Thursday, July 29, 2010

Afghan women don't struggle alone

Afghan women face many challenges; cultural, societal and religious views create barriers that often prevent them from entering the work force, attending school or joining their military. The minority of women who do confront the status quo are faced with attitudes about women’s roles in society, discrimination and sexual harassment.

Currently there are 301 women serving in the Afghan National Army and just fewer than 1,000 in the Afghan National Police. While the ANA is on schedule to meet its overall recruiting goals of 134,000 by October 2010, the Ministry of Defense (in charge of the army) is struggling to fill the mandate of having women make up 10 percent of the army’s end strength.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to attend a women’s forum that was going to be hosted by a group of NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan mentors. The purpose was to try to improve conditions for women in the ANA by giving them an opportunity to meet with other women in the military and learn from their experiences. I haven’t seen a lot of female Afghan soldiers, so I was very interested in going; Rachel, one of my female co-workers, and I joined a group of U.S. military women on Sunday, along with another civilian journalist, Gayle Lemmon for the forum.

When we arrived, Afghan Gen. Khatool Mohammadzai was speaking to the crowd of about 60 women, both civilian and military. The women all had lots of stories of being passed over for promotion, or in the cases of the civilian women, not being allowed to join the military because their families didn’t approve. One woman in particular stood out to me; she stood up to speak, saying she had been working for the army for 20 years but in all that time, had never received a promotion or pay raise. With tears in her eyes and her voice cracking, she told that every time asked for a promotion, the men would ask for a kiss or say she had to spend the night with them.
During a break, I had a chance to interview General Mohammadzai, who has served in the ANA for 30 years, as a parachute instructor to education director at the ministry.

She told me that there are many hardships facing Afghan women today; families won’t let women join (they have to attend a two-week training which requires them to stay overnight at the training center, away from home) or people will say bad things about those who do join. I asked her if there were any plans to modify the training program so that women can attend but also leave at night to take care of their families – currently the police training allows women to leave at the end of each day. Mohammadzai didn’t directly answer the question, but rather told me that when she joined, people talked about her but she didn’t care. She said education and training was necessary for females and males and that they need to learn the same things.

“I didn’t receive this position the easy way, I work very hard. I’m very proud I’m alive right now to see women in the uniform,” Mohammadzai said, after telling me that during her early years in the parachute unit, she broke her hand and leg and lost teeth.

I interpreted her answer to mean no, training most definitely would not be adjusted and that women were going to have to continue to fight for their freedoms and rights. In a way I could understand her position – by giving in to pressure to accommodate the training schedule, it would somehow undermine the struggle and lessen the accomplishments a few women have fought so hard for. If women are demanding equal rights and freedoms, taking the easier path is almost like cheating.

“We started from zero, but we’re improving and creating a good facility for women. It has improved the last eight years,” she said. “Other countries have men and women in the military; Afghanistan should be the same.”

One of the American speakers, Marine Col. Sheila Scanlon sought to acknowledge the struggles they face, while praising the women for their courage and perseverance.

“You make many sacrifices just doing what you need to do for your families but when you serve your country, you have to make more sacrifices,” Scanlon said. “Even in the U.S., men say women do not belong in the Marines, but it hasn’t stopped us; it has made us stronger.”

Several of the American women who attended the forum had been influenced in some way by a woman challenging the standards. Some had mothers who joined the Marines or male-dominated career fields at a time when women were still new to the military, or like Colonel Scanlon, were paving their own way.
Air Force Capt. Stacy Eskridge, one of the forum organizers, has taken up the ANA women’s cause. She is also working to get women the use of a gym, daycare services, and computer classes; she has also helped start a women’s driving course that will begin after Ramadan.

While we ate lunch I got to chat with her about why she was helping; she was very passionate about helping these women, and took their advancement personally. Stacy told me that in many cases, even once a woman is able to join the army, the men in their units won’t let them do work; they are often made to make tea or clean offices.

“They didn’t join to serve chai, they joined to be in the military,” she said. “They don’t get to see very many females in the military, just each other, which is why is so important to have events like this. The same battle our mothers had is what they’re dealing with here.”

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