18-year-old YPJ fighter Torin Khairegi: “We live ina world where women are dominated by men.We are here to take control of our future..I injured an ISIS jihadi in Kobane. When he was wounded, all his friends left him behind and ran away. Later I went there and buried his body. I now feel that I am very powerful and can defend my home, my friends, my country, and myself. Many of us have been matryred and I see no path other than the continuation of their path." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME Zinar base, Syria "I joined YPJ about seven months ago, because I was looking for something meaningful in my life and my leader [ Abdullah Ocalan] showed me the way and my role in the society. We live in a world where women are dominated by men. We are here to take control of our own future. We are not merely fighting with arms; we fight with our thoughts. Ocalan's ideology is always in our hearts and minds and it is with his thought that we become so empowered that we can even become better soldiers than men. When I am at the frontline, the thought of all the cruelty and injustice against women enrages me so much that I become extra-powerful in combat. I injured an ISIS jihadi in Kobane. When he was wounded, all his friends left him behind and ran away. Later I went there and buried his body. I now feel that I am very powerful and can defend my home, my friends, my country, and myself. Many of us have been matryred and I see no path other than the continuation of their path."
18-year-old YPJ (Women's Protection Unit) fighter Torin Khairegi: “We live in a world where women are dominated by men. We are here to take control of our future. I injured an ISIS jihadi in Kobani. When he was wounded, all his friends left him behind and ran away. Later I went there and buried his body. I now feel that I am very powerful and can defend my home, my friends, my country, and myself. Many of us have been martyred and I see no path other than the continuation of their path."Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
18-year-old YPJ fighter Torin Khairegi: “We live ina world where women are dominated by men.We are here to take control of our future..I injured an ISIS jihadi in Kobane. When he was wounded, all his friends left him behind and ran away. Later I went there and buried his body. I now feel that I am very powerful and can defend my home, my friends, my country, and myself. Many of us have been matryred and I see no path other than the continuation of their path." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME Zinar base, Syria "I joined YPJ about seven months ago, because I was looking for something meaningful in my life and my leader [ Abdullah Ocalan] showed me the way and my role in the society. We live in a world where women are dominated by men. We are here to take control of our own future. We are not merely fighting with arms; we fight with our thoughts. Ocalan's ideology is always in our hearts and minds and it is with his thought that we become so empowered that we can even become better soldiers than men. When I am at the frontline, the thought of all the cruelty and injustice against women enrages me so much that I become extra-powerful in combat. I injured an ISIS jihadi in Kobane. When he was wounded, all his friends left him behind and ran away. Later I went there and buried his body. I now feel that I am very powerful and can defend my home, my friends, my country, and myself. Many of us have been matryred and I see no path other than the continuation of their path."
YPJ fighters on their base at the border between Syria and Iraq. Young female fighters are indoctrinated to the ideology of their charismatic leader, Abdullah Ocalan, head of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), who promotes marxist thought and empowerment of women.Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
18 year-old YPJ fighter Saria Zilan from Amuda, Syria:"I fought with ISIS in Serikani. I captured one of them and wanted to kill him, but my comrades did not let me. He kept staring at the ground and would not look at me, because he said it was forbidden by his religion to look at a woman." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME "It's been one year and four months since I joined YPJ. When I saw Martyr Deli on TV after ISIS beheaded her, I went to her burial ceremony the next day in Amuda. I saw Deli's mother sobbing madly. Right there I swore to myself to avenge her death. I joined YPJ the day after. In the past, women had various roles in the society. but all those roles were taken from them. We are here now to take back the role of women in society. I grew up in a country, where I was not allowed to speak my mother tongue of Kurdish. I was not allowed to have a Kurdish name. If you were a pro-Kurdish activist, they'd arrest you and put you in jail. But since the Rojava revolution, we have been getting back our rights. We were not allowed to speak our language before, and now ISIS wants to wipe us off completely from the Earth. I fought with ISIS in Serikani. I captured one of them and wanted to kill him, but my comrades did not let me do so. He kept staring at the ground and would not look at me, because he said it was forbidden by his religion to look at a woman. I have changed a lot. My way of thinking about the world has changed since I joined YPJ. Maybe some people wonder why we're doing this. But when they get to know us better, they will understand why. We are emotional people."
20-year old YPJ fighter Aijan Denis from Amuda, Syria: "Where I am now, men and women are equal and we all have the same thought, which is fighting for our ideology and the rights of women. My three sisters and I are all in YPJ. "Newsha Tavakolian for TIME I joined YPJ in 2011. One day when I was watching TV, they were showing pictures of women who had been killed. I was really impressed by that and decided to join the army myself. Where I am now, men and women are equal and we all have the same thought, which is fighting for our ideology and the rights of women. My three sisters and I are all in YPJ. They all operate RPGs. I wish to become so skilled that I will be allowed to do the same."
YPJ members take part in daily combat training at their base in Serikani. Syria.Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
Three YPJ fighters sit in an armed vehicle at their basein eastern Syria, days after returning from the front. Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
YPJ members, including some who were wounded fighting against ISIS in Kobani, Syria, at the all-women Asayesh Security Base in Derek, Syria. Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
16 year-old YPJ fighter Barkhodan Kochar from Darbasi, Syria. "The war influenced me a lot. Before joining YPJ, whenever I asked my family about politics, they'd say 'that's not your business, you're just a girl'. But when I saw how the women of YPJ gave their lives for what they believed in, I knew that I wanted to be one of them." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME "I joined YPJ in 2014, because I wanted to defend my homeland. The war influenced me a lot. Before joining YPJ, whenever I asked my family about politics, they'd say 'that's not your business, you're just a girl'. But when I saw how the women of YPJ gave their lives for what they believed in, I knew that I wanted to be one of them. I feel much more empowered as a woman now. As a 16-year-old girl, I think that I have a very important role in my country and I will keep on fighting until the last drop of my blood is shed."
A billboard showing fallen YPJ solders,reading, “Withyou we live on and life continues.”Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
In Western Kurdistan, the Syrian autonomous region Kurds call Rojava, young people are taught the ideology of the PYD (the Democratic Union Party of Syria), an affiliate of PKK (Kirdistan Workers' Party). Many of these young people will soon be drafted into YPJ and YPG armies to fight ISIS.  Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
in Syria, graves of YPJ members who were killed fighting ISIS. In the foreground, female fighters are buried together.Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
A picture of 17 year-old Cicek Derek, who died in the besieged city of Kobani, Syria, where her fellow fighters were unable to retrieve her body. Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
Rojin, the sister of 17 year-old YPJ fighter Cicek Derek who died fighting in Kobani, Syria. "When my mother told Cicek, please stay with your mother', she answered 'I left to fight for all the mothers of the world. I cannot stay here." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME"My sister was very naive and sensitive when she left us. But four years later, when she came back to bury the body of her friend who had been killed in Kobane, she was smart and tough and I could see lots of self-confidence in her eyes. When my mother told her 'please don't go back, stay with your mother', she answered 'I left to fight for all the mothers of the world. I cannot stay here'. When she came back for her friend's burial, she briefly visited the house. She kept taking pictures in every corner and with all of us, as if it was her the last party of her life."
A scarf belonging to 17-year-old YPJ fighter Cicek Derek, who was killed in Kobane, Syria, was all that could be brought back to her family. Her body remains in kobane, Syria.Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
A wedding dress outside a bridal shop in a town near Qamishlou, Syria. YPG graffiti can be seen on the walls of adjacent buildings. YPJ and YPG members are neither allowed to marry, nor can they have sexual relationships, according the their ideology. Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
20 year-old YPJ fighter Beritan Khabat from Derek, Syria. She joined the YPJ four years ago to protect her homeland and put an end to the suppression of women. "I fought with ISIS in Jezza and Serikani. Women of YPJ are not scared of ISIS." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME Beritan believes that in her society women should be armed with guns and fight for their rights. She says that they have created a new idea for the men of the world. telling them that women too can be good fighters. "I fought with ISIS in Jezza and Serikani. And the first time I heard the sound of bullets next to my ears was in Talala town, while I was fighting with ISIS for the first time. The first time I thought about facing ISIS, my whole body was shivering and the whole thing seemed more like a joke to me. But when I thought deeply, I realized that I was going to fight with a radical group, and this empowered me so much that all my fears faded away. Women of YPJ are not scared of ISIS".
18-year-old YPJ (Women's Protection Unit) fighter Torin Khairegi: “We live in a world where women are dominated by men.
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Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
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Meet the Women Taking the Battle to ISIS

Apr 02, 2015

A colorful scarf is all that is left of Cicek Derek, who was 17 when she died a few months ago in the besieged city of Kobani, Syria, where her compatriots were unable to retrieve her body.

Cicek was one of hundreds of young Kurdish female soldiers who have taken up the fight against ISIS. They’re part of the YPJ, or Women’s Protection Unit, an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish nationalist movement that has long fought a war of independence against Turkey.

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Now the PKK and other Kurdish groups are at the forefront of the battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, a militant group that would severely curtail the rights of women. It’s fitting that ISIS will be facing off against female fighters like 18-year-old Zilan Orkesh, who left her small village on the Turkish-Syrian border to join YPJ in 2011. When she killed an ISIS fighter for the first time, she began cheering loudly, hoping the sound would reach the ears of other jihadis. “I wanted to let them know that their worst nightmare had come true,” she says. “Their friend had been killed by a woman.”

But it’s not just the battle against ISIS that brings these young women to a spare military camp in Syria, a half hour away from the front lines. Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK, is unusual in the region in that he has long promoted gender equality. The desire to break free from the macho Middle East was so strong that rural girls volunteered to join the YPJ, where they developed into soldiers ready to put their lives on the line. “In the past, women had various roles in the society, but all those roles were taken from them,” says 18-year-old Saria Zilan. “We are here now to take back the role of women in society.”

That fight has a cost. Several miles from the all-female camp, there is a fresh graveyard. Men are digging the earth, clearing space for new arrivals as the sun sets, and a YPJ flag dances above a grave. Not far is the house where Cicek once lived. Inside, Cicek’s three sisters and her mother sit around a portrait of the fighter.

Cicek’s mother, Nasiba, didn’t want her daughter to join the YPJ. “She was only 13,” Nasiba says. “She met a YPJ member [an armed Kurdish force] at her brother’s house and he started influencing her. And before we knew it, she left home and went to Mount Qandil [the PKK’s main base in northern Iraq]. She was 17 when she was killed.” Nasiba isn’t alone in her criticism. There’s something uncomfortable about girls barely into their teens leaving home to join a guerrilla army at Ocalan’s behest. Especially when—like Cicek—they don’t come home at all.

But her older sister Rojin remembers the way that joining the YPJ seemed to transform Cicek. “She came back from Qandil after four years, and she was a different person,” says Rojin. “She was tough and confident.”

Once the sun sets, the town is dark—power has long been out here. The only lights seen are those of passing cars, among them a truck that drives slowly through the town. Revolutionary Kurdish songs play from megaphones attached to the truck. The music seizes the attention of young boys and girls hanging around the neighborhood. One by one, they join the trail of people following the vehicle.

In a dark corner of the house, with a little bit of light falling on her face, Cicek’s sister stands in silence. She is listening to young revolutionaries chant along with the songs that the megaphones blare, songs about Kobani and martyrdom that urge the survivors of battle to rise and continue the fight. Rojin is the last person to leave the mourning caravan behind the truck, lost in thought.

Newsha Tavakolian is an Iranian freelance photographer based in Tehran. Last year, she won the Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award.

Alice Gabriner, who edited this photo essay, is TIME's International Photo Editor.

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