Permissible Arms

And what can’t be done?

Posted in afghanistan, united kingdom, united nations by Karaka on 22 April 2010

I haven’t done a post on pieces I’ve liked that talk about women lately, so I figured its timely.

Rex at Afghanistan: My Last Tour conducted an interview with female ANA soldiers, which I thought was generally awesome, but also deeply informative.

My next stop was the ANA Family Support Center. Inside I was greeted by two women dressed in traditional Afghan clothing, complete with the hajib hair covering. But these two women are not civilians; instead, they are both Captains in the ANA army. Using my interpreter, I asked permission to conduct an interview so I could learn more about them. They agreed and I used my tape recorder to record our conversation.

Both of the women are married, have 4 children and similar educational backgrounds with completing high school and 3 years of medical studies at a local college. The younger Captain has served in the Army for 20 years and the other 33 years respectively. They are responsible for assisting ANA widows and wounded soldiers’ family members. The younger captain revealed even as a child, she has always wanted to join the Army. Her father was an Army officer and supported her dream and now her sister is in the process of becoming an ANA officer too.

I inquired why they didn’t wear the ANA military uniform. They explained that due to culture perceptions and criticisms, it is better to wear civilian clothes.

I read pretty comprehensively on this subject, so it’s of note to me that stories/accounts like this don’t float up terribly frequently. I appreciate Rex noting both the challenges that female ANA soldiers face, and also the problems of negotiating correct cultural manners when there’s no clear rule to follow–especially when the female soldiers themselves are considered by their fellow soldiers to be breaking taboos.

Last month the NYT had a feature on female-staffed UN peacekeeping units that I thought was generally positive, though a couple stray comments (“the thin pink line”) were desultory and detracted from the strength of their subjects. Sgt. Monia Gusain commands a peacekeeping unit for the UN out of India, based in Liberia.

Liberia — a West African country created in 1847 to settle freed American slaves — is something of a modern laboratory for the rise of women making peace. Women are marching in foot patrols; the head of the U.N. mission, Ellen Margrethe Loj of Denmark, is a woman; and the Liberian president, Mrs. Sirleaf, is the first woman elected as an African head of state, in 2005.

Mrs. Sirleaf — whose nickname is “Iron Lady” — is particularly blunt about the role of women in the recovery of her fragile country, which was battered by 14 years of civil war that left about 200,000 people dead and survivors haunted by torture, systematic rapes and the exploitation of drug-addicted boy soldiers.

“What a woman brings to the task is extra sensitivity, more caring,” Mrs. Sirleaf said in an interview. “I think that these are the characteristics that come from being a mother, taking care of a family, being concerned about children, managing the home.”

There’s more gender reductionist verbiage in there, and similar ideology propagated by several people interviewed, but it’s generally positive and endlessly fascinating.

Finally, the Guardian’s Elizabeth Rubin wrote a remarkable account of her experience as an embedded reporter in Afghanistan, in the first few months of her pregnancy. Western culture has a strange relationship with pregnancy: revered, unwanted, and political all at once. I think I’d like to meet this woman who took her pregnancy into a war zone.

On a muggy August afternoon, I dragged myself and my flu to an infectious-disease doctor. I asked him if he could give me some antibiotics for Afghanistan that were safe to take when you’re pregnant. His eyes leapt up from his notes.

“How far along are you?”

“Three months and a bit.”

I stared at a James Nachtwey photograph on his wall as he regaled me with stories about his war-photographer patients, all of whom were men. Clearly, I posed a different equation.

“Are you sure you will be able to run?” he said. “Because you’re going to need to run, and I have to advise you not to go in your condition.” Suddenly he was rigging up a heart-monitoring machine on my chest and pointing out my supposedly irregular heartbeat arrowing up and down the page. “I just came for a prescription,” I said. “If I wanted someone to tell me not to go to Afghanistan, I could have called my mother.”

I’m trying to tweet more–you’re welcome to add me there if you like–but I’ll be the first to admit I’m kind of bad at it. Not so great at 140-character expressions of stream of conscious; I think I’m just too long winded.


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