In August 2014, the women of the “Women’s Protection Units” (YPJ) captured the attention of the world when they helped rescue 50,000 people from a massacre by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the Sinjar Mountains of northern Iraq.
The “Sinjar massacre,” as it has come to be known, represented the two extremes of contemporary life for women in the Middle East. On one hand, women were threatened with lifelong subjugation by Islamic fundamentalists. Yet, on the other hand, women picked up arms in defense of themselves and their sisters.
While the YPJ’s rescue operation in Sinjar was heralded around the world, it was perhaps most inspiring to the women of the Middle East, whose lives were restricted by patriarchy and could now see a way out.
The YPJ’s victory over ISIS was cemented in October 2017, when Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital in Syria, fell. It reverberated throughout the Middle East, giving renewed strength to feminist struggles across the region.
It is these connections that director Benedetta Argentieri highlights in her eye-opening new documentary, “I Am the Revolution,” which had its world premiere at the DOC NYC festival earlier this month.
“I Am the Revolution” follows three women in their home countries: Rojda Felat, commander of the YPJ in Syria; Selay Ghaffar, spokesperson for the Solidarity Party of Afghanistan; and Yanar Mohammed, founder of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq.
“They have many things in common, though several differences,” said Argentieri. “The objective was to convey the feeling that there isn’t only one way to struggle, but many different practices depending on the overall context and the moment of time in history for each country.”
Argentieri’s understanding and appreciation for the influence of material conditions on the campaigns for women’s rights in each country is evident throughout her film.
Far from aggrandizing the armed struggle of Felat and the YPJ, the film places it on equal footing with the efforts of Ghaffar and Mohammed, as Ghaffar organizes directly with Afghan women and men, and the latter operates shelters for battered Iraqi women and their children.
While some Western radicals may downplay the revolutionary potential of anything less than armed struggle, Argentieri does not fall for such romanticization. At one point in the film, Mohammed even speaks to “leftist” preconceptions of revolutionary politics.
“I used to have this discussion with my political friends—especially the leftists—political friends who early on used to say, ‘Oh, you’re just a feminist,’” she recalled.
“Just a feminist? I am ‘just a feminist’ in the part of the world where all the women are slaves,” Mohammed added. “Well, I am so proud to be ‘just a feminist’ because what revolution will they do that is harder than the revolution of women?”
As the film’s subjects strive for feminism, they face astonishing violence. The YPJ suffers casualties in their war against ISIS, and Argentieri poignantly captures a mass funeral during which the female militia members lay their sisters-in-arms to rest.
Ghaffar plans to meet with local women to discuss domestic abuse, education, and employment, but must travel in disguise with heavily armed bodyguards. Her appearance is always a surprise to the women she meets.
Mohammed contends with similar threats. A public rally that she organizes on International Women’s Day in Iraq—a chant from which gives the film its title: “I am a woman, I am the revolution”—is cut short 20 minutes after its start due to security concerns, despite the presence, again, of armed guards.
Even the YPJ’s victory over ISIS is short-lived as the militia is soon attacked by the Turkish military, which considers it a terrorist organization. Regardless of these dangers, each woman is staunch in her persistence.
“Our aim is not just to liberate [Syria] and, after the war, return to our previous rights,” declared Felat. “We want to turn what we have accomplished so far into an ideal for future generations.”
Another commonality between the subjects of “I Am the Revolution” is their rejection of the false choice between Islamic fundamentalism and the United States’ imperialism.
The YPJ’s war is against fundamentalism and imperialism, as the militia is forced to battle both ISIS and Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally of the U.S..
In Afghanistan, Ghaffar organizes rallies to oppose both the Taliban and the US-led NATO occupation, with slogans like, “Long live the unity of women against fundamentalists,” and, “Long live the women’s battle against the occupiers.”
Mohammed describes fighting the U.S.-backed government in Iraq to keep open her shelters for women, some of whom fled honor killings at the hands of fundamentalists family members.
“They don’t trust the ‘exporting’ of democracy by the U.S. and NATO countries,” said Argentieri. “Democracy can’t be exported in such a linear way. Each country has to find their own way, and these women are putting a lot of effort to have a viable alternative.”
The triumph of “I Am the Revolution” is Argentieri’s skill in bringing these distinct routes to feminism together in a way that respects them individually, while still highlighting their interconnectedness.
Argentieri avoids the pitfalls of too many Western observers, who view the Middle East as a homogenous and patriarchal domain, where all women suffer silently. In fact, the women of the region are fighting for their rights so doggedly that they should win the admiration of feminists everywhere.