Women's Freedom on the Mountainous Slopes of Greater Kurdistan

Kurdish photographer Sonja Hamad's long-term project, Jin-Jiyan-Azadi: Women, Life, Freedom, explores the role and emancipation of Kurdish women fighters in northern Syria.

© Sonja Hamad, from the series Jin-Jiyan-Azadi: Women, Life, Freedom

While serving his life sentence on the prison island of İmralı, Abdullah Öcalan came to a realisation: “Liberating life is impossible without a radical women’s revolution which would change man’s mentality and life.”

Inspired in part by the late Vermont-based philosopher Murray Bookchin, whose books he studied during detention, the leader of the secessionist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) had a political and spiritual epiphany, reneging his support of armed warfare and aspiring to a new political solution for the establishment of an independent Kurdish nation that would stretch across Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.

He published Liberating Life: Women’s Revolution while still in prison, proposing a new view of feminism and a collective awareness around women’s rights and their full emancipation that would eventually become a fundamental tenet of Kurdish nationalism.

© Sonja Hamad, from the series Jin-Jiyan-Azadi: Women, Life, Freedom

It soon permeated several facets of Kurdish society, including property law and quotas for women in politics, while outlawing forced underage marriage. It also led to the inclusion of females in the military. In the Women's Protection Units (YPJ), the female counterpart of the all-man militia called the People's Protection Units (YPG), thousands of women of all ages have fought side by side with men since 2013 in all Islamic State and Turkish military offensives.

Today, women are defending their country as much as their right to emancipation, a milestone in the region’s cultural acceptance of females as equals. Kurdish photographer Sonja Hamad spent more than three years photographing these courageous women. The result is her ongoing project Jin-Jiyan-Azadi: Women, Life, Freedom.

Born in Syria to Kurdish Yazidi parents, she moved to Germany with her family when she was only three. Leaving Berlin, she worked her way through Northern Iraq and Syria, eventually joining the Women’s Protection Units to shadow the fighters and tell their story.

© Sonja Hamad, from the series Jin-Jiyan-Azadi: Women, Life, Freedom

In her photos, Hamad conveys the dignity of the women fighters, who are often misrepresented to the Western gaze. In the delicate exchange between photographer and subject, Hamad portrays intimacy and trust. Keeping her camera down as she follows, she values moments of action as well as the quieter pauses between operations, giving attention to subtle exchanges. Most of the fighters she portrays are in their twenties: some show more than their years, their exhaustion visible too. Others, less impacted by the horrors of bloodshed, still show the bloom of their youth, so at odds with the terms of war.

The soft lineaments, the emotions of their gaze, betray their innocence. The dusty camo fatigues remind viewers of war, and yet their head coverings, a brooch pinned to a uniform, or the schutik - a colourful weapon-belt - bring a gleam of colour to the mission’s austerity.

© Sonja Hamad, from the series Jin-Jiyan-Azadi: Women, Life, Freedom

Simple moments interrupt the cruelty of war. In a small patch of grass bordered by flowers, plastic chairs circle a table set with a laminated tablecloth, the remnant of a shared meal; it’s easy to imagine voices, chants, the callings of a convivial communion in the midst of war, the shrieks of mortars, for the moment, forgotten.

On the backdrop that frames these fighters’ lives is the arid vastness of steep slopes—for them a familiar den or hideout during a fatal ambush. What envelops the space even more is the idea of a new country to call home, built by their valiant sacrifice but also with their precious freedom. 

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Sonja Hamad is a freelance documentary photographer living and working in Berlin. Her work covers cultural identity with a focus on her current home and her motherland Syria. Follow her on PHmuseum and Instagram.

Lucia De Stefani is a multimedia reporter focusing on photography, illustration, culture, and everything teens. She lives between New York and Italy. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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