmerga play in securing Kurdistan against those threats.

201 women were among those graduating from the academy today, and they represent the first women to successfully complete the academy’s training since it opened in 1996. Their training included full preparation in the use of the peshmerga’s weaponry and tactics, allowing them to take on roles guarding locations around Kurdistan from a range of potential threats.

The Zakho military academy was established in 1996, at the request of President Barzani, with the aim of taking Kurdistan’s peshmerga forces and placing them on a more sustainable footing that would be able to continue to defend Kurdistan for decades to come. Since that time, it has become a key training centre for peshmerga fighters, providing them with essential skills in weapons, tactics and other components of a modern military force.

Since the academy’s creation in 1996, it has trained more than 6500 cadets in the weapons and tactics necessary for Kurdistan’s defence. This training has helped Kurdistan’s military to defend the autonomous region’s borders against a range of potential threats, while upholding Kurdistan’s position as a place of safety for Kurdish people and all those who share their values. Yet, while women have played an important part in the peshmerga for many years now, it has traditionally been on a relatively informal level, and today represents the first time that they have completed the same training as some of their male counterparts.

Colonel Masoud Salih, an instructor at the academy, said that ‘today is a historic day, because for the first time a group of women are graduating from a military academy in Kurdistan or Iraq.’ The importance of the occasion was not lost on those attending the ceremony, which, while it does not represent a change in a military that has contained women for some time, does mark a symbolic confirmation of that role. It also marks in some ways the unique nature of Kurdistan compared to Iraq as a whole, since the military in the South has yet to take a similar step.

Col. Salih said it was a good opportunity for Kurdish women as a whole to gain greater success, with their place in the peshmerga showing that they could fill any role in society that their male counterparts could. In an area where the parliament already requires that a minimum of thirty percent of its members be female, and where there are successful women at all levels of society, the confirmation of women’s role in the military represents an important step.

‘The women received the same military courses as the men, and there was no difference in the training and types of weapons used’ Col. Salih added, making it clear that the moment was far more than a public relations exercise for the women concerned, who are likely to go on to fill crucial roles in the ongoing fight against ISIS. While the numbers of this intake are relatively low, the hope is that in years to come, women can come to make up a significant percentage of the graduates of the academy, providing a boost to the strength and numbers of Kurdistan’s armed forces.

Many women currently serve in the peshmerga, guarding checkpoints, the Mosul dam and other areas around the front lines. They are not in secondary roles as is sometimes the case in other militaries. Their role has long included combat duties, with women fighting alongside men in operations across Kurdistan. Even so, the graduation of the female recruits marks a step forward in their integration within Kurdistan’s armed forces, placing it on a more formal footing and making it clear that it is a tradition that is set to continue.

That is important both because of what it potentially does for Kurdistan’s military and because of what it says about the autonomous region to the wider world. This year’s 201 women might be the first to graduate from the Zakho military academy, but it also seems clear that they will not be the last. Those who follow will be able to look back to today as a moment that made it possible for them.

By Davan Yahya Khalil