Daesh “believe if they’re killed by a woman they don’t go to heaven, they go to hell. It’s an insult to them, to be killed by women,” says Hanna Bohman in the opening lines of “Fear Us Women,” which was released this month in the US.
The film tells the story of 48-year-old Bohman, a former model and biker who left Canada in 2015 to join the YPJ, the all-female division of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
“I was wondering … there must be a way for people to volunteer to fight against ISIS (Daesh),” Bohman says in the opening scenes.
Research led her to the YPJ, an all-woman army fighting in the Middle East.
“It’s women protecting women … I wanted to be a part of them,” she says in the film.
Speaking to Arab News, Bohman described the inspiration she found fighting alongside the women of the YPJ. “I continue to be in awe of their commitment and fearlessness and find myself wondering where these women are in the West?”
Scenes shot in the desert show Bohman on duty as a sniper and camped out in a sandbag bunker. “You have to be able to lie in the dirt and the heat all day. Camel spiders walking on you,” she tells viewers.
In another scene, she describes the experience of being shot at and targeted with grenades, recalling a single day in which Daesh sent five suicide trucks to attack the unit.
“When we are shooting them, when we are killing them, the girls do that Middle East yodel to let them know that it’s the women killing them.”
In March 2017, the YPJ numbered around 24,000 fighters, up from between 7,000 and 10,000 in 2014. The units gained international attention after playing a vital role in the rescue of thousands of Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar in 2014 and in liberating towns under Daesh control, including Manbij and Kobani.
In the film, Bohman is frank about seeking a stronger sense of purpose in Syria.
“It felt so much better than what I was doing back home.
“When I went there I would tell people ‘I’m not going there to kill anyone, I’m going there to help people’.”
During an interview on the “Build Series NYC” show, in which she appeared alongside the film’s executive producer actress Olivia Wilde, and director David Darg, Bohman said she wanted to be a “bridge” between the West and the Kurdish cause.
“I figured I would go there and I would document as much as I can to try and humanize the Kurds and their struggle.
“They love the Western volunteers because it improves morale, it shows that people are listening. People do care about what you’re doing,” said Bohman.
At the time, she was only the third Western woman to join the YPJ, which has since taken in recruits from countries including Sweden, Poland, Italy and the UK.
Speaking on the show, Wilde said she feels this is “a story that deserves a lot more attention in the West” and connects the YPJ’s campaign to break down the patriarchy in the Middle East to current dialogues surrounding misogyny in the US and other Western societies.
“We’ve reached a breaking point … women are angry,” she said, emphasizing the importance of “telling stories that show that there is hope, that women are actually there for each other.
“Hanna is a physical manifestation of that movement.”
In the trenches of Syria, female YPJ units fight alongside men. Bohman describes the culture of equality she found in the YPG army and among the Kurdish people.
“In the year I spent in the YPJ-protected region of Syria, I never felt harassed, sexualized, or threatened by the men, so when I returned to the West, I had forgotten how to defend myself against the sexual harassment that is still very common in our culture.
“We grow up with it so we don’t realize how prevalent it is until we go some place where there really is true gender equality, such as Rojava,” she told Arab News.
Rojava (which translates as Western Kurdistan) is a semi-autonomous multi-ethnic region in Northern Syria where a democratic revolution that champions socialism and feminism is establishing a new order based on religious tolerance, inter-ethnic cooperation and gender equality.
Darg, an American filmmaker and humanitarian with longstanding experience of shooting documentaries in disaster zones, told Refinery29: “Whether it be ISIS or a culture of misogyny in the film industry, we are seeing how a strong female-led resistance can defeat even the most daunting opponent.
“This story offers a glimpse of hope for a region so often written off as hopeless. The female fighters of the YPJ are fighting for women’s rights and true democracy in the Middle East.”