For breaking gender barriers at a remarkably young age
Bundled up to combat the frigid climate, a 13-year-old girl stands on a rock with her arm extended. Western Mongolia’s dramatic mountain vistas stretch out behind her. Smiling, she watches as a 15-pound eagle soars off her arm.
This image of Aisholpan Nurgaiv, captured by Israeli photographer Asher Svidensky, was part of a photo series that went viral in 2014 and caught the eye of English filmmaker Otto Bell. Soon, he contacted Svidensky and the two men jumped on a plane to Mongolia to find her.
What resulted was the documentary The Eagle Huntress, and the first steps on a remarkable journey for a young girl. The film chronicles Nurgaiv’s quest to enter the challenging, male-dominated field of eagle hunting, a Mongolian pastime in which skilled trainers teach golden eagles to hunt for wild animals. The documentary follows Nurgaiv to the highly competitive Golden Eagle Festival in Ölgii, where she became both the youngest contestant and the first female ever to take part.
“From an early age, I was always interested in being an eagle huntress,” Nurgaiv said. “I don’t see any differences between me and the other boys.”
Nurgaiv also had the support of family — particularly her father, Rys, who backed her when other men in her community were critical of her pursuit. It also helped that Nurgaiv never doubted herself: “At first I was a little bit excited and worried, but I wasn’t afraid,” she said.
Now, Nurgaiv says she is happy that her story has inspired girls and women around the world. Closer to home, Nurgaiv’s example is already having an effect: A growing number of girls in her Mongolian community have sought to train as eagle hunters.
For her part, Nurgaiv hopes that young girls — wherever they live — can persevere in the face of doubt, criticism, and entrenched gender norms. “They must keep trying," she said, "and be brave."