A group of female Marines arrived in Afghanistan six months ago with something of a bizarre mission: to access all-female communities in rural Afghanistan that were off-limits to men, by having tea with Pashtun women in their homes. By forging such connections, the Marines hoped to assess the local need for aid and gain better strategies for opening local clinics and schools.
This mission, however, according to a long article in the New York Times, has allowed these Marines to engage in combat activities that are forbidden to female soldiers, simply because southern Afghanistan is much more dangerous than anyone expected. According to the article, the women “have shot back in firefights and ambushes, been hit by homemade bombs and lived on bases hit by mortar attacks.” They have, like their male counterparts, lost weight from the stress, and some have seen marriages or relationships end. Others have, for the first time, seen fellow soldiers die.
For some women, this is the beginning of a long-sought equality that the U.S. military is still far from extending. For Captain Emily Naslund, a graduate of the Virginia Military Academy, the Marines are the ultimate proving ground, and the fact that she must say that women simply “accompany” Marine infantry groups on patrols is absurd.
“The current policy on women in combat is outdated and does not apply to the type of war we are fighting,” she wrote in an email quoted in the NYT article. And although she unwillingly accepts the guidelines imposed on her by the Marines, she will continue to speak out.
Some women have said that they would not volunteer for this mission again – that the death and destruction is too much. And there are male officers and infantrymen who question the women’s presence and remain resentful of the attention they have received from the news media.
But the experiences of this group of female Marines comes amid criticism of the way that the military defines “combat roles.” Especially in counterinsurgency missions, there are no definite “front lines”; soldiers are in constant risk of being targeted by insurgents. Despite all of this, only a few countries allow women to serve in active combat roles, and the U.S. is clearly not one of them.
The article illustrates the extent to which women are still limited by the U.S. military – and to everyone’s detriment. Women like this company of Marines show that there is nothing inherently gendered about being on the front lines of a war – but even women who openly defy these gender stereotypes still seem to be fighting an uphill battle to change these outdated cultural norms.
Photo from the Department of Defense.