Feminism in the wake of Isis

A new documentary profiles women’s rights advocates in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria

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In the documentary, I am the Revolution, the Iraqi women’s rights activist Yanar Mohammed explains that some of her political friends, particularly the leftists, used to dismiss her as “just a feminist”. “I am just a feminist in a part of the world where women are slaves!” she retorts. “What revolution will be harder than the revolution of women?”

That’s a hard question to answer in the US, a country now led by a president who brags of sexual assault, where nearly three women a day are killed by their partner, where women are still struggling to achieve equal representation, equal pay and autonomy over their own bodies.

It’s an even harder question to answer in Iraq, a mostly-conservative society that has been wracked by 15 years of violence, from the US-led invasion to the rise of Isis. The women fighting for gender equality in Iraq are not only contending with the recent horrors of Isis’s systemic abuse and violence against women, but also with more longstanding beliefs around familial honour and the status of women. In the Iraqi legal system, the punishment for murder is reduced if a man kills a woman in the name of honour. Domestic violence, which often rises during periods of national stress and conflict, is rampant.

Mohammed has set up a women’s rights group, the Organization for Women’s Freedom, which campaigns for legal reform and runs a secret network of shelters for women fleeing domestic abuse and honour killings. She is one of three women profiled in I am the Revolution, all of them activists campaigning for women’s rights in the midst of violence and in the aftermath of occupation by the brutal, misogynist regimes of Isis and the Taliban.

In Afghanistan, the New York-based filmmaker Benedetta Argentieri follows the politician Selay Ghaffar as she travels the country to educate women about their rights, braving frequent death threats. In Syria, she profiles Rojda Falat, a commander with the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, one of the groups on the front line of the battle to retake Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State group.

All three women display extraordinary resilience, bravery and compassion – but then, so do many of the women they help. In a village in Afghanistan, a 22-year-old woman quietly describes how was forced to flee an arranged marriage, but somehow managed to train as a nurse to help other women and children.

In Iraq, a woman describes how she ran away after her father beat and tortured her for a week for removing her hijab and joining a women’s rights organization. Now she hopes to become a lawyer, “because my rights were stolen from me and I want to make sure no one else’s rights are stolen from them.”

In Rojava, in Kurdish-held Syria, a new Arab recruit seems to be behaving slightly strangely – until finally she explains that she is not even sure where her family are now, they are in a nearby camp for internally displaced people, she thinks, and she needs to support them.

I am the Revolution is beautifully shot, and full of moments of tenderness: the footage of the Kurdish fighters plaiting one another’s hair, for instance, offers an alternative to the male camaraderie we usually associate with soldiers at war. But there are moments of discomfort, too. At a meeting in Afghanistan a few women hide their faces behind their veil when they notice the camera – and the filming feels like an intrusion on a precious, fragile female space (all of the film crew are women – but not all viewers will be).

What revolution will be harder than the revolution of women? The women Argentieri follows are battling overwhelming obstacles, and yet the film feels uplifting, too – if women can’t do it, who can?

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.