Hannah Bohman in Syria / Facebook: Hannah Bohman
It has been almost six years since war broke out in Syria, affecting the lives of millions of Syrians. Since the start of the war, Western media has been covering the war widely. With the battle in Kobané, this media also started reporting on Kurdish fighters and specifically the Kurdish women fighters at the forefront in the fight against radical jihadist group, Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/Daesh). This fight captured the attention of citizens living in the West.
Hanna Bohman is one of the Westerners who traveled to Iraq and then to Syria to join the Kurdish Women's Protection Units (YPJ) in Rojava- Northern Syria. She is one of the few Western women fighting alongside the Kurds in Syria. The majority of the Western fighters among Kurdish forces in Syria are men. In this interview she talks about the motivation behind her decision to join Kurdish forces and the coverage of Kurdish female fighters in the Western media and particularly herself.
In an interview you say you contacted Kurds through facebook and went to Iraq first and then Syria. Can you briefly explain what made you join the fight in Syria? Had you heard of Kurds before ISIS? If yes, in from what perspective? And also, was it your first experience living abroad (in this case- fighting)?
My decision to join the fight against ISIS was a result of a few factors. I’d been feeling unfulfilled with my life and was looking for something meaningful to do with it. I’d also had an interest in combat journalism and had tried to get to the Libyan revolution but I guess I wasn’t taking myself seriously enough because I found excuses to sabotage myself. Then in 2013-2014, I had a chain of five accidents and a health scare which finally motivated me to do something else with my life.
I had been following the Ukranian/Russia crisis and had thought about covering the war as a freelance photojournalist but realized I wasn’t bonding with any of the issues there. I was also following the battle against ISIS which to me was more of an actual war between good and evil, especially after they attacked Shingal and murdered and enslaved so many innocent people. I also became disgusted when our governments continued to do nothing to stop it, and I thought if people could volunteer to join ISIS, why can’t people volunteer to fight ISIS?
I’ve had a Kurdish friend for quite some years and knew she’d had problems with Turks before but I hadn’t realised just how severe the situation was until I started to research their fight for their identity. I then learned of the YPJ and it’s fight for women’s rights in the Middle East and thought I really wanted to be a part of that, so I decided to make contact with the YPJ. My idea was to document life within the YPJ with the hope of humanising the Kurdish struggle to western audiences, and I think I’ve had some success doing that.
What was it like to fight against an Islamist group alongside women? Were you expecting a woman only force in Syria?
I knew from my research that the YPJ was an army unseen in history. A complete women’s army run by women, for women, with a feminist agenda, and I knew from sources in Rojava and Bakur that they were actually fighting unlike women in western armies which can rarely see any combat. These girls were incredibly inspiring to me and I wanted to see them for myself.
What does it feel like to fight with a woman only fighters group like YPJ, is it un-precedented for you?
This whole experience is unprecedented for me as I’ve never done anything like it before. I didn’t have any military experience, nor had I ever travelled overseas, or even participated in women's only organisations, so it was a huge learning experience.
I grew up a tomboy, playing and fighting with boys, which probably gave me an advantage when it came to socialising with men, but this also put me at a disadvantage when it came to female friends, so to be suddenly surrounded by so many girls was a bit stressful for me at first. One of the commanders said it would be good for me to hang out with girls, which I thought was crazy, after all, I didn’t hang out with 17 year old girls back in Canada, so why would I want to do that here? But after about a month, I was really bonding with them and realised I had missed out on amazing friendships most of my life because I wasn’t interested in the things girls back in Canada were.
One thing I have noticed though, is how western women are so conditioned to think they can’t do certain things because it’s deemed too rough or manly. I don’t mean in the usual, patriarchal way of men not letting women do anything other than have babies and clean the house, but how women themselves perpetuate the idea we have to be delicate flowers? That enjoying an action movie, or motorbikes, or fighting, somehow means we must be man hating, bitch lesbians or some image other than feminine? It seems most often, it’s not the men, but the women who try to corral other women into traditional gender roles.
What do you think about the portrayal of Kurdish women fighters in the Western media?
I have mixed feelings about it. While the exposure has been very good for the fight against ISIS, it has come at the expense of why there is a women’s army in the first place. The primary reason for the existence of the YPJ isn’t to fight ISIS, but to further the struggle for women’s rights in an area of the world where, for centuries, women have been treated as property.
The YPJ won’t disappear with the end of ISIS. It will continue as long as women are being subjugated by oppressive patriarchal attitudes not just in Rojava, but in other areas of the Middle East too. It has the potential to be an inspirational force for women and forward thinking men all over the world as it promotes an idea that will benefit any society that applies it. The idea that a society that includes women, increased its chances for success two fold.
Another point however, is although the West is taking particular interest in the YPJ, it’s still with sexist tones, almost fetishising the “women with guns” image which invariable attracts the wrong kind of attention. I get lots of comments from Western men saying how they would like to hook up with the “sexy YPJ girls”. Even some of the Western men who have come to Rojava as volunteers with the YPG, still don’t understand the message of the YPJ, and it’s been a bit disheartening for me to hear these same volunteers perpetuate the outdated notion that war is no place for women because they’re too delicate and their duty is to have children.
As a Western individual, do you think the Western public or media knows enough about Kurds or their struggle in the Middle East (Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria)?
No. Absolutely not. Mainly because of mainstream Western media's agenda to appease their NATO ally, Turkey; because if the Western population actually knew the extent of the human rights crimes Turkey has committed against the Kurdish people, they might actually pressure the Western governments to do something about it. However Western governments are too concerned with money and power to allow their citizens to know too much about the real enemy of humanity. ISIS is a thorn in the side compared to the radical and fascist ideology of Turkey’s dictator, Erdogan, who is attacking anyone who speaks out against his agenda, including Turkey’s own citizens. I have no doubt that history will show who the real enemy is and once again, as in the case of Rwanda, people will ask, “why didn’t anyone stop this?”
How did you communicate with people in Syria. Did you learn Kurdish or think that you needed to learn Kurdish?
Learning Kurdish is key to succeeding in Rojava. Unfortunately, I had difficulty learning Kurdish. Blame it on my age, or a past concussion, or whatever, but it’s something I struggled with the entire time I was there. However, communication is a two way street, and if the person I was speaking too had good communication skills, we could work it out. In fact, I managed to have some very intelligent conversations with many of the girls in my units. Most of my difficulties weren’t a result of a language barrier, but a cultural issue. In many ways, the Middle East is a step back in time and many things women take for granted in the West, like driving a car, can be particularly frustrating.
What do you think about the portrayal of yourself in the Western media? For example, I saw headlines start like “Former Model …(Vice News) ” or “Female Canadian Solider (Independent.co.uk) or “Canadian Model…”.
The media attention came quite suddenly and at first, was a bit unnerving. I had never intended for it to happen but after Facebook outed my real name, I started getting media requests from all over the world and at first, I was unsure how to deal with it. I knew it might bring unwanted attention, which it has, but I also knew it could bring positive attention to the Kurdish cause.
Western audiences seem to have little interest in the lives of “other” people unless there is some connection they can relate to, so I decided to risk the possibility of being arrested at home and started giving interviews. It hasn’t been all good though. I’ve learned that the interviewers rarely quote anything accurately, especially if they’re writing a story from an interview, plus they’ll create dramatic, bullshit headlines as click bait so they can get readers, which is why I’ve been labeled as the “former model”.
Another issue I’ve had is with getting the right message out. It seems Western media is more interested in my brief modeling experience than with the more important issue I constantly try to bring up in the interviews, such as Turkey’s support of ISIS or Turkey’s collective punishment and genocide of the Kurds. In hindsight, it’s not surprising Western media has not taken me seriously as a YPJ soldier or women's rights activist when our society is still so obsessed with objectifying women as trophies for men's pleasure.
Thank you for your time.
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