For Women, By Women
(May 4, 2011)
|FORWARD OPERATING BASE URGUN-E, Afghanistan (AFNS -
4/29/2011) -- I have served in the military just shy of a
decade. The military has taught me how to find my footing in
a traditionally male environment. To that extent, I have
rarely felt like an outsider simply because I am a woman. I
never would have considered this to be a luxury -- that is,
not until I began deploying. |
I am not a novice
traveler. I have journeyed all over Europe and parts of
Central America. I felt comfortable with the knowledge that
each culture allowed slight differences between the genders.
While I grew up around different races and cultures, I never
gave much thought to what it took to live a relatively
peaceful existence among all these differences.
Feminism in America has opened those doors and torn down all
barriers for women well before my time. I have never truly
grasped the meaning of overcoming those barriers.
Afghanistan taught me just how much impact they would
actually have on me.
I was unprepared for the
segregation of men and women that I found in Afghanistan on
my first deployment in 2006. In some places, you would see
clusters of women cloaked in burqas or scarves moving in
unison, or I would see a single woman sheltered by two or
three men. In some places, I was convinced that the place
was completely devoid of a female population. When I would
go to recruiting centers or shuras, I was usually the only
woman. The confusion or irritation my presence would cause
never failed to baffle me.
I was always "one of the
boys" growing up. I was a tomboy, to say the least. I didn't
discover makeup until my senior year in high school thanks
to my older sister, and I preferred lacrosse to
cheerleading. My dad taught me how to box, and I was raised
on the principal that if my sister came home with a black
eye, I better have one, too.
My childhood memories
seemed so normal to me, but Afghanistan taught me the lesson
of luxury in things I had taken as commonplace. I never
would have thought that laughing with a man who was not my
father, brother or husband is taboo. I never would have
thought that going to a school filled with boys was not the
norm. I became very aware then how much our worlds differed.
In many ways, I finally found my place among women when
I went to Afghanistan. Afghan men immediately throw up a
wall when a woman is around, and, many times, they will
speak to a lower ranking man rather than me. It was very
disturbing to me at first. Through interaction with the
women, I felt accepted and dignified in a way that I just
never felt among the Afghan men.
Whenever I would
climb out of a Humvee, it would always cause a sensation
because the crowd's attention would hone in on my blonde
hair peaking out from beneath my helmet. Even as I became
the center of attention to curious little boys saying,
"Mister, mister," I immediately tuned in to the young girls
who would sneak a look at me or the women who would openly
The women's eyes saw through the pretense of
being a soldier and saw just see me as a girl. It became
such an honor to see a woman or young girl smile at me. It
was a shared smile of secret meaning. It seemed to say to
me, "You're one of us." Once, when I visited an internally
displaced persons camp, a woman allowed me to hold her baby.
She threw back the front of her burqa and revealed a smile
to me. Once the men came over, the veil immediately fell,
and the magic of sharing that moment between women was
Through my deployments here, I have seen how
far things have come along. It seems that women are
beginning to gain a more solid footing in the traditionally
male environment every year.
It was on my latest
assignment that I took my place in history by attending a
women's shura. It was the first all-female meeting in
Paktika province since NATO forces liberated Afghanistan.
The province, bordering Pakistan and a long-time Taliban
stronghold, was cloaked in fear of retaliation if they took
an active role in restoring their government and securing
their freedoms. To that end, the coalition forces have made
amazing progress in helping give the Afghans back their
Many provinces in Afghanistan have been able
to hold women's shuras already, but they are typically
places in which there is less threat of Taliban retaliation.
Here, the women know the risks yet are still willing to
fight for their right to become active in daily affairs.
Because of the cultural sensitivities, a female
engagement team was created to act as liaisons between the
local women and influential female Afghan representatives.
In order to get a glimpse of this special meeting, an
all-female combat camera team was required.
deployment, my main role is as a correspondent. However,
without a female photographer on hand, I was dual-hatted and
assumed the role of photographer as well. Staff Sgt. Amanda
Helton is a combat aerial videographer, and together we were
able to provide a full compliment of imagery and print for
this event's coverage. Hopefully, we can give the outside
world an inside look at the struggles the Afghans are slowly
It seems amazing to me that this
opportunity gave me the chance to live a first: being a part
of an all-female Afghan shura hosted by an all-female
military engagement team, covered by an all-female combat
Through the years, I have seen the
impact our military is having on the people of Afghanistan.
I have learned that I am not here to change their culture
and Westernize it. Even though our mission is to teach
Afghans how to overcome their struggles, I learned just how
lucky I am to be an American. The freedoms I enjoy, and
serve to protect, are luxuries that I never want to see
taken from me, both as a person and a woman.
By USAF TSgt. Stacia Zachary|
AFCENT Combat Camera Correspondent
Air Force News
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