The world is still watching the town of Kobane in northern Syria. Kurdish fighters there, backed by air strikes from an international coalition, are battling with Islamic State. But it’s hard to get images from inside Kobane, with access for journalists limited. Against this backdrop, stories are being shared on social media networks of fighters who become internet legends. And none more so than “Rehana” whose image has come to symbolise the female fighters pitted against the Islamic State, whose respects for women’s rights are seen as severely limited. Thousands have shared this picture on Twitter and Facebook, with stories of her bravery and the idea that she has killed large numbers of IS fighters.
But where does the image actually come from? In fact the woman now known as “Rehana” was photographed at an event in Kobane on 22 August – months before her image began trending. She was at a ceremony for volunteers and was wearing a military style uniform. The Swedish journalist Carl Drott was the only international journalist in Kobane at the time and had a short exchange with her before the ceremony. He says she was not a front line fighter at all, volunteering instead with the home guard or police force of Kobane. He says its therefore unlikely she has killed huge numbers of the enemy. “She came up to me and said she used to study law in Aleppo but that Islamic State had killed her father so she had decided to join these forces herself,” Drott says. “I tried to speak to her afterwards but never managed to find her or get her name.” (The name “Rehana” seems to have come later and is not a common Kurdish name).
The following day, this image was posted on the blog ‘Bijikurdistan’ which supports the Kurdish effort in Kobane. It then seems to have gone largely unnoticed until it was shared on Twitter over a month later by an English-language news outlet based in the Kurdish region, Slemani Times. That is when the stories and mystery around her began building up on social media.
On 5 October, rumours of her death began to trend. An influential Saudi Twitter user known as @alfaisal_ragad posted an image to her 200,000 followers saying that a Kurdish woman has been beheaded by an IS fighter. On 10 October Twitter user @Kurdistan_Army was among those sharing the image of the beheading beside the photo of the woman who would come to be known as “Rehana” smiling for the camera. The association had been made. The rumours and speculation continued.
Despite the fact that some were claiming she was dead, it was on 13 Octobe
r that others started naming “Rehana” (still alive in this version). This is also when her story went truly global. It happened through a tweet which was retweeted 5,500 times. “Rehana has killed more than a hundred #ISIS terrorists in #Kobane,” that tweet said. “RT and make her famous for her bravery.” And so the Angel of Kobane came into existence.
“She captivated everyone with her pretty eyes and blonde hair. She has a huge fan base,” says the Kurdish blogger Ruwayda Mustafah. “Everyone that I come across admires her because she symbolizes what everyone wants to see. That women and men are standing up against barbaric force in the region.”