Islamic Women Meet GI Jane

The SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER, Friday, February 25, 2005

Islamic women meet GI Jane


BAGRAM AIR BASE, NEAR KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Second show. Actually, for me, second war. Last summer it was Iraq, the Sunni Triangle, Ramadi. Now it’s Afghanistan.

I arrived here on Feb. 9, after an unscheduled two-day layover in Dubai, waiting while the Kabul airport mastered the fine arts of snow removal and de-icing. I flew in with two very nice, very scared, very drunk de-mining specialists as seatmates. One kindly offered to share his company’s transportation from the airport to Bagram Air Base, after he’d learned, to his horror, that two National Guard public affairs types in the CPIC (Combined Press Information Center) had told me, a young American woman traveling alone, “Oh, just take a taxi to your hotel and stay there for a couple days.” On the assumption that it takes a lot to scare guys who clear minefields for a living, I happily accepted.

I’ve been at Bagram for a week, going out with PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams), getting ready to head either to Kandahar or Gazhni, weather permitting. In Afghanistan in February, the weather permits very little.

My purpose here, as in Iraq, is to observe the performance of U.S. military women, and the reactions of Islamic women to the sight of “GI Jane” — armed women serving as equals with their male peers. The Abu Ghraib Film Festival, that recent “demoted for mud wrestling” incident and the Gitmo “sexy interrogators” nonsense notwithstanding (why must everything get turned into porn?), the professional and personal conduct of American women has been exemplary.

I note also two scandals that haven’t happened. There has been no epidemic of “get me out of here” pregnancies, nor any combat breakdowns among units with women because of the presence of women. (Jessica Lynch’s company had far larger problems.) Had there been, I’m certain that the United States’ so-called cultural conservatives and the religious right would be flaunting the leaks with all the gusto of Big Bill Bennett at the slots.

The responses of Islamic women to GI Jane have been complex. One in particular has come to haunt me. I’ll call her Rakhel, the Rachel of the Bible, weeping for her children. Somehow appropriate, if perhaps a bit of a stretch theologically.

Rakhel is an Afghan. Her middle-class family came to the United States when the Soviets invaded. She’s now a middle-aged U.S. citizen. She returned to Afghanistan in February 2002 and now works as a cultural adviser and women’s affairs liaison between U.S. forces and the Karzai government.

“I explain,” she told me in a long interview, “that America is my adopted parents and Afghanistan is my birth parents. I want to use my talents and education to bring both sets of parents together.”

Although there’s a price of nearly $300,000 on her head — “At first,” she laughs, “I thought, That’s all?” — she travels freely in the Kabul area. Sometimes, she finds herself explaining American women to the locals.

“At the beginning, the Afghans had a perception. ‘American women are really strong!’ Yes, I told them, they have free spirits and strong wills. ‘No, really strong! Fifteen-twenty guys for one woman!’ They thought American women soldiers were prostitutes. I had to explain about men and women working together, that the women wanted to be soldiers. Had to bring a lot of men together in a room and explain things to them.”

In Kabul, she says, “Men and women will work together, have a good relationship … the headscarves are getting smaller, the long coats are getting shorter.” But in the provinces, “things haven’t changed in a lot of centuries.”

Among them: so-called honor killings of women.

“I adopted a child here. Her family sold her into a marriage at 13. She tried to commit suicide by picking up a rifle and standing by the road, ‘aiming’ at Americans. They knew something was wrong and didn’t shoot. They took her in, but planned to turn her over to the Afghan government, who would return her to her family. Her family would not only kill her for violating Pushtunwali, but also kill her in an exemplary manner. She would be bound to a tree and stoned or lashed to death.”

Rakhel solved the problem by contacting the family and buying the girl for $3,000.

In Afghanistan, there are no legal adoptions. But selling your daughters instead of killing them — that’s OK.

“I’m working,” she says, “to change that.”


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