Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Women hold up half the sky even in Afghanistan ?

March 9, 2010
(Women in Kandahar province. By Baz Ratner)
(Women in Kandahar province. By Baz Ratner)

Back in 2002, onlookers would often gather outside the U.S. military headquarters in Bagram in Afghanistan, watching women soldiers in full battle gear sitting on top of vehicles on guard duty at the entrance to the base.

For a deeply conservative society such as Afghanistan, it was a novel sight to watch women in such a role, more so coming soon after the harsh regime of the Taliban. From time to time, the women would get annoyed and holler to the men hanging around and staring at them:  “Back off. Haven’t you seen a woman ever?”

Getting into the base off and on, I often wondered what was the idea of posting women soldiers right at the entrance, since it only underlined the vast cultural gulf between the two societies.

Anyway, fast forward to 2010,  women members of the U.S. Marine Corps are going to be at the front end of the renewed push to win the hearts and minds of the Afghans. They will be launched into Afghan homes to try and win over the rural women, according to a report in The New York Times. You can’t gain the trust of  the population if  you talk to only half of it, is the argument for this outreach to Afghan women.

Beginning next month small units of the female marines will accompany the men on their patrol in Helmand, one of Afghanistan’s most violent provinces. The teams will meet Afghan women in their homes, assess their need for help, and gather intelligence. Hopefully, winning the  women’s goodwill  could make Afghans, both men and women, less suspicious of American troops. For, women hold half the sky even in Afghanistan.

Once inside an Afghan compound, the Marines have been instructed to remove the ‘battle rattle” of body armour and helmets, and in a nod to local custom, swap the helmet for a scarf.

The other do’s and don’ts: Don’t start by firing off questions, break the ice by playing with the children and don’t let the interpreter hijack the conversation.


Everything that western women are fighting for is undermined if the U.S. female marines put scarves on their heads – totally unbelievable as it is the ultimate symbol of oppression. It has nothing to do with respect; for those who would argue this point. Many Islamic scholars acknowledge it has nothing to do with the Koran or the teachings of Islam and everything to do with the oppression of women.

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