13 March 2015

Afghan Police Women

By Dixon Hill

A recent article in the New York Times, about problems faced by Afghan police women, has me considering some problems I ran into when I worked in the army.

Since the problems mentioned in the news story are faced by women police officers, I felt the story fit into our framework here on SleuthSayers.

And, since I've dealt a bit with somewhat similar cross-cultural training problems -- trying to change the way that certain foreign troops viewed women -- I feel a deep sympathy with the women in the NY Times story, and for those striving valiantly to change cultural norms that can be quite harmful to women or even to men or children.  And I feel great concern about the difficulties encountered by the women in question.
Spec-4 Collar Rank Insignia

101st Shoulder Patch
The "Screaming Eagle"
The first time I ran into the dilemma of attempting to aid foreign males to change their views of females, I was a Spec-4 (Short for Specialist 4th Grade: the pay-grade equivalent of a corporal, but without any real leadership authority -- sort of a de facto Private 1st Class-'Plus') working for the 311th Military Intelligence Battalion, subordinate to the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).

Two Middle-Eastern officers came out to our field site, one day, to see how we conducted collection and analysis under field conditions.  Our Company Executive Officer (XO), a First Lieutenant, led them to the tent where the analysis element was working.  The XO had the female analyst come out and explain the procedure to the visiting officers.

Crest of the 311th MI BN
I was along on this exercise, not really as an analyst, but rather as a truck driver and 'chogi boy'. However, because I was an Arabic Linguist, and had studied Arabic culture to an extent -- also learning much first-hand from listening to what my native-Arabic instructors said and by watching how they behaved -- I was not surprised when a quick look of frustrated anger flashed across both men's faces. Nor was I shocked, when their eyes almost immediately glazed over and they clearly quit paying attention to the female Spec-4 who was briefing them.

After the two foreign officers departed, our furious XO returned and fumed aloud about the rude behavior of the two foreign officers.

Finally, the Sergeant First Class who ran the "beans and bullets" of the unit on this exercise (and was also an Arabic linguist) blurted: "Sir, with all due respect: What did you expect?  You insulted them!  In their minds, your actions made it very clear that they were so unimportant, and such an unwelcome interruption, that you chose a 'non-person'  tell them what they wanted to know."  (Please note that such outbursts don't happen in most military units, but I've noticed that they are strangely common, and relatively well-tolerated, in some military intelligence units.)

Now please don't misunderstand why I chose to post this particular story.

I'm not saying that what happened between that Spec-4 and those two officers was right.  And, frankly, I wasn't happy about it either.  On the other hand, I think the XO (who was actually quite intelligent, and a good officer -- not a comment I've ever made lightly!) probably did get caught-out by a mistake in cross-cultural communications.

I say probably, because it depends on the objective he had in mind.  As I said: he was pretty bright.  So he might have done it on purpose.

Certainly, if his goal was to help those two officers get a good look at the technical aspects of how we did our work, then yes the XO made a mistake.  Because they didn't pay attention to the female specialist, so they didn't gain that knowledge.

But, if you think about it: probably one of the most important things those two foreign officers could learn about U.S. Army operations -- which their army could benefit from -- would be the manner in which we incorporate females into our operations.

What happened that day probably didn't change their minds about the role of females in society, but I think you'll agree that they did get a pretty big shock when that lieutenant brought out that female Spec-4 to brief them.

And they had a US Army captain tagging along with them, looking after them.  My hope is that they complained to him about what happened, and that he explained the way our army looked at females and their capabilities.  The way I figure it, if stuff like that kept happening to these two officers -- and the captain kept explaining -- they might have begun to get the message.  They might not have welcomed that message.  And it still might not have made much difference in their personal lives, because their outlook was undoubtedly deeply held and part of the culture they grew up in.  But at least it would be a start.  Maybe those guys got the shock of their lives, that day.  But, maybe it was the first step on their mental trip to learning a new way of thinking.

Working to change cultural norms is like that, in my opinion.  It's not something that can be accomplished overnight.  Sometimes not within a decade or more.  (Look at the changes in societal norms that our own nation has undergone since the 1960's, and compare this to the work that still needs to be done before certain members of our society will rest secure in unquestioned complete equality, for example.)  And, sometimes folks require a little "shock" to help them wake up and smell the coffee.

I used such a shock technique several years later, after I'd gotten into Special Forces.  That, however, is a story for another time, or this post will wind up so long that I'll have to get an agent in order to post it.

Suffice it to say, I have good idea of the frustrations those working to promote the concept and implementation of women police officers working standard shifts in Afghanistan are dealing with.  And, I worry that programs such as these can fall through the cracks, and are thus sometimes not at the forefront of peoples' minds when considering the pros and cons of US troop deployment and redeployment.  The New York Times is covering the story quite well, and you can see the first article about the situation if you CLICK HERE

See you in two weeks!


  1. U.S. military culture has come a long way - and has a ways to go. See link below: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/03/13/inside-ft-hood-s-prostitution-ring.html
    Arab cultures haven't come nearly as far (I know that's painting with a broad brush), but pushing water uphill with a rake is the only way to go. I understand the perceived insult, and I also think incremental exposure is necessary. I don't think it serves any purpose to mitigate cultural sensitivities, e.g., having the female enlisted wear a hijab for said briefing? The issue for women Afghan cops is starker: they're targeted for assassination. We can piss and moan about this, but it's their fight, and inch by bloody inch, they're making themselves seen and heard. I don't have any prescription for challenging long-held belief systems, and I share Dix's frustration, but we just keep pushing. What else are we going to do, roll over and play dead? This is surrender to the mullahs of every stripe, in the so-called First World and elsewhere.

  2. Dix, nice post. I think it becomes a matter of getting used to and finally finding a way of acceptance.

    In the early 1970's, BNDD (later to become DEA) started having female agents. The Group Supervisors didn't know what to do with them. They wanted to protect the female agents, but also knew the females had to perform certain tasks in certain dangerous situations if they were to be eligible for promotion.
    As for us male agents in the field, we went with strengths and weaknesses. If you were taking down a door, we usually designated the strongest agent for the job, usually a male. Time matters on a raid. And we soon found that having a female agent along in an undercover situation made it easier to do business. The other side relaxed more. Plus, if you needed to do a body search on a female suspect during an arrest, it went better if you had a female agent there. Like I said, strengths and weaknesses, whether they were male or female. Figure them out to make the team as a whole stronger.
    Now, the current Director of DEA is a female who came up through the ranks. That's got to be an interesting set of circumstances when some of those Middle Eastern type countries send their drug officials to Washington, DC to meet with the DEA Director.

  3. Once in my "War in World History" class, I had a guy who was bitching & moaning about women in the military. Well, the class was 1/3 ex-servicemen and 1/3 ex-servicewomen, and the 2/3rds of them took him downtown, very effectively. I can only imagine what being an Afghani policewoman would be like...

  4. A good piece!

  5. Wonderful and clever article, Dixon. And I look forward to the other story!

  6. In the early 1990s, I was a bank manager close to the airport in Toronto. People immigrating would get off the plane and go directly to my bank. You can't imagine the problems I had with men from certain cultures. They simply would not talk to me, the bank manager. I would have to get one of my assistants (male) to handle their accounts.
    I wonder if they men reading this comment here today can imagine the effect this would have on a very young woman.
    Great post, Dixon.


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