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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Now the core part of the mission in Afghanistan is protecting civilians. U.S. Marines in Southern Afghanistan are facing a daunting challenge: how to even talk to the women there. Especially in conservative villages, the sexes are strictly segregated, with female residents kept indoors. Tradition forbids any man who isn't related to a woman to see her, much less talk to her. That goes doubly for Western men. The Marines are hoping the villagers might make an exception for female Marines.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson recently accompanied these women Marines on a mission in one of the country's most dangerous areas: the southern province of Helmand.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: These Afghan boys notice something very different about a group of U.S. Marines walking through the village of Khwaji Jamal on a recent afternoon. The Marines have colorful headscarves, peeking out from under their helmets. Plus they don't wear sunglasses, like Western men here often do.

Unidentified Child: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Child: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter)

NELSON: 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.

Unidentified Man #3: Everything blurry?

Unidentified Man #4: Good.

Unidentified Man #3: Is that right?

NELSON: A short ways away, Marine First Lieutenant Matt Pottinger approaches some older men.

First Lieutenant MATT POTTINGER (Marine, U.S. Army): Does that bother you at all? Does that offend you at all that we have some of our women with us?

Unidentified Man #5: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #6: Yeah. No, it's no problem.

NELSON: That's a good sign. So, Pottinger tries again.

First Lt. POTTINGER: Okay, 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 some hygiene products to your women.

NELSON: The men balk. They say their women, who are nowhere to be seen, don't need help. Here, 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 Lieutenant Victoria Sherwood is disappointed.

So, of the four times you've gone out, this one is the most difficult or frustrating?

(Soundbite of laughter)

First Lieutenant VICTORIA SHERWOOD (Marine, U.S. Army): Yes, definitely.

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

First Lt. SHERWOOD: It's good for them just to observe the process and everything with communities, using interpreters, trying to take quick notes, using shorthand, so not a loss.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NELSON: She and other Marines with the female engagement teams here 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. Captain Jennifer Gregoire heads the teams that were established two months ago.

Captain JENNIFER GREGOIRE (U.S. Army): This is going to be a slow process. Please understand that, you know, the first time that we go out, we might not get the contact that we want, that we have to establish a relationship. Because even if you engage women at first, they might not give you the answers that they mean, but the answers that they think you're looking for.

NELSON: She 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NELSON: Back in Khwaji Jamal village, the light is waning. It's time for the Marines to go. But Lieutenant Sherwood notices an old woman making her way across the field. She hurries over with an interpreter.

First Lt. SHERWOOD: Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?

NAZU(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #7: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: The old woman agrees.

NAZU: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Her name is Nazu. She holds Sherwood's hand and calls her sister. Nazu says she feels safe here, although the Taliban drove her family out of their hometown.

Unidentified Man #7: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: The conversation is cut short by a male relative who approaches. He shoos Nazu away, yelling: What are you doing here? Let's go home. Sherwood sadly watches the old woman go.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, reporting from Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

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