On a day that marks the sacrifices made by our men and women in the armed services, it is important to remember that so often their duties extend far beyond armed patrols. Those tasks, for some women, include building local economies in remote reaches of Afghanistan.
Women are still barred from combat branches like the infantry, but all branches of the armed services are beginning to understand the crucial role women play in executing a mission of nation-building. Regardless of your opinion as to whether or not the United States should be in the business of nation-building, the fact remains that in Afghanistan, that’s the mission. And it’s a mission that at times requires a softer touch to help bridge the cultural divide that separates Afghani and American men.
Female engagement teams, or fets as they are known, are helping redefine gender roles in combat as their once reluctant male peers come to rely more and more on them. One fet has been sent to accompany all-male foot patrols in Hemland Province, in southern Afghanistan, to win over the Afghan women. Officers, over multiple cups of tea, made small talk with the Afghan women. After a few connections were made, the officers were encouraging the Afghan women to sew items that could be sold at a local bazaar as a means of empowering the Afghan women and creating some stability of economy that does not rely on a drug trade.
The all-female teams are also desperately needed in medical clinics to help treat the local population. When that happens trust gets built between the communities and the tricky business of enacting a counterinsurgency campaign takes hold.
And it makes sense. The entire goal of the mission is to swing the trust and alliances of the Afghan people away from the Taliban, and you simply can’t do that if you engage with only half of the population. Many of the female officers reported being met with skepticism by the Afghan women as they removed their combat helmets, and some refused to even believe they were actually women. According to some of the officers the Afghan women demanded they lift their shirts and pants, while others found themselves poked in their breasts or pubic area to prove they were actually women.
The skepticism does not end with the Afghan women. Female officers have had to prove their worth to their male counterparts. They carry the same weapons as the men, receive the same combat training as the men, yet they cannot leave the bases unless the men escort them. That fact alone can often keep gender prejudices entrenched on the base, but like the Afghan population, the men in the military are slowly coming around.
Once those cultural divides break down, a process the officers admit does not happen over night, the payoff is almost immediate. The women get access to parts of Afghanistan that were simply off limits to American forces before. They also serve as a powerful visual for a female population with zero opportunity. They’ve been able to encourage Afghan women to go to school, and in turn, teach their daughters to read. These may seem like small tasks, but they are exactly the kind of tasks that will turn a nation.
So on this Memorial Day let’s give a very special thank you to these women for doing the job of truly building nations, one village at a time.
photo courtesy of Afghanistan matters via Flickr
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