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These Women Are Fighting Al-Qaeda In Syria
In Syria, female fighters fill out the front lines for a Kurdish militia that is locked in a bitter battle with rebels linked to al-Qaeda. They say they’re sending a message: “When you fight against them, the first thing you think about is the freedom of women."
Nojin, a 20-year-old fighter from northern Syria, has been a soldier since the country erupted into civil war.
Rebels linked to al-Qaeda are pushing to expand into Kurdish territory, sparking months of clashes. The fighting brought Nojin to a military post outside the city of Ras al-Ain, the last Kurdish checkpoint before area controlled by extremists.
About 15 fighters were manning the post that afternoon, most of them women.
The 29-year-old woman running the checkpoint wore a rifle slung over her shoulder and a braided ponytail running down past her waist.
Syria's Kurdish region is dominated by a political party, known by the acronym PYD, that stresses equality for men and women in both politics and war.
"For us, there is no difference between women and men," Dunya said.
Dunya also said that in the battle with extremists, having women on the front lines sent a message.
Beyond the checkpoint, on the Kurdish side, villages that had been controlled by jihadis until Kurdish fighters pushed them back still bore some signs of the fighting, a reminder of the continued threat of war.
One man gave a tour of his ransacked home — pointing out where rebels had killed his nephew, looted his possessions, and kicked over his beehives.
The man, Abdullah Cheikho Said, said his wife and children had fled to Ras al-Ain — and he couldn't convince them to return home. "My family says they are too afraid. They will not come back."
All around the Kurdish region, checkpoints had been erected in endless succession to guard against the car and suicide bombs that have become a regular feature of the conflict for the Kurds.
In late November, Kurdish officials said that some 350 of their soldiers had been killed in the fight against the jihadis since July, 13 of them women.
Some Syrian Kurds are wary of the PYD, accusing it of using authoritarian tactics against its Kurdish rivals. But it has consolidated power amid the growing threat from extremists.
Kurds in Syria said that having women on the front lines reinforced their resistance to the extremists, whom they often called "terrorists."
Nojin, the fighter manning the checkpoint, said she knew she and her female colleagues were making a name for themselves both at home and abroad.
"It’s something unique," Nojin added. "It’s a unique experience to fight against Islamic groups for the freedom of women worldwide."
Yusuf Sayman is a photojournalist based in New York and Istanbul. He has exhibited across the world, and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Time.com, Fader, Fortune and The Daily Beast, among other publications.