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'Sisters In Arms' Celebrates Women Kurdish Fighters In Anti-ISIS Fight


Before President Trump decided to pull U.S. troops out of northern Syria earlier this month, Americans on the ground were fighting alongside Kurdish forces there. It was a key partnership that helped defeat ISIS in And Kurdish women soldiers were an integral part of that effort. A new French movie celebrates a different narrative of women in war. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has this report.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) At that time, I did not know what they could do to us.


ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: "Sisters In Arms" is a fictional war movie based on real life female Kurdish fighting brigades. The movie's main characters are foreign recruits from Europe and America and a young Yazidi woman who escapes from sexual slavery with ISIS to join the Kurds. This is the first film of French journalist Caroline Fourest, who once worked at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. Fourest says after a terrorist attack on the magazine that killed her colleagues in 2015, she needed to transform her rage and pain into something bigger.

CAROLINE FOUREST: It was a necessity for me to use another language, and fiction was this language. And also, I felt a very strong physical need to be among those fighters. Usually during the wars, and we are used to that, the body of the woman is the battlefield. In this conflict, their body was also a weapon.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Once women rebel, they are erased from history, erased from society and sent back home.

BEARDSLEY: Former Washington Post correspondent Jon Randal, who has written extensively on the Kurds, says the gender equality in its army appealed to American soldiers.

JON RANDAL: The fact that there were women in combat units and commanding combat units, all this of course made them stand out. It was extremely useful for explaining this odd relationship with the American military.

BEARDSLEY: Randal says the Americans trained the Kurds to call in airstrikes on ISIS units, but it was the Kurds who did the fighting and dying on the ground in the war against ISIS.

RANDAL: Basically, the Kurds - men and women - they're the cannon fodder. They were the infantry. I think six American soldiers were killed. And at last count, the Kurdish losses were 10,500.

KENDAL NEZAN: (Foreign language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Kendal Nezan is head of the Kurdish institute in Paris. He's seen the movie three times.

KEZAN: (Foreign language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Nezan recites an old Kurdish proverb - a lion is a lion, no matter if it's male or female. He says the West first discovered Kurdish female brigades during the Crimean war in the 19th century.

KEZAN: Westerners were amazed to find Kurdish women fighting the Russians alongside with the Ottoman empire. And so they called them the Kurdish Amazon.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, ululating).

BEARDSLEY: In the film, the women sometimes ululate as they attack. Fourest says the Kurdish guerrillas told her jihadists feared being killed by a woman.

FOUREST: You have to understand, those jihadists, sometimes they've been caught with a spoon around their neck because they thought that just after the death, they will have dinner with the prophet. And they were all so superstitious that being killed by a woman can really deprive them from heaven.

BEARDSLEY: "Sisters In Arms" came out in France the day the Turkish incursion into northern Syria to oust the Kurds began. Sixty-year-old Camille Azoulay had tears in her eyes as she left the cinema.

CAMILLE AZOULAY: (Foreign language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: "Because of what's happening right now, this film is even more poignant and tragic," she says. Director Fourest hopes her film will make the West realize what the Kurds have sacrificed. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.