Monday, February 13, 2017

Women warriors: the extraordinary story of Khatoon Khider and her Daughters of the Sun

Khatoon Khider used to be a popular Yazidi singer. Now she’s the head of an all-women battle unit with Isis in its sights - by Emma Graham-Harrison

Long before Khatoon Khider took up a gun, she became famous for singing about another woman who went to war, a tragic heroine who followed her lover into battle in disguise. And she wondered even then, years before the Islamic State had been created and nearly a decade before its fighters’ murderous rampage across her homeland, if she might one day have to go to war herself.

After what has happened to the Yazidi women, I decided to stop singing until I take revenge for them
Khider, whose chin and cheeks are marked with the tiny dark-blue tattoos distinctive to the region, was born into Iraq’s Yazidi minority. Their small numbers and ancient, unusual religion with a peacock angel and taboo around the colour blue, have brought centuries of persecution, so the musical tradition she inherited is heavy with stories of war, massacres and loss. Her own life, too, has been marked out by conflict, near and distant.

“We have spent all our lives in wars, for no reason,” she says, sitting in the barracks to the north of Mount Sinjar where she now lives, after a dawn drill with her fighters. Her father was conscripted to fight in the Iran-Iraq war months after she was born, and taken prisoner soon after. She would not see him for a decade, and believes his absence shaped the singer she became.

“When I was a kid, my grandfather and mother were always crying and wailing over my dad in Iranian captivity, and something pushed me to express that sadness,” she remembers. “I never lived through a good time. That is what made me a singer.” Khider’s family were shepherds and musicians. She was born on the high summer pastureland of Mount Sinjar where they camped for months each year, fattening the herds, and grew up surrounded by songs, intoxicated by her musical heritage.

She had to leave school after the sixth grade to work as a day labourer on local farms. Sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s government had pushed up food prices, the family needed more cash, and there was no high school in her town anyway. With the songs of her childhood playing in her head as she worked, she asked her brother-in-law to find her a tanbour, a guitar-like stringed instrument and taught herself to play. Her relatives soon gathered round to listen to her own takes on their favourite ballads but, as a woman in a conservative society, she never expected anyone beyond her relatives to hear them.

 “I sang at home, but my father never noticed,” she says. “I didn’t want to perform in public, because of our culture, which does not have space for female musicians traditionally.” It was a cousin who launched Khider’s career, when he saw a commercial opportunity for himself in her talents. She did not even understand how a camera worked when he invited her to sing for the family and made a secret video recording of the session.

The shaky CD sold nearly 4,000 copies, an extraordinary number for a poor, low-tech society. The sudden fame embarrassed Khider, who feared it brought only shame, until her father offered his support. Sheikh Ali Shamsi was virtually a stranger to his daughter when he was released from captivity at the end of the 1980s. “I went to meet him at a checkpoint when he was released, and there were two guys with him, fellow prisoners who had become friends. They had seen pictures of me, and recognised me before I recognised my father,” she says.

But she discovered that when it came to women’s rights, he was a radical who would prove her biggest champion in music and war. “You should have told me you want to sing, and I am OK with that,” he told her when she was invited to the largest regional town to sing at a Yazidi celebration with all the community’s leaders in 2004... read more

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