March is Women’s History Month, a time to honor boundary-breaking girls and women (though let’s be real, we should be honoring them constantly). It is a time to remember that gender discrimination is not only part of our history; it is part of our present. We must honor the girls and women all around us breaking barriers on the daily.
One of those girls is 15-year-old Aisholpan, a nomadic Mongolian girl and the subject of the award-winning documentary, The Eagle Huntress. In nomadic Mongolian Kazakh culture, hunters catch food for their families with the help of a diligently trained eagle. In the documentary, we watch a then-13-year-old Aisholpan as she longs to follow in the footsteps of her father to become an eagle huntress — but after just the first few minutes of the film, it is very clear that girls and women are not welcome to participate in the 2,000-year-old traditionally masculine sport.
Aisholpan’s incredibly supportive father, Nurgaiv, encourages her to ignore what men say about her abilities and to trust in her talent. With his help, she begins training an eagle and learns how to hunt with her, becoming the first female eagle hunter in 12 generations of her family. Mind you, she does this all while attending a boarding school during the week, helping her mother and father with chores, and helping take care of her siblings.
Refusing to listen to the doubts and disapproval of many of the older men in her community, Aisholpan goes on to compete in the Golden Eagle Festival in Ölgii — the first woman to ever compete, and a pre-teen girl, at that.
Throughout the entire documentary, young Aisholpan excels at something she has been told only men can do. And while smashing this 2,000-year-old gender barrier, she continues to express her femininity as she pleases. In between breathtaking aerial shots of Aisholpan calling her eagle from the sky, we see her participate in traditionally “girly” things — whether it’s painting her nails a bright color on the weekend or wearing a sparkly pink hair bow beneath her traditional hunting hat.
With the help of a translator, we were able to speak with the history-making teenager about how her life has changed since the documentary, and why girls can do anything.
HelloGiggles: How has your life changed since the release of the documentary? Are people more accepting of your status as an eagle huntress? Do you feel that you have improved?
Aisholpan: I think there are few changes. I go to a good school in Ulgii town. I have had some tourists visit so I learned some English. I understand them when they speak to me! We also have bought a car which we could never afford before.
Now, people accept me as an Eagle Huntress. People say I am a hero of Mongolian Kazakhs. But, I am still Aisholpan.
HG: You clearly have a very special relationship with your eagle. Can you describe your bond with her?
A: She is considered a member of our family, and my friend too. We understand each other. We like each other. We work together! If my eagle starts to make a sound, I understand that she wants to eat or she wants to fly, etc. If you can’t understand your bird, you are not a good hunter.
HG: What advice would you give people who have been told that they can’t do something because of their gender?
A: If you keep [moving] forward no matter your what your gender is, you will have success! Be brave!
HG: In addition to eagle hunting, are there other things that people have said you couldn’t do just because you are a girl? How did that make you feel, and how did you prove them wrong?
A: People said that I cannot be an eagle huntress because there were no girls in my family who hunted with eagles before. They gave me weird looks too.
I felt sad in the beginning, but I struggled to show that eagle hunting is not only for boys…Girls can do it too if they want to. I won the Golden Eagle Festival. I proved it by riding the horses and carrying the eagle, calling her and climbing up the cliffs and getting my own eaglet!
HG: How do you find the strength to prove the men in your community wrong for doubting you? How do you conquer your fears?
A: It is my father and grandfather who gave me the strength. They always advised me. They helped me keep looking forward too. I hoped that things would get better, so I did not worry that much about fear!
In the documentary, you said you want to be a doctor when you are older. Do you know what kind of doctor you want to be?
A: I want to be a doctor but I still have not decided what kind of doctor I want to be (Aisholpan smiles)
HG: How do you feel when you are hunting with your eagle?
A: Going up to the mountains, the fresh air…it is an amazing feeling! I feel proud to continue my ancestors’ tradition.
“The Eagle Huntress,” directed by Otto Bell and narrated by Daisy Ridley, is now available on Blu-ray and digital!