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Female Engagement Teams in Afghanistan: Reaching Afghan Women or American Men?

In Afghanistan, Women on May 30, 2010 at 7:31 pm

Corporal Gardner giving medicine to an Afghan woman, while her translator remains behind the wall. Photo NYT.

In today’s New York Times, Elizabeth Bumiller writes an article profiling “women’s engagement teams,” two and three member units of female Marines sent to Southern Afghanistan with the goal of reaching (and, of course, winning the hearts and minds of) Afghan women.  (See photos of those efforts here.)

The ethical questions pertaining to the apparent goal of “saving Afghan women” (as well as collecting intelligence) that arise from such an endeavor are many, but perhaps a less palpable question is this one: why does it take a gender-specific goal in order for American female marines to be able to serve in Helmand in roles other than cooks or engineers?

Females make up only 6.2% of the Marine Corps, though recently there has been greater effort to recruit them, and there are only a few combat jobs in which they are permitted to partake.  Their inclusion in only this capacity begs one to ask whether the Marine Corps values a female marine’s utility in Afghanistan as limited to only her sex.

The article delves into the ambiguity of the female engagement teams’ effectiveness in “reaching” Afghan women through providing medical assistance and services to women who might not otherwise be accessible to American men, but the success of their outreach is more apparent when considering the attitudes of some of the all-male infantry patrols with whom they are attached, which Bumiller explores more in depth through a post in the Times’ “At War” blog.

“I think the infantry in me will have a very hard time ever accepting that I’m going to rush against the enemy and there’s going to be a female right next to me,’’ said Capt. Scott A. Cuomo, 32, a company commander of 270 Marines in central Helmand and a strong supporter of the female engagement teams. “Can she do it? Some might. I don’t know if this sounds bad, but I kind of look at everything through my wife. Is that my wife’s job? No. My job is to make sure my wife is safe.’’

The potential for a positive change in gender dynamics internally seems stronger with the inclusion of these female marines, particularly if they were to serve in combat alongside men, but the goals behind these female engagement teams remain complicated and morally ambiguous.  As a very small example, I leave you with a lovely photo of a female marine “reaching” a young Afghan girl.

Corporal Gardner smoking next to an Afghan girl. Photo NYT.

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