Meet Nassrin Abdallah. With her diminutive height and broad smile, it doesn’t seem like she should strike fear into the hearts of hardened Islamic State jihadists.
But this 36-year-old Syrian Kurd woman has been at the tip of the spear of the Kurdish forces that last month liberated the symbolic city of Kobane from IS militants.
“In Kobane, women were fighting on all fronts, in all the trenches against a brutal enemy,” she told cheering crowds during a visit to Paris this week.
As the head of the armed wing of the Kurdish PYD, “commander” Nassrin has led both men and women into battle against Islamic State fighters who have overrun large areas of Iraq and Syria.
“We kept the promise we made to the people and we won the day,” she said to thunderous applause.
According to Nassrin, around 40 percent of the Kurdish fighters battling over the town on the Syrian-Turkish border were women.
Some, like her, are hardened warriors but also joining their ranks were mothers who sent their children over the border to the safety of Turkey, then rushed off to join their sisters in arms.
Fighting alongside Nassrin are other powerful female commanders who have achieved legendary status on the battlefield.
Women like Narine Afrin, who played a key role in the defence of Kobane. Or Arin Mirkan, who blew herself up on October 5, killing dozens of IS fighters encircling the town, according to Kurdish sources.
In total, there are 4,000 women fighting in the armed wing of the PYD, say Kurdish officials, who refuse for strategic reasons to disclose the total number of people who have taken up arms.
– ‘Major danger’ for women –
Over and beyond the military aspect of the victory over IS in Kobane, it has been seen as a triumph for women, who are repressed in areas under IS control, obliged to wear the veil and, in the case of the Yazidi minority, forced into slavery.
“Daesh is a major danger for women and their status,” said Assia Abdallah, co-president of the PYD, using an alternative name for the IS militants.
The PYD has close links with the outlawed rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a three-decade insurgency in southeast Turkey and is blacklisted as a terrorist organisation by Ankara and some of its Western allies.
But in a sign of growing international recognition, Assia Abdallah and Nassrin Abdallah held talks on Sunday at the Elysee Palace with French President Francois Hollande — the first such meeting of its kind.
Like the PKK, the PYD has a policy of placing equal numbers of men and women at the head of their political and military structures.
In the Kurdish zones of Syria, they decree that women should have the same rights as men and forbid girls from marrying before the age of 18.
They have also outlawed “honour crimes” and “violence and discrimination” against women, as well as polygamy, which is nevertheless permitted in Islam.
Nassrin, a former journalist from the north-east of Syria, is unmarried but otherwise gives away very little about her private life.
The hardest thing about the battle is the lack of weapons and ammunition, she says.
Is she not frightened of these Islamic State fighters, who have videoed beheadings and burned hostages alive?
Quite the reverse, she says.
“They are scared of fighting against women. They believe they will not go to Paradise if they are killed by a woman.”