Women Take an Afghani Stand

Rosie the Riveter has come a long way since she first raised her hammer in 1943!

World War II was the first war in which women played an “official” – read: directive – role in the war effort. A mere twenty years after the Nineteenth Amendment prohibited voting discrimination based on an individual’s sex, women joined the war effort to tend victory gardens, weld steel weapons, and generally fill the gaps in production left for them when the Y chromosome-carrying world waged a war.

Women entered the factory workforce en masse soon after Rosie paved the way. This early female-oriented war effort represented a negative effort, maintaining the status quo. Women entered the workforce to keep the factors of production running; to supply their country with the materials necessary for war. “Rosie” and her sisters showed a heroic spirit that kept our country afloat through a very rough time. But their effort merely filled the stop-gap requirement for badly-needed equipment.

NPR ran a story this week describing a distinctly different female war effort, this one a positive input. Rather than merely fill an existing need for equipment, in Afghanistan women are changing the face of war through this novel mission. Women are actually effecting a different environment, moving the effort forward, and altering the method in which nations interact with an unprecedented attempt to wage war in an undeniably female way.

Though Afghan men were understandably hesitant to allow their women to interact with such alien females, NPR notes that the mission shows promise so far. In one notable drawback, female interpreters remain even scarcer than female Marines. Without a bevy of females appropriate to chat with conservative religious Afghanis, precious few Americans have successfully bonded with their counterparts, but Capt. Jennifer Gregoire, who heads the relationship-building team, notes that their success is “worth the wait”:

“This is going to be a slow process,” Gregoire says. “We have to understand when we go out, we might not get that contact that we want, that we have to establish a relationship. Because even if you really engage women at first, they might not give you the answers they mean, but the answers they think you are looking for.”

Gregoire and other proponents of the female-engagement teams believe such relationships are worth the wait. The Marines say similar teams in Iraq helped turn Sunni Muslim communities that once backed al-Qaida.

Relationship Building

Reading NPR’s report about female Marines on a relationship-building mission in central Afghanistan, I’m reminded of that line in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” where the wise Greek mother says: The man may be the head of the family, but the woman is the neck, and she can turn the head any way she wants. Indeed, while men provide testosterone-driven, aggressive tactics, women tend to look more quietly for subtle strategy. If female Marines can encourage Afghan women to turn the heads of their household away from aggression, this could change the landscape of the Middle East, and of war at large, forever.

Building female-based relationships may not be the most direct route to encouraging men to lay down their firearms, but it might be the most sustainable way to keep those arms lowered. Wise scholars have often cheekily pointed out that war is what happens when one or more nations decide that they want something more than they want peace.

Whether or not we classify the situation in Afghanistan as a “war,” the fact remains that we are occupying that country. American men and women are spending vast tracts of time away from their families, to take a terrible chance in a hostile environment.

We have not seen a major wartime innovation since the American Revolution, when we abandoned squared-off fighting stances in favor of armed men concealed and ready to ambush the Red Coats. While this strategy fared well in the eighteenth century, we have not enjoyed as much success in the past forty years of armed activity.

Evidently the American Marines are finally ready for innovation. Statistically women have long excelled at relationship building. Studies in business, marriage, and sports indicate that women tend to plan for longer-term relationships based on trust and reciprocity. While this tactic does not always yield paychecks as hefty as our male counterparts’, relationship building remains primarily the domain of the fairer sex.

A Fresh Slate

For foreign policy this new position for female soldiers suggests a shift from a policy of “peace through superior firepower” to a more sustainable relationship. Female soldiers have long encountered some resistance in their cadres. Wherever battle-weary groups gather in massive male-to-female ratios, lonely, frightened instincts will necessarily stumble upon tension more easily avoided at home.

With this new positive role for women in war, Rosie’s millennial cousin finds an unprecedented opportunity to leave a deep impact on intercultural relations. While many Afghan men remain deeply distrustful of towering American soldiers in their thick body armor and mirrored sunglasses, women have had little personal experience with Americans.

In a sense, we have a fresh slate with women in Afghanistan. Women with few preconceived notions about Americans have little reason not to engage with female Marines in building strategic alliances based on the trust and collaboration common to our gender, not limited to our culture.

What better time than the present to acknowledge a giant leap for lady-based strategy, on the surface of a nation that has proven so hostile to male tactics? How refreshing to shed a stagnant model in favor of innovation no country has tried before!

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