This Badass Woman Joined an All-Female Militia to Help Fight ISIS in the Middle East
Badass Women spotlights women who not only have a voice but defy the irrelevant preconceptions of gender. (Not to mention, they are exceptionally cool.)
Here, Hanna Bohman talks about her decision to join the YPJ or Women's Protection Unit fighting ISIS in the Middle East. You can find out more about Bohman’s story and watch the short film about her experience in the YPJ available to US audiences on Verizon’s go90 and internationally at FearUsWomen.com.
Why she’s a badass: For the past three years, Canadian citizen-turned-soldier Hanna Bohman has been a part of the YPJ, or Women’s Protection Unit, fighting against ISIS and for women's rights in the Middle East. The YPJ is an all-female Kurdish army with volunteer soldiers that has played an important role in amplifying the voices of women in the region.
Bohman left her life in Canada working in sales and briefly dabbling in modeling to go to the Middle East and fight for women's rights. She said that after she learned about the YPJ women (and YPG men, the all-male branch of this Kurdish militia) and had a few eye-opening accidents (while riding her motorbike back home) she reconsidered her life and realized joining the YPJ was the right choice for her.
“[We are] an army of 10,000 women fighting for women's rights in the Middle East, and also fighting for a model of female empowerment that applies to all women around the world where we own our own power,” Bohman said to InStyle. “We don't have to rely on other people to protect us.”
How she got involved: Bohman was one of the first women recruited from outside the region to drop everything and join the YPJ. She said she did it simply because she found the women of the YPJ inspiring.
“We've been conditioned to believe that success is measured by our careers, cars, houses, having the right friends, and looking good. And people are so afraid of failing that they don't have time to protest the things that need to be protested, to participate in life, to do the right thing,” Bohman said to InStyle. “I was the same way, but I purged all that.”
In late October of 2015, she said she flew to a safe house in Iraq where she waited until the middle of the night to be smuggled across the boarder into Syria via a small rubber boat. Once safely at the YPJ training academy, she completed her (alarmingly short) weapons training that was initially supposed to be 45 days long, but only lasted about four hours before Bohman earned her stripes (and a 40-year-old gun). She then went straight to the front lines near Tell Hamis, with ISIS just a few kilometers away.
What her family thinks: Bohman told only her mother that she planned to leave home and join the militia. Her brother found out through the media and wasn't very pleased. But Bohman stands her ground.
"My brother’s been in the military for decades, so [my mom] is used to deployment," Bohman said. "When I went, I was 46 years old. I’m a grown-ass woman. Nobody tells me what to do."
Greatest achievement: Getting the word out. Having always had an interest in combat photography, Bohman's original intention was to go into this experience camera in hand.
“I was so inspired by these women actually fighting that I wanted other women to know about them.” This is also why she agreed to star in a recently released short film called “Fear Us Women,” executive produced by actress Olivia Wilde. Bohman believes her decision to help make the YPJ better known in the West has been her most rewarding feat.
“It’s taken almost three years, but now the West is finally starting to talk about it, and I think I've had a little part in that.”
Overcoming obstacles: Despite death threats (which she said are sent to her via Facebook messenger from Turkish soldiers, Facebook users within the U.S. and Canada, and jihadists who disprove of the YPJ's efforts and "seem intimidated by [Bohman] being a woman fighting"), Bohman has decided to continue helping bridge the gap between the Middle East and the West in an effort to make the YPJ a household name.
“I know I’m a target, but I’ll do it anyway because this is bigger than me.” She maintains that the hardest part of all of this for her now is being away from her fellow female soldiers while she is back in the U.S. and Canada to promote the short film, and deciding on the right time to rejoin them.
Culture shock: Bohman said that she was most surprised by the similarities she found between herself and the people she met while in the Middle East. She enjoyed talking with locals in shops while in search of Pepsi during downtime. “They do things I do when I’m back home like go to the coffee shop and share stories."
Bohman said that the people she's met in the Middle East are often religiously similar, too. Before heading to the region, she assumed the people she was would meet would be more observant than she is, but she quickly realized that there were a range of ways in which locals related to their faiths, from ultra-observant to secular to somewhere in between. "[For example], I was born Catholic, but I'm not Catholic. So if I go to church, I'm a tourist," she said. "When some of them go to a mosque, they’re tourists just looking at the tapestries."
Her biggest culture shock came when she returned home and had to reacquaint herself with blatant misogyny; she had spent her time in the Middle East surrounded by people fighting for women's rights, literally on the front lines.
"The basis of the revolution is a feminist revolution destroying the patriarchy and the corporate capitalist ideal. So in Syria, I never felt objectified, harassed, or sexualized. But because my guards were down over there, I sort of forgot how to defend myself against [misogyny] when I came back,” Bohman told InStyle. “When you grow up in it, you just don't realize how bad it still is.”
Enjoying some free time: How does this soldier spend her free time? She goes to the movies and tries to immerse herself in local culture. “Whenever I'm in a new country, I always make an effort to go see a movie in that country, and then I keep the tickets as souvenirs.”
Advice: “We regret the things we didn't do. So just don't be afraid and go do them. But be careful. Make sure you understand your decision," Bohman said when asked about the advice she'd give a woman who wants to follow her lead. "I’ve seen some women sacrifice their lives to save their team, which is inspiring to me. And if you think that [the YPJ’s mission] is worth fighting for, then follow your heart. Do what feels right.”
What's up next: Bohman is touring to promote the Fear Us Women film. Currently, she's unable to return to the YPJ because the media attention on her is making her and some other members of the YPJ targets for harassment. "There's still some mistrust from the outside groups because you have warlords and dictators and stuff who clearly don't want the YPJ, the revolution, to succeed. There's no place for them in that world." But Bohman won't let distrust stop her from supporting the YPJ any way she can. “I found something that truly inspired me, this little Kurdish revolution in Syria that I believe has a huge potential to benefit the whole world,” Bohman explained. “As long as I can keep spreading the word and raising awareness, then I'll keep doing that. As long as people are willing to listen.”