COMBAT OUTPOST SEMINOLE, Afghanistan - Cultural sensitivity poses challenges for Marines in Afghanistan - challenges that insurgents try to exploit.
“Due to the Afghan culture, our male Marines can’t talk to them, can’t search them. There is no interaction with the women whatsoever," said Cpl Anica Coate of the Female Engagement Team (FET). "They’re not even supposed to look at them.”
Coate and LCpl Brittany Rixon are part of the Female Engagement Team (FET) stationed in Combat Outpost Seminole in direct support of the 26 Marine Infantry Battalion. Their mission is to make connections with the local female populace.
“We can talk to the women and try and help them,” Coate said.
This includes going out into the villages and sitting down to talk with the women. The female Marines also can search the females if necessary.
“There’s been reports of men dressing up as women, so we can search the women to make sure they’re actually women,” says Coate. “They’ve also used women to transport weapons and drugs because they know the men can’t search them.”
The FET team also engages with the children. Today on the patrol, children form a close-knit circle around Rixon as she hands out candy. “So if you make good rapport with the children, they’re gonna grow up to be the next Afghan village elders,” Coate said.
Other exchanges are not as pleasant. During one conversation, a child smiles wickedly and taunts Rixon that his mother does not want to talk to her. Of course kids will be kids, no matter where you go.
After an hour in the village, the FET receives word that they will be allowed in a local home nearby. The FET uses the same approach with the women as the children, although they are aware that the women have greater influence, for now, than the kids.
“The women have a lot of influence on the family," Coate said, "and if we can set a positive examples for them, show them we’re here to help, they can influence their men to go for our side rather than the Taliban.”
At the house, the interpreter sits right outside the room behind a thick cloth hanging in the entrance. He sits outside because he is a male and cannot look at the women inside. Since female interpreters are hard to find, the Marine makes do with what they have. His accent and the barrier make it difficult to hear his words. Occasionally someone outside engages him in a conversation, and we have to wait for him to turn his attention back to us.
'They’re not in the Facebook era'
Visiting these Afghan women is like time travel. As one Marine back at the base put it, “They’re not in the Facebook era.”
No, they are still living without electricity or running water. The floors of their kitchens are still made of dirt and dust. They are cloaked with garments of scarves and long flowing blouses. The material is bright and glittery with silver and gold patterns.
I ask them if I can take their picture, but the man, who is perhaps someone’s husband, says no. I try to memorize their faces, the young woman with bright blue eyes and a wide smile of straight teeth. Her hair is black and straight, covered with cloth. The younger women are shy and turn their heads downward when I look at them.
They are living in a rental house, paying 5,000 Afghani (about $108 U.S. dollars), and they have problems paying the rent. They moved from the city of Marjah where the violence was too high.
As the women converse, I try to catch a hand movement, feet moving, but the young man keeps asking me to lower my camera so that all you can see is the dark, green carpet.
Although the FET asks questions directly to the women, the man standing in the corner listens intently to the conversation.
“Is there anything you need from us that we can help you with? Or do you have any questions?” Coate asks, and the tone of her voice suggests someone older than her 22 years, something other than a Marine with black tattoos running down her forearms.
With these women, she sounds more like a mother tending to a child or sister.
One of the girls is sick.
“What’s wrong? What kind of sick? Are you throwing up or fever?” Coate asks.
The girl has problems with headaches.
The woman asks for medicine. Coate tells her to go to the ANCop station where, a small outpost nearby where soldiers are stationed.
“What do you do here all day?” asks Rixon.
They spend their days sewing.
“The clothes belong to her children and because Ramadan will be done, it’s like a festival like Eid. On that day all the guys will wear new clothes,” says one of the women.
“Tell them they make beautiful clothes,” shouts Rixon as the interpreter is having trouble hearing over the conversation some men have started outside.
The women also ask if the FET can fix their sewing machine. “The machine is not working good,” says the older woman, and they only have one machine for the four of them.
Coate writes down their requests in her notebook and thanks the women for their time as the FET prepares to leave.
“If they want to tell us things they will, but if you don’t have a relationship with a family, they don’t really want to get into deep conversations,” Coate said. “So we just keep visiting until you can build a relationship with some of them.”
Morrison teaches photojournalism and multimedia reporting at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication in Eugene, Ore.
Bagby is a freelance multimedia journalist who spent 10 months embedded with the Oregon National Guard in Iraq for KVAL.com.