By Monica Campbell
It's morning at a small Marine base in southern Afghanistan. Sheena Adams, a young female Marine sergeant, drags herself out of a sleeping bag, grabs her muddy boots and steps out of her tent. She's part of a Female Engagement Team (FET), a small group of women Marines who join their male counterparts on patrol.
And they do more as well.
Adams, a 25-year-old from Hawaii, and two other female Marines form an FET, a first-time experiment by the Marines in Afghanistan to let women join all-male patrols on the frontlines. Their mandate: push the counterinsurgency envelope by winning over Afghan women and children.
For Adams and her small team, the challenges are enormous. First, they're in war-torn Helmand Province. So they carry weapons, wear body armor and must be ready to fight like any male Marine. But they also get the chance to do something their male counterparts never do, talk to local women in a part of Afghanistan where females rarely leave the home — much less talk to Americans.
"The culture is completely different here," said Adams. "We do get to talk to the women here, but it's very seldom and you never see them out."
To reach the women, the Marines must spend enough time in a village for the Afghans to feel comfortable with them. Getting into living rooms and kitchens — places where male Marines are strictly forbidden — is another trick. The Afghan women have to ask a male relative for permission to let the Americans pass through the high mud walls that surround homes here. Once inside, the female Marines must quickly break the ice.
"We have to see their compound and be, like, you have a lovely home, you know," Adams said. "We'll ask them what their names are, we'll ask them how many kids, we'll talk to them about their families. They tend to get really excited. And then if we have pictures on us, of husbands or kids or whatever, we'll show them."
Adams said that talking with the Afghan women can range from the usual worries a mom has about getting her kids food and medicine, to the more personal.
"We had another one, she was 20 maybe, her husband was 50," Adams said. "She was on her third kid, she was pregnant, and she's like, yeah, 'I need an injection to be able to have more kids because I want to be the favorite wife. The more kids I have the better.' They fight for that attention."
Insights like that into family dynamics are rare for the Marines to get. The goal is to listen to these concerns and bond as women. That way, the Marines hope, they'll make connections to help them root out insurgents and build for the future.
But it's not easy. For Afghans here, speaking to either side of the war — the Marines or the Taliban-led insurgents — can be deadly.
On another patrol, Adams and her team try to expand their reach to women by meeting with the village's only female doctor. She's willing to work with the Marines on a midwife training project. Afghanistan's maternal mortality rate is one of the worlds highest.
After several cups of tea with the Afghan man who owns the clinic, Adams politely asks permission to see the female doctor. She gets a meeting but it's kept extremely brief. Curtains are kept drawn so that the male Marines standing guard outside can't see the doctor.
"I know they're looking for women to teach midwife classes," Adams asked. "Would you be interested in teaching any other women in the area how to maybe help you, or ones that are further out to come in to learn?"
The doctor agreed to train midwives and thanks the female Marines for their visit.
"Overall the meeting was good," Adams said. "And her being that open to us was really good for us."
But it's too soon to know whether the doctor will be able to keep her word. While she can be empowered to train other women, everyone here also knows that meeting the Marines may trigger a threat by the insurgents — a threat that could force her to flee the village.
A few days later, the female Marines launch their most ambitious project in the village: opening a tiny school that would welcome girls. For months, Adams talked to parents about the idea.
On the first day of school, the female Marines beam with pride as four little girls wrapped in green shawls enter the classroom. The Marines quickly hand them backpacks as gifts. But soon enough, tribal elders become uneasy. Even the teacher — a literate Afghan security guard who kept his Kalashnikov at hand while he taught — isn't convinced that his village is ready for female students.
The Taliban don't even want a school for boys, he said, much less one that accepts girls. So parents will be scared to bring their kids here.
Eventually, the girls are asked to leave the school. Adams remains enthusiastic.
"At least they got to sit in there for a little bit, so I'm happy about that," Adams said.
But it's clear that Adams and her team hit a wall. Girls in the classroom here is too much too soon. So while the female Marines may get unprecedented access to Afghan living rooms, for the time being Afghanistan's close-knit — and extremely patriarchal society — will still determine how much the women Marines can accomplish.