In the U.S., I heard there was a march on Washington D.C., a women’s march where prominent figures of influence and fame gathered in solidarity. It was a rallying call to address key issues women faced in society. Of their grievances, I understood they called for things like reproductive rights, gender equality, health care reform, equal pay, and an overall acceptance towards the right of a woman to do and be whatever they wanted.
I’m not sure if this movement was promulgated by the Swords of St. Catherine or not, either way, I couldn’t help but feel conflicted in so many ways. In the United States, women have so much control, so much power, so much influence. We can say what we want. Do what we want. There are obstacles sure, but the trials and tribulations makes us ten times stronger than men. I embraced them.
And if the women of America are ten times stronger than men on the basis of that logic, then I can tell you from the bottom of my heart and with the utmost sincerity… The women fighting in the Middle East are a hundred times more powerful.
In many countries, women are still treated like cattle, like currency, like a bartering chip between families. I’ve seen women stoned for exposing too much skin. I’ve seen teenage girls beheaded simply for reporting they were raped. I’ve seen entire villages beating on women for walking without a man’s supervision or daring to take off her hijab in the scorching sun.
In Saudi Arabia, there’s a practice called Wahhabism by which groups of clergy men literally patrol the streets like wolves to surround and attack anyone they deem violators of their sacred laws. They were given carte blanche to determine for themselves what’s consider blasphemy or treason. Women are their main targets.
Here, women need the permission of men to marry, divorce, educate themselves, seek employment, or even open a bank account. That’s just to name a few. And God forbid any woman was caught driving, though I heard they recently ‘laxed on that law. The punishments ranged from mutilation, stoning, death, and on occasion, crucifixion.
Saudi Arabia was my first stop when I came to the Middle East. An underground activist tutored me and the three other protégés on the customs. My blue eyes and blonde hair would have made me an eyesore by which the wolves would be driven to a frenzy. Thankfully, I was able to fully take advantage of the abaya and niqab, black robes that would conceal my fair skin. Additionally, I darkened my face with foundation and used brown contact lenses.
Initially, the plan was to spend five days in Saudi Arabia before smuggling ourselves north into Jordan. But one of my comrades, Shelly, she saw a group of men raping a student in an alley outside our loft. Shelly attacked. The ensuing battle was loud, bloody, and attracted the Wolves of Wahhabi. That’s when I intervened with my trusty Dragunov sniper rifle. The bodies we left in the streets roiled the public for months.
We were long gone by time the police raided shops and homes with impunity, but I learned very fast that all actions had unintended consequences. The public demanded justice and the government gave it to them. The student who was raped was publically beheaded. Her entire family was stoned in the middle of a town square.
When I heard about that, my heart blazed with ire. As much as I was pissed at Shelly for intervening, it made me sick to my stomach that an innocent student could be killed for simply being a victim. And if you’d ask the community, they’d tell you that she wasn’t innocent, that she shouldn’t have been walking alone, or wearing clothing that would invite such an attack. Like animals. That’s how I judged them. Only animals are numb to compassion, acting on their baser instinct like mindless sharks chomping at the bait. Vile savage animals.
It was the first of many dilemmas I’d face in the Middle East. Injustice was an everyday occurrence and we had to discern, we had to pick and choose our battles wisely. Some, we intervened. And some, we simply had to endure the screams, the heart-wrenching cries for help. We couldn’t risk exposing our organization, compromising our allies, and sabotaging the myriad of missions that were already in motion.
After a three-month odyssey, us four protégés reached a desert village about fifteen miles south of Raqqa in Syria. Here, we joined a group of fighters who came from all over the world. It was a resistance group in retaliation to ISIS after a wave of refugees started fleeing the region and marked a global economic crisis.
The leader of our battalion was a woman named, Cyrine, a Tunisian battle-tested warrior with the fiercest gaze I’d ever seen. Her voice was loud and tyrannical. When she met the four of us, I already knew. There was a silent nod that we understood on some telepathic level. Cyrine was a full-fledged Sword of St. Catherine.
For two years, our battalion wreaked havoc on ISIS insurgents all across the Fertile Crescent. The fighting was intense. It was an actual war. There where days when I didn’t eat. Sometimes I had to sleep in rat-infested basements while mortars bombarded sections of a city. Everything was a potential IED. Sand got everywhere. The heat was unbearable. Toilet paper and clean water had more value than gold. It was a test of will. When vets said they had PTSD, I believed them. You’d be crazy not to.
A fellow protégé named Allison Tuney was the first to die. It was a reality check that hit harder than anyone could possibly imagine. Up till her death, we had seen considerable success. It was tough with some battle lasting for days but one by one, we’d regain control of a town and each victory inflated our egos. We were four young women outperforming all of the men in terms of body count and competence.
But when Allison fell to a sniper’s shot, it was the turning point. I’ll never forget it. We were on watch and I was sitting with my back against the rampart of a tower. Allison was scanning the frontlines with her night-vision goggles. Just for a moment, she looked down and smiled at me as she was trying to say something. That’s when the bullet passed through her temple. Her body slumped over and Shelly screamed so loud that pulling an alarm would have been redundant.
All the sudden, its like everything was turned up to hyper speed. My heart rate increased. Lights and faces blurred and my vision tilted sideways as I raced for my Dragonuv. Cyrine ordered us to evacuate. I refused. I was angry. I had to kill someone. Cyrine pulled on my shoulder and I reacted by jabbing her with the butt of my rifle.
That was a mistake.
The next thing I remember was waking up in the back of a truck with Shelly and Sanya looking over me. The back of my head was swollen and I could still feel where I was kicked in the ribs.
Two nights later, Cyrine summoned me. She was sitting by a fire outside our encampment on the banks of Lake Assad. It was on the other side of a ridge, underneath an acacia tree.
Cyrine told me to take off my hijab. I refused. She chuckled. Cyrine and ten other women in our battalion of about a hundred were from places ranging from Egypt to Pakistan. They didn’t need to conceal their appearance. The Middle East was their home. However, Cyrine always spoke English with a British accent. I thought that was strange.
“You know I should kill you. On the battlefield, a soldier is not permitted to disobey her superior. It’s called insubordination.”
I didn’t respond. Up to this point, my respect for Cyrine was only so-so. I acknowledged she was a competent commander but too callous. She didn’t bat an eye when she shot a child for delivering what looked like a bomb, which actually turned out to be a can of beans. That struck a chord with me.
Cyrine let down her own hijab. Her fluid black hair was pulled back and she had an even olive complexion. She smiled before leaning back, propped up by her hands in the sand. “Where you’re come from, are all women like you? Imbued with spite and impudence?”
“Where I come from there is no one like me. Where I come from, women complain, and bitch, and moan. I’m one of the few who takes up the sword to do something about it.”
She chuckled. “Celeste was right. Rage. Although, I would also add naïve and full of shit to your dossier as well. Have you learned nothing during our trials and tribulations? Anything at all?”
“What else did Celeste tell you?”
“Ooh! Cheeky.” She smirked. “Well…I heard a certain Andalusian cares deeply about you. Perhaps that’s why they assigned you to me? Because they know I won’t go soft on you. Cross me again and I’ll not hesitate to put you in the ground.”
I rolled my eyes and turned to walk away. The moment I turned my back, I heard this fast, aggressive shuffle. Cyrine launched from the banks and tackled me from behind. She ripped off my hijab and shoved me face-first into the sand. I whipped around to claw at her but she leaned back and came down with both hands on my throat, squeezing hard.
“Go on! Scream!” She laughed.
I grabbed a handful of sand and slung it at her. She was still laughing as she covered up in time, but her hands were no longer on my throat. I kicked her off. Then we circled each other like territorial cats, each wide-eyed with electricity coursing through our veins.
“Come on then. Let’s see this rage!” She shouted.
I went at her with everything I had. I belted her ribs, smacked her face, and even pulled off an impressive crescent kick that connected with her jaw. She dropped to her knees once, but grinned and dusted herself off.
“You were trained well. Truly. You were. But here’s what you need to learn.”
She ran at me full strength before scooping me up with both hands hooking to the back of my knees. She slammed me down, mounted, and forced both of my wrists into the coarse sand. Then, she flattened out to bring her entire weight upon me, belly to belly, breast to breasts. She pecked me with kisses to my neck and cheek, groping, grinding her pelvis into mine as she whispered and giggled in my ear.
“It doesn’t matter what you do, you’ll always be weaker. Without your guns, without guile, you are powerless. Any brainless oaf can do what I’m doing now and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.”
She grabbed my face and clenched hard to force my jaw open. “This is what it means to be a woman in their world. The only way to survive is to reverse the roles by force. Like this!” She said before grinding into me.
“And like this!” She said, grinding again.
“GET OFF OF ME!!!” I finally screamed at the top of my lungs.
Cyrine forced her tongue into my mouth. I bit as hard as I could. I knew I drew blood because I tasted salt. She laughed before biting my neck and sucking hard. I got one of my wrists free and punched her with perspiration flying from her face. That finally got her to roll off.
I scurried over to where I dropped my rifle, whipped it up, and while crouching on one knee I aimed my crosshairs for the pit of her throat. She was breathing hard with satisfaction, still laying on her back in the sand. I thumbed off the safety switch, fully prepared to fire.
“Anyone who kills a Sword can never become one.” She told me. “More importantly, to kill a sword is to sign your own death warrant. You’ll be hunted from the capitals to the Himalayas. Now put the gun down, love. Before you really make me mad.”
I was about to throw up, grinding my teeth to fight back the queasy, gross feeling agitating in my stomach. I could still the residual warmth of her breasts against mine. So badly I wanted to kill that bitch. I fired a single shot. It hit the ground and popped sand in her face. Shelly and Sanya must have heard. They came running.
“Touch me again, and I’ll kill you.”
“Gladys! Your hijab.” Sanya reminded.
I hurried to cover myself before others in our battalion arrived.
“Don’t worry. Just sorting some things out. All sorted.” Cyrine told them. Then she dismissed us. And for all I knew, she just laid there under the acacia tree for the rest of the night, smoking a cigarette as she stared up at the stars.
Allison’s death coupled with Cyrine’s sexually abuse really had a detrimental affect on how I viewed humanity. Once, I was willing to put my own needs aside for the betterment of others. Once, I felt bad for the screams, the women taken advantage of, the public executions, the homosexuals being tossed off rooftops.
I won’t go so far as to say I stopped caring. But it’s more like I used these injustices as a highly combustible source of fuel, like pumping coal into a furnace, intensifying my rage, my relentless drive to accomplish my goal, complete my missions. I wouldn’t realize till later, but there was this sick, almost excited anticipation of evil that I hoped for. Without evil, without injustice, without a need to avenge…why would I even exist? What else did I have to live for?
Those were the dark thoughts that permeated for two years. I felt no love. No happiness. No joy. Just rancor and an outlet for my violence. Shelly was killed when a building collapsed during the battle to retake Raqqa. Sanya succumbed to an ambush during a raid on Mosul.
Everyday I wished for some IED, some ambitious sniper to take out Cyrine, but no such luck. I ended up fighting side by side with her in some of the most savage gun fights that would never be reported by the media or documented in history books. Once, we stopped a group of jihadis from a mass beheading along the Murat. And by “we,” I mean me and my mounted machine gun from the other side of the river.
We heard about a sect of jihadists who had kidnapped over two hundred girls from a school in Pakistan. They planned to make them brides, to produce a new generation of war-mongering hate spawns. It was perhaps the one time Cyrine and I were on the same page.
She, I, and two other commandos from Singapore infiltrated their camp in the cold desert of Katpana. Armed with just my twin Glocks, I must have dropped at least eighteen before running out of ammo. I helped the girls escape and escorted them back to their villages, but even there, I could tell from the way the elders looked at me that a helping of gratitude would not be served.
Those young innocent girls…they truly were like shells occupied by a timid, submissive ghost. I spotted maybe one or two who were independent free thinkers, bold enough to ask a question or two, but the rest…
The strange thing was that I never had any nightmares. I wasn’t tormented by the faces I sniped from afar. My hands didn’t quiver from pulling the trigger so much and I wasn’t paranoid about raids or IED explosions. This wasn’t normal. Something was wrong with me. And every day I saw Cyrine…I’d have the insatiable urge to go out and kill some more.
On my twenty-first birthday, after three years of what could only be described as hell on earth, Cyrine entered my tent and said I had a visitor. In walked Breanne, Anna, and Scarlet dressed in coalition fatigues, not covered by hijabs, their hair and ethnicity open for all the world to see. I didn’t even get up out of my cot. I just lay there with utter contempt for all of them.
Anna walked over and sat beside me. She put a hand on my stomach and asked if I was all right. I politely removed her hand and said I was fine. Anna…so badly, I wanted to ask her, “What were you thinking by sending me here? With her?!”
I could see in Anna’s eyes that she was concerned, but I honestly believed I was beyond the point of salvation. Whatever they were training me for, I knew I was ready. Because I wasn’t afraid of anything. That’s what I believed.
“It’s time, Gladys,” said Breanne “Your family hasn’t heard from you in three years. They’re beginning to ask questions and there’s only so much your proxy can say that would convince them you’re still in London.”
I didn’t respond.
“See what I mean?” Cyrine said as she plopped down on my duffle bag.
“Don’t tell me you actually want to stay here?” said Scarlet
“She doesn’t. Look at her. She’s miserable.” Anna presumed.
“It doesn’t matter. You’re to report home at once.” Breanne ordered.
I sat up and took in a deep breath, inhaling through the nose with obnoxious intent. “I just have one question, Breanne. Who the hell do you think you’re talking to?”
Breanne and her blue eyes and long black hair…they just waltzed in here barking orders to a certified serial killer. Glancing at each other with baffled expressions, both Cyrine and Scarlet burst out with laughter.
I snapped and reached for my field knife. Anna caught my wrist but I simply dropped the knife and caught it with my other hand, swiping at her and missing.
“Gladys! Stop!” Anna shouted as she pinned me to the bed.
“GET OFF OF ME!” I screamed.
Anna was so shocked by the explosion of emotion that she quickly let go and stood at a distance. She must have recognized my trauma because she immediately cast her glare on Cyrine.
“What did you do?”
Cyrine stood up and approached Anna with the swagger and confidence she’s donned since the moment I met her.
“Nothing serious. We had a little fun is all. Didn’t we? I think she—“
Before she could finish her sentence, Anna knocked her out with the most devastating right cross I’d ever seen. Judging from the silence, I assumed Scarlet and Breanne approved of Anna’s reaction.
“Get your things. Let’s go.” Scarlet said before storming out of the tent.
Saying nothing further, I sheathed my field knife, collected my trusty Glock 19s, and strapped my Dragonuv over my shoulders. Then I ripped off my hijab and let it furl over Cyrine’s face. Somewhat liberated, I emerged from the tent and looked up at the sun before releasing my long golden locks to let sail in the wind. At last.