Iraq and Afghan Women in War and War Fiction

Sand QueenMy post last week about poetry written by Afghan women prompted one reader to ask me about fictional portraits of Afghan and Iraqi women and another to ask me about my own experiences with Afghan women during my deployment to Khost and Paktya provinces in 2008-2009. The first query can be answered quickly, for there aren’t many. In Sand Queen (2011) Helen Benedict features a young Iraqi woman named Naema. In The Watch (2012) Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya portrays a young Afghan woman named Nizam. In both novels, the women narrate their stories in first person in chapters that alternate with others that relate events from American point-of-views. In both novels, the young women have come to American bases or outposts to plead the case of relatives killed or captured by Americans. In Sand Queen, Naema wants to know what’s become of her father and brother, who have been imprisoned in Camp Bucca. In The Watch, Nizam wants the Americans to return the body of her The Watchbrother, a vaunted Pashtun jihadist, who has been killed in an attack on their compound. The Americans intend to evacuate Nizam’s brother’s corpse to Kabul to verify his identity and publicize his death.

Naema and Nizam are more intelligent, more mature, and more articulate than the Americans with whom they interact. Their integrity and sense of ethics are also superior. Through them, Benedict and Roy-Bhattacharya suggest how ill-equipped most American soldiers were for dealing with Iraq and Afghan nationals, especially women, with anything approaching subtlety and sensitivity. Stupidity and brutality more accurately describe things.

Short story authors Katey Schultz and Siobhan Fallon also occasionally portray “local national” women in their fiction. Benedict, Roy-Bhattacharya, Schultz, and Fallon are all civilians who never served in the military. In the fiction about Iraq and Afghanistan written by veterans, Iraq and Afghan women barely appear. Survey The Yellow Birds, Fobbit, Redeployment, and the Fire and Forget anthology and tell me what you find. Of recently published fiction by veterans, Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue includes a young Afghan woman as a secondary character, but not so much Jesse Goolsby’s I’d Walk With My Friends I Could Find Them and Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives. Benedict, Schultz, and Fallon are all women, but not all women authors are given to portraying “host nation” women. None appear in Sparta, They Dragged Them Through the Streets, Be Safe I Love You, or Eleven Days, all written by women. Male civilian authors are more of the same: no Iraq or Afghan women in the male-authored Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Wynne’s War, or The Apartment.

So that’s an interesting but not very impressive record. I salute the civilian authors who have made the imaginative stretch to portray war from the viewpoints of Iraqi and Afghan women. The veterans, I’m thinking, just don’t have much real-world experience to draw on, for most of us spent our year or years overseas without any meaningful contact with local women. Here’s the sum total of my experiences, and I went “outside the wire” four or five days a week, at least in the first eight months of my deployment, to interact with Afghan civilians in one capacity or another.

Every woman we saw on the roads of Khost province wore blue burqas that covered them from head-to-toe. When we passed them in our trucks, they would turn away from us and hunch down in a ball until we passed. This behavior outraged our interpreters. “Do you know why they are doing that?” they would ask, “It is because the Taliban is making them.” But the times we saw women on the street were few. On most missions, we only saw men. Stopping to speak with the women we did see was unimaginable.

We hosted a shura on our camp and one of the speakers was a woman politician of some fame in Afghanistan. I wish I remembered her name, because I wonder how she came to prominence and what’s become of her.  After the public shura, I was privy to an hour-long private meeting in which the woman-politician was the only female in a group of twelve (and I the only American). Her veil came off and she bantered back-and-forth, seemingly at ease, with the men, who also seemed to enjoy the occasion immensely.

A package bounced out of one of our trailers on a bumpy patch of road and was immediately picked up by a young Afghan male who carried it into a kalat. We stopped and sent our interpreter to retrieve the package. I watched as he was met at the door by a woman who vehemently denied that anything had happened. She and our interpreter jabbered back and forth for a few minutes and then the interpreter pushed past her into an interior room, retrieved the package and returned to our trucks.

Adolescent girls before maturity played on the streets without restraint, and it was heart-breaking to think about those obviously within a few months of disappearing behind the veil and kalat walls for the rest of their lives. We hosted weekly medical clinics on our camp and saw a steady stream of young girls there, but all were escorted to us by their fathers and older brothers, never their mothers and older sisters. My Afghan counterpart sometimes was visited by his seven-year-old daughter, who scampered about the office as a young girl would anywhere, alternately snuggling up to her father and then dancing across the room in peels of laughter. For a while, a young Afghan-American woman worked as an interpreter on our camp. We all liked her fine, but she had trouble relating to the Afghan officers. I think the problem was more that her command of Dari and Pashto were not great and also that she was demure by nature—a huge handicap in a nation made up of emotional and outspoken verbal combatants.

An ANA brigade commander, the governor of Khost, and the Khost police chief with a young girl in a downtown Khost ice cream shop.
An ANA brigade commander, the governor of Khost, and the Khost police chief with a young girl in a downtown Khost ice cream shop.

So that was it—pretty slim pickings, all-in-all, and though I’m sure we could have done better, the pickings were certainly even slimmer for rank-and-file soldiers. The men and women who served on Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which were charged with nation-building and humanitarian missions, had more significant interactions, but their numbers were few. NGOs had developed a network of women’s schools, clinics, and centers in they years after 9/11, but by the time I arrived most had closed, if not been blown up. Maybe more was happening in Kabul and inside the Green Zone in Iraq, but I wouldn’t know. Much has been made lately of the Cultural Support Teams made up of women who passed rigorous qualification tests to work with Special Operations units to facilitate their interactions with women. I don’t want to gainsay anything the women on these teams accomplished, and I look forward to finding out more about them, but accompanying Green Berets, SEALs, and Rangers on midnight missions to seize High Value Targets in my mind unfortunately doesn’t qualify as a significant and sustained engagement with the women of Afghanistan, and in any case the whole effort came at least five years too late. If there were feminine hearts-and-minds to be won, or important intelligence to be gained from the distaff side of Afghan and Iraq society, we didn’t do much to glean them. That’s good news for military wives worried about their husbands misbehaving downrange or falling in love with an Afghan or Iraqi beauty, but bad news for war writers interested in portraying the full range of citizenry in the lands in which we fought.

A girl at the Camp Clark clinic, 2009.  Picture by an International Security Force and Assistance Force photographer.
A girl at the Camp Clark clinic, 2009. Picture by an International Security Force and Assistance Force photographer.

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