Beirut (AFP) – A viral photo shows her celebrating the capture of Raqa, but Rojda Felat is more than a poster girl: she commanded thousands of fighters who clinched a defining victory against jihadists.
Her jet black hair plaited and sometimes covered by a black-and-white keffiyeh, the Kurdish woman cuts an unmistakeable figure on Syria’s northern battlefields.
Pictures of her fixing the Syrian Democratic Forces’ yellow flag on an infamous traffic circle where the Islamic State group used to carry out public executions were beamed around the world Tuesday.
The Syrian Kurdish rebel group she belongs to, the Marxist-inspired People’s Protection Units (YPG), forms the backbone of the SDF, which battled for over four months to capture Raqa.
The YPG prides itself on its promotion of gender equality and includes many women among its commanders.
As a top commander in its female branch — the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) — she rose through the ranks and found herself commanding one of the biggest operations ever against IS.
“Comrade Rojda is one of the main YPJ commanders,” said YPJ spokeswoman Nesrin Abdullah, a founding member of the all-female unit, who fought alongside Felat in Raqa and elsewhere.
“Her character is shaped by her determination to fight for women’s freedom,” Abdullah told AFP in a phone interview.
“During this campaign she had a real impact: she raised the victory flag in Daesh’s capital,” she said, using an Arab acronym for IS.
Felat, who according to fellow SDF officers is 37 years old, assumed overall command of the first phase of the Raqa operation.
Command of later phases was then shared with others, including another YPJ female officer.
The jihadists, who ruled over large parts of Syria and Iraq for more than three years, “carried out the worst atrocities against women, they made them slaves and machines meant to satisfy their every desire,” Abdullah said.
One of the worst crimes perpetrated by the ultra-violent jihadist group was the genocide against the Yazidi minority in northern Iraq which saw IS kidnap and enslave thousands of women and girls.
In various interviews Felat, who is from the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli in northeast Syria, has spoken of the importance of promoting women in war.
She cites a diverse range of heroes, including early 20th century German philosopher and activist Rosa Luxemburg, but also Napoleon and Kurdish fighter Saladin.
“Whether as fighters or commanders, the Women’s Protection Units always embody a spirit of camaraderie, a group spirit, there is always an awareness of our responsibility,” said Jihad Sheikh Ahmed, spokeswoman for the SDF’s Raqa operation.
“All the commanders, particularly Rojda, embody this.”
On Tuesday, Felat grinned broadly, her weapon hanging from her shoulder, as she waved a massive SDF flag at Al-Naim roundabout.
“It’s a historical moment and we know it will change many things,” she said, in a video posted by the YPG.