International Women’s Day: My chance to reflect on service with fellow female combat veterans in northern Iraq

Female peshmerga and I talk about fighting on the front lines in honor of International Women’s Day (IWD) 2017.

International Women’s Day is on March 8—a day to celebrate women’s achievements throughout history and across nations around the world. It’s a day to highlight the importance of women in society, the obstacles and challenges they’ve faced, and to promote generations of women, their influence, and their accomplishments.

It’s an honor to be writing about International Women’s Day—I wanted to write something to show my respect for women who are making a difference in our world. Through my work in the Navy and now, in my position as a project manager for Spirit of America, I’ve had the honor of meeting women from different cultures and backgrounds, and in some cases, I’ve been able to help them achieve their goals. I am so grateful for every one of those experiences.

While serving in the Navy in Afghanistan, I was able to assist with a program that helped local women learn how to vote for the first time in history. While serving in other parts of the Middle East, I taught military tactics and weapon skills for security forces—this allowed women in a region with significant gender equality challenges to learn how to defend themselves, their families, and their communities. With Spirit of America, I’ve had an opportunity to continue empowering women in some of the world’s most challenging places. For example, in Colombia I’ve worked with deployed US troops to implement agriculture projects that provide economic alternatives such as organic coffee farms to women and children forced to grow coca by criminal organizations. And, this week, I’m supporting an IWD event in collaboration with the US military in the West African country of Chad.

While I cherish all of those experiences, I recently had an experience that was truly life changing. In partnership with an organization that Spirit of America considers a close friend, The Kurdish Project, and in honor of IWD, we wanted to highlight and support the female peshmerga of northern Iraq. These women are not only fighting for their rights as women, but also fighting to free their families and communities from the Islamic State (IS). You can watch my interviews here.

SoA’s Zack Bazzi and I traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan to meet with the female peshmerga in honor of International Women’s Day.

I had the honor of meeting these courageous women warriors to learn about what drives them and what messages they wanted to send to other women around the world who might be struggling.

The women I met with wanted to fight for their land, to defend Kurdistan and defeat IS. At the same time, all of them were fighting for equal rights for women. One female soldier named “Kurdistan,” a moniker chosen in honor of her homeland, told me that when she is fighting on the front lines with the men, there is no difference. Everyone is treated the same. “We fight on the front lines with men. We sacrifice every drop of our blood to defend our country,” she explained. “The women here are the foundation of this community, that’s why we need to encourage each woman to have this leadership in this role.”

When I was sitting down with these women, I was overcome with admiration for their sacrifice and determination. To express into words how powerful these women are—how vigorous, how fearless—would never measure up to what they’ve done. I only hope that we can share their story highlight them in the way that they should be. You can read more on how SoA is supporting the peshmerga and contribute here.

Reflecting on these women made me think of my mother and my two older sisters who all raised me. They too were fighters: they fought for me to have everything I needed when we didn’t have very much. They pushed me to get good grades, to go to college, to join the military, to see the world, and to be kind. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without them. Because of their guidance, I now live life by taking every opportunity that comes my way, and I do my best to help people along the way. Here I am now, traveling the world and telling the stories of women who are trying to make a difference for their families, cultures, and countries. I am so lucky to have these opportunities.

As I reflect on these powerful experiences around the world I realize how many challenges these women have faced whether it be in the form of oppression, their fight for equal rights, and or even as women in combat. It’s amazing to see how things have progressed and the accomplishments they have made.

I would like to leave you with a quote from Kurdistan that touched me, and something with which I absolutely agree:

“I want to tell the women around the world that if you want something, you have to fight for it. Nothing will happen when you are sitting at home just thinking, ‘I want to achieve something.’ We have to fight for our dreams. I want to tell them, you should wake up and never accept to be number two at anything. I want every woman to fight for their dreams and to work hard to achieve them.”

Me with Kurdistan, a female peshmerga soldier who is fighting on the front lines against the Islamic State.

Nicholette Doliva
Project Manager

International Women’s Day is a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities. -United Nations

No endorsement of Spirit of America by the US Department of Defense or its personnel is intended or implied.