Women on front lines in Syria, Iraq against IS
Just over a year ago, Afshin Kobani was a teacher. Now, the Kurdish Syrian woman has traded the classroom for the front lines in the battle for Kobani, a town besieged by fighters from the Islamic State extremist group.
The 28-year-old Kurdish fighter, who uses a nom de guerre, said she decided to join the fight in her hometown when she saw IS advances in Syria.
"I lost many friends to this, and I decided there was a need to join up," said Kobani, who declined to reveal her birth name. "This is our land our own and if we don't do it, who else will?"
Perched on the other side of the Turkish border, the Syrian town of Kobani has been under an intense assault by IS for more than a month.
The town surrounded on the east, south and west by IS is being defended by Kurdish forces in Syria. Among those fighters are thousands of women, an unusual phenomenon in the Muslim world in which warfare is often associated with manhood.
In April, Kurdish fighters created all-female combat units that have grown to include more than 10,000 women. These female fighters have played a major role in battles against IS, said Nasser Haj Mansour, a defense official in Syria's Kurdish region.
The Kurdish women now find themselves battling militants preaching an extreme form of Islam dictating that women only leave the house if absolutely necessary.
Earlier this month the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors events in Syria, reported IS militants beheaded nine Kurdish fighters, including three women, captured in clashes near Turkish border.
After more than a year of fighting, Kobani has risen through the ranks to become a commander of a mixed-gender unit. "We are just the same as men; there's no difference," she said.
"We can do any type of job, including armed mobilization." There is nothing new about Kurdish women fighters. They have fought alongside men for years in a guerrilla war against Turkey, seeking an independent Kurdistan which would encompass parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
The campaign for Kurdish independence has been pursued mainly by leftist militant groups that championed gender equality, such as the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey.
Suicide bombings have long been part of the Kurdish women fighters' battleground repertory.
Early this month, Deilar Kanj Khamis, better known by her military name Arin Mirkan, blew herself up outside Kobani, killing 10 IS fighters, according to Kurdish forces.