Girls of the Sun: Fetishising female militancy

Adham Youssef
8 Min Read
Girls of the Sun

Did you know that in Rambo III (1988), Sylvester Stallone was fighting with the “good” Taliban “freedom” fighters against the “bad” communist army? The year it was produced was during the decisive moments in the cold war, when the Soviet Union was close to collapsing. Yes, the Americans at the time were training, aiding, and equipping the radical Taliban militants, who back in the day were not the “terrorists” they are today, as American authorities call them.

With the Soviet Union disbanded, Taliban fighters, once allies of the Americans—who in fiction were trained by John Rambo—turned against the CIA agents and started the guerrilla warfare against the very American presence on their land, which is still costing US lives and money to this very day.

Last Saturday, French director Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in its official competition. The war drama, allegedly based on true events, most probably a narrative of a Western journalist who was embedded in combat, tells the story of a Kurdish female militia fighting against the Islamic State (IS) militant group. Combining between action and melodrama, the film’s main character is a French journalist, Mathilde (Emmanuelle Bercort), who is deployed to do a story about female Kurdish militants.

She is assigned to a unit led by Bahar (Golshifteh Farhani), a lawyer and French university graduate, whose family was massacred, and her son kidnapped to be taken to the notorious jihadist schools. Bahar herself was kidnapped by extremists, sold as a sex slave, and abused. She manages to escape and flee, only to become a militant. We see the story through the eyes of Mathilde, the French journalist. She accompanies the unit as they storm an IS stronghold

Yazidi Kurdish militants, more specifically the Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), spearhead confronting the Islamist militants of the IS. The PKK and other affiliated groups proved in the last several years to be a part of Washington’s most effective battlefield partners against the IS. Since 2014 and the sqeeping of the IS through Iraq and Syria, dozens of media reports and images have been created to depict the new face of the PKK, which is listed as a terrorist group by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the US. That face, more often than not, has been of the female fighters, with their coloured bandanas and photogenic poses, mysteriously showing acceptance to the word “Marxist” in the text of Western media reports.

The PKK and its militias have adopted a Maoist understanding of Marxism, which relies on agrarian cooperative policies, which approaches comradery in production, and, due to the ongoing warfare, a militia like brotherhood and sisterhood. Husson uses this bond to create sentimental but touching shots of guerrilla warfare and to narrate the aristocracies of radical Islamism against different religious, ethnic, and political individuals. 

Indeed, female militancy has been dealt with—in popular culture—as a fetish, and an image that is reproduced, coloured, and copied whenever the need urges.

Narratives of war and conflicts are predominantly constructed, and deconstructed if necessary, by powerful agents in any society regardless of the timeframe: the victors, the state, the superstructures, religious books, and elected politicians. They determine who is the dictator and who are the repressed, democrats and fascists, forces of evil and tyranny and good Samaritans, and similarly, who are the extremists and freedom fighters. The monopoly of the narrative is what is of concern here.

In this regard, you will find images of Kurdish female fighters often shared and celebrated in Western media, with a complete disregard of the political context. Meanwhile, for example, images of female militants in areas and conflicts where the Western dominance was challenged—Vietnam, Palestine, Algeria, Lebanon, Western Germany—are not praised. And if they are covered, they are portrayed as fanatics, only moved by vengeance, sheer violence, and illogical political understandings.

Examples of such condemned and forgotten female militancy are Sana’a Mehaidli, the 16-year-old Lebanese girl during the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon in 1985; Fusako Shigenobu, one of the principal leaders of a communist militant group known as the Japanese Red Army founded in 1971; and the Baader-Meinhof group that spearheaded the social upheavals that were inspired by feminism, anti-colonialism movements, leftist ideologies, and the civil rights movement.

Out of context, Girls of the Sun adopts a narrative that seems interesting and appealing, also for the western audience: brown feminist women carrying guns, chanting made up songs chants, and shooting against bearded Arabic-speaking, black-wearing militants. In the film, an enforced feminist discourse that the film preaches, although essential in the discussion and implementation of female empowerment in zones of conflicts, is simplified, and at times comic.

The resistance of the Kurdish people against all reactionary forces, dictatorships, imperial nations, and religious powers, and their calls for independence, should not to be undermined or mocked. However, they should not forget that a good proportion of the so-called IS militants and other Islamist militias were once the “moderate Sunni opposition” and the “armed official bodies” that were installed in the Iraqi-Syrian conflict.

Husson’s script is a well-crafted rise-and-fall war drama; people die, others live, some depart, others stay, a crescendo of the protagonist for them to reach the truth, defeat the villain, to find the missing, or to find peace. War and conflict will always be subjects of interests for the film industry and popular culture in general.

It is now 2018, 30 years since Rambo trained the Taliban and 15 years since the US aided the Sunni militias to counter the Shiite governments after the invasion. Currently, the US is enhancing its military effort to assist the “good”, “feminist”, “patriotic”, and “freedom loving” Marxist militants of Kurdistan. It is interesting to see how the once heroic comrade Bahar—whose story has been highlighted and celebrated all over the world—will be seen in the coming years.

“Strive for peace with acts of war, the beauty of death we all adore,” sang Slayer, an American heavy metal band.

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