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Kobani 'Poster Child' For Kurdish Female Fighters 'Beheaded' By IS

A Kurdish female fighter named 'Rehana' has become an iconic figure in the fight against Islamic State ever since this picture was widely circulated on social media.
A Kurdish female fighter named 'Rehana' has become an iconic figure in the fight against Islamic State ever since this picture was widely circulated on social media.

On October 27, rumors began to spread on social media that a Kurdish female fighter known by the pseudonym Rehana may have been beheaded by Islamic State (IS) militants in Kobani.

Dubbed the "poster child for Kobani female warriors," Rehana, a fighter in the Kurdish YPJ (People's Protection Units) militia, captured the public's imagination after her photograph was circulated on the internet. The image of Rehana making a "victory sign" was retweeted hundreds of times, along with the claim that she was singlehandedly responsible for killing over a hundred IS militants.

While there has been no confirmation of Rehana's death, several news outlets, including Australia's 9News reported that she may have been beheaded, citing a graphic image of a beheaded Kurdish female fighter that had been shared on pro-IS social media accounts.

There is no way to verify if the image -- which shows an IS militant holding the head of a decapitated woman -- is genuine, or if it is Rehana. However, the same gruesome photograph has been circulating since at least October 5 on pro-IS accounts.

The fact that the claims and rumors of Rehana's possible brutal killing have garnered so much attention is testament to the enormous public interest in female fighters in the Syrian Kurdish YPJ and Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga militias.

Reports have dubbed the women "badass", "battle-hardened" and "fanatical" fighters. The interest is unsurprising: these are all-female fighters waging war on IS militants, who are not only a formidable military force but whose repressive and violent Islamist ideology is in stark contrast to any progressive, feminist philosophy that allows women to go to war.

Throughout the 40-day siege of Kobani, images of female Kurdish fighters have circulated widely on social media:

This tweet included a photograph of Rehanna:

The images of young Kurdish women fighting for Kobani has also inspired artistic expression:

The widespread interest in Kurdish female fighters and their battle against IS militants in Kobani has given rise to a number of rumors, one of which -- that IS militants are afraid of being killed by women soldiers because if a woman kills a muhajid (jihadi fighter), he won't go to Paradise -- has become ingrained in the popular narrative about IS and the Kurds. However, the source of the rumor was not an IS scholar but a female Kurdish fighter.

Many of the news and magazine reports about the Kurdish women militias lauded these fighters as "inspirational" feminists.

Yet are all-female Kurdish fighters really a sign that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) -- or wider Kurdish society -- is a bastion of feminism?

The Marxist-inspired PKK boasts one of the largest numbers of armed women militias in the world. According to the BBC, women have been integral to the Kurdish movement since the PKK's founding in 1978. At that time, it was strongly influenced by Marxist-Leninist ideas.

However, the story of the PKK's all-female-militias is complex.

The PKK was one way for Kurdish women to advance themselves. (Norwegian academic Dr Kariane Westrheim told the BBC that Kurdish women had "struggled hard to get their voices heard.")

Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a Middle East analyst with the Jamestown Foundation specializing in Kurdish politics, says the hype over "feminist" Kurdish female militias is "part of sensationalist reporting."

"There is a feminist tradition with the Kurdistan Workers Party based on the ideology of Abdullah Ocalan. It's not much different from other Marxist rebel movements that have female fighters, but what makes it unique is that in the Middle East, there are a lot of militant groups, including many Islamist ones, but they don't use women like the PKK movement," van Wilgenburg told RFE/RL.

In an op-ed in Turkey's Hurriyet News (Turkey considers the PKK to be a terrorist organization, as does the United States and the EU), Berfu Kiziltan of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva offers an even less rosy picture of the PKK.

According to Kiziltan, while the PKK has historically recruited women as well as men, some of the recruitment has been by force. More than half of the PKK's suicide attacks in Turkey have been carried out by women, because it was easier for them to evade security, and because suicide bombings allowed women a way to "prove they could be as fierce as their male counterparts," she writes.

At least one Kurdish female fighter has also carried out suicide bombings in Kobani.

Earlier this month, Kurdish fighter Arin Mirkan reportedly killed 10 IS militants when she blew herself up outside the northern Syrian town, the first report of a Kurdish female fighter carrying out a suicide attack in Syria.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world.


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