Woman To Woman: A New Strategy In Afghanistan

Marine Lance Cpl.  Mary Shloss, left, talks with Afghan boys in Khwaji Jamal village. i i

hide captionMarine Lance Cpl. Mary Shloss, left, talks with Afghan boys in Khwaji Jamal village in southern Helmand province. She's a member of the Marines new female-engagement team that is trying to build relationships with Afghan women in the conservative and dangerous southern part of the country.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
Marine Lance Cpl.  Mary Shloss, left, talks with Afghan boys in Khwaji Jamal village.

Marine Lance Cpl. Mary Shloss, left, talks with Afghan boys in Khwaji Jamal village in southern Helmand province. She's a member of the Marines new female-engagement team that is trying to build relationships with Afghan women in the conservative and dangerous southern part of the country.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

In Afghanistan, new teams of female U.S. Marines are trying to do something very few Western troops have ever done: Converse with Afghan women.

It's a daunting goal. The sexes are strictly segregated across much of the country, with female residents kept indoors. Tradition forbids any man who isn't related to a woman to see her, let alone talk to her.

That goes doubly for Western men. But the U.S. Marines are hoping the villagers might make an exception for the female teams.

'The Door Was Closed Immediately'

On a recent afternoon, a group of Afghan boys notice something very different about a group of U.S. Marines walking through the village of Khawji Jamal in the southern province of Helmand — one of the country's most dangerous areas.

The Marines have colorful headscarves peeking out from under their helmets. Plus, they don't wear sunglasses, like Western men here often do.

One boy asks a Marine a question in Pashto. She replies that she's American. The Afghans laugh. They realize the Marine they are talking to is a woman.

A short ways away, Marine First Lt. Matt Pottinger approaches some older men.

"Does that bother you at all? Does that offend you at all that we have some of our women with us?" he asks.

"No, it's no problem," one man says in Pashto.

That's a good sign. So Pottinger tries again.

"OK, well, why don't we walk towards your home and we'll visit a couple of homes — and some of our women can give some medicine and hygiene products to your women," he says.

Marine Lance Cpl. Mary Shloss of Hammond, Ind., ties on her headscarf i i

hide captionShloss, of Hammond, Ind., ties on her headscarf with the help of Sgt. Monica Perez of San Diego. The headscarf, while not a regular part of the Marine uniform, is being worn to show the Afghans that Marines respect their Islamic belief.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
Marine Lance Cpl. Mary Shloss of Hammond, Ind., ties on her headscarf

Shloss, of Hammond, Ind., ties on her headscarf with the help of Sgt. Monica Perez of San Diego. The headscarf, while not a regular part of the Marine uniform, is being worn to show the Afghans that Marines respect their Islamic belief.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

The men balk. They say their women, who are nowhere to be seen, don't need help.

Deep in Taliban territory, Afghans don't want their women meeting American women. Not even culturally sensitive ones like these Marines, who cover their hair and necks with scarves.

It also doesn't help that the Marine interpreters are men.

First Lt. Victoria Sherwood is disappointed.

She says this is the most frustrating of the four times she's gone out to approach the women.

"The door was closed immediately," Sherwood says.

But she's happy her Marines get to talk to the male villagers.

"It's good for them to just observe the process of interacting with the community, using an interpreter, trying to take quick notes using shorthand — so, not a loss," Sherwood says.

Worth The Wait

Sherwood and other Marines with the female-engagement teams in Helmand province exhibit a lot of optimism and patience.

Besides the chronic shortage of female interpreters, they must overcome centuries of mistrust that Afghans have in foreigners. Then there's the added hurdle of needing Afghan men's permission before they can speak to their women.

First Lt. Victoria Sherwood of Woodbury, Conn. briefs her team of female Marines in Afghanistan. i i

hide captionFirst Lt. Victoria Sherwood of Woodbury, Conn. briefs her team of female Marines before they head on a mission to meet with Afghan women in the village of Khwaji Jamal in Helmand province. They hope to build a relationship with women in the conservative and dangerous, Taliban-strongholds of southern Afghanistan.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
First Lt. Victoria Sherwood of Woodbury, Conn. briefs her team of female Marines in Afghanistan.

First Lt. Victoria Sherwood of Woodbury, Conn. briefs her team of female Marines before they head on a mission to meet with Afghan women in the village of Khwaji Jamal in Helmand province. They hope to build a relationship with women in the conservative and dangerous, Taliban-strongholds of southern Afghanistan.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

Capt. Jennifer Gregoire heads the teams that were established two months ago.

"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.

Not that all Iraqi and Afghan women they've encountered accept the female Marines. These American women wear military uniforms, carry guns and work with men they aren't related to, which is hard for many women in conservative Islamic societies to grasp.

Cpl. Sarah Furrer, who has also served in Iraq, says the women she's met are surprised that she — at 24 — isn't married and doesn't have kids.

"They also actually once had an Iraqi man try to buy me," Furrer says. "He wanted to buy me as a wife. So that was a little strange. It hasn't happened here yet."

One More Chance

Back in Khawji Jamal village, the light is waning. It's time for the Marines to go.

But Lt. Sherwood notices an old woman making her way across a field. She hurries over with an interpreter

"Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?" Sherwood says.

The old woman agrees. Her name is Nazoo. She holds Sherwood's hand and calls her "sister."

Nazoo says she feels safe here, although the Taliban drove her family out of their hometown.

But the conversation is cut short by a male relative who approaches. He shoos Nazoo away, yelling: "What are you doing here? Let's go home!"

Sherwood sadly watches the old woman go.

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