In the dry and desolate terrain along Syria’s northeastern border, thousands of female soldiers have been fighting an incalculably dangerous war for over two years. They fight despite daily threats of injury and death. They fight with weapons that are bigger and heavier than they are against a relentless enemy. And yet they continue to fight. They are the YPJ (pronounced Yuh-Pah-Juh) or the Women’s Protection Unit – an all-women, all-volunteer Kurdish military faction in Syria that formed in 2012 to defend the Kurdish population against the deadly attacks led by Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, the al-Nusra Front (an al-Qaeda affiliate), and ISIS. Some 7,000 volunteers from all over Syria have joined the YPJ, which grew out of the wider Kurdish resistance movement. For the YPJ and their families, fighting was not a conscious choice, it was a means of survival. As many of the YPJ have voiced “If we do not protect our families and defend our land from ISIS, who will?” ISIS militants, who believe they will be deprived of heaven if killed by a woman, fear the female YPJ more than male soldiers. The YPJ movement is a feminist movement. Choosing the life of a female soldier provides an outlet for women to play a role counter to the traditions of their culture. They are wholly celebrated by their community, which is unexpected in a part of the world where women are often seen as inferior to men. As one soldier, Sa-el Morad, 20, put it, “we can do all the same things that men can do; women can do everything, there is nothing impossible for us.”
Erin Grace Trieb (b. 1982) grew up in Dallas, Texas and earned a Bachelor’s of Science degree in photography from Texas A&M University-Commerce in 2004. In 2005 she completed an internship at BauBau Photo Agency in Israel, photographing for the Haaretz Newspaper. Afterwards she photographed for The Dallas Morning News and The Houston Chronicle in Texas as a main freelancer at both newspapers. Since 2007 she has worked professionally as a freelance photojournalist, editorial and documentary photographer. Erin specializes in long-term, in-depth documentary projects, which explore societal trends, cultural trauma and identity. Her work spans a diversity of subject matter from international conflict to local feature stories. Currently traveling between Iraq and India, Erin photographs for a wide variety of clients including TIME Magazine, The New York Times, NBCnews.com, Newsweek, The Times of London, and The Wall Street Journal. Her work has received international recognition and awards from World Press Photo, Pictures Of The Year International, The Art Director’s Club, and the FotoVisura Foundation. In 2012 she completed VII Agency’s prestigious Mentorship Program under VII photographer and Nieman Fellow, Gary Knight. She is the director and founder of The Homecoming Project, an awareness and education campaign which highlights the social effects of post-war trauma on US military returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Homecoming Project is consistently featured in the media and has exhibited in over 30 exhibition platforms worldwide.