Women. Life. Freedom. Female fighters of Kurdistan

Updated 1506 GMT (2306 HKT) January 28, 2019

Gulan, 19, Zerya, 18, and Zilan, 17, Sinjar, Iraqi Kurdistan.

(CNN)While there is no official count, it is believed that 30% to 40% of combatants in Kurdistan are women.

After the Syrian war began in 2011, Berlin-based photographer Sonja Hamad saw many images of Kurdish female fighters -- but felt they did not do the women justice. "The images were very sensational," she says. "The women were depicted in the same way as men -- always holding weapons. The pictures didn't say anything about the women as individuals."
Born to Kurdish Yazidi parents in Damascus, Syria, in 1986, Hamad was 3 years old when her family moved to a small town in Germany's North Rhine-Westphalia state.
Growing up, Hamad struggled to talk openly about her background with friends, and says she finds it easier to communicate through a visual medium -- especially photography.
Between March 2015 and December 2016, Hamad made three trips to Iraqi Kurdistan and the Kurdish-controlled region of Rojava in northern Syria to meet -- and photograph -- the women behind the guns.
Her images of fighters are collected in "Jin -- Jiyan -- Azadi" -- "Women, Life, Freedom."


● 25-30 million Kurds live in Kurdistan.

● Kurds have been fighting for independence for a century, but have never achieved nation-state status for Kurdistan.

● Kurds have established semi-autonomous regions in Iraq and Syria. In Turkey and Iran, they live under central government rule.

● In Syria, the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party is called the YPG (People's Protection Units). Its female brigade is called the YPJ (Women's Protection Units).

● The Free Women's Unit, or YJA Star, are the female guerrilla units of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) which is based in Turkey and Iraq.

Sources: The Kurdish Project, Council for Foreign Relations, BBC, Sydney Morning Herald

Dijlin, 19
Al-Malikiya, Rojava, northern Syria

Zilan, 19
Sinjar, Iraqi Kurdistan

Dijlin and Zilan were both 19 years old when Hamad met them in 2015.
Dijlin fights for the YPJ which, with its male counterpart the YPG, has battled ISIS jihadists who have launched repeated attacks on Syrian Kurdish areas since 2013.
When Hamad met her, Dijlin had been fighting for three years and had spent half that time on the front line. Despite being injured, and against the will of her family, she continues to fight.
Many of the fighters are teenagers when they join.
Some sign up with the support of their parents, says Hamad. Others have run away from home because their parents would not allow them to go.

“Nobody wants to lose their children.”

Hamad says she built a "deep and honest connection," with the fighters. "We treated each other like sisters," she says.

Zilan, 28
Sinjar, Iraqi Kurdistan

Diljin, 21
Sinjar, Iraqi Kurdistan

In the mountains of northern Iraq, Hamad met members of YJA Star -- the female guerrilla units of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which spearheaded Kurdish women's military involvement.
Zilan received only six months of theoretical education and one month of practical training before she began work as an emergency doctor, tending to fatally wounded fighters, says Hamad. She has seen hundreds of comrades die and tries to provide them all with a proper funeral.
Diljin told Hamad that she is fighting for women's rights. According to Hamad, many of the fighters are waging war on the patriarchy -- as well as enemy combatants.
Kurdish women typically marry at a young age and "even if they want to go on a walk, they have to ask permission," she explains.
They fight for equality by taking on traditionally masculine roles and transforming perceptions. For many, joining the militia has been their first taste of freedom.

Dicle, 23
Hasaka, Rojava, northern Syria