The Afghan army is training women special force units to take part in night raids against insurgents, breaking new ground in an ultraconservative society and filling a vacuum left by departing international forces.
“If men can carry out this duty why not women?” asks Lena Abdali, a 23-year-old Afghan soldier who was one of the first women to join a special unit in 2011.
Night raids have long been a divisive issue between Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who doesn’t want foreign troops entering Afghan homes, and the U.S.-led coalition that says the raids are essential to capturing Taliban commanders.
Many Afghans, however, have complained that the house raids are culturally offensive. Having men search Afghan women is taboo. So is touching a family’s Koran or entering a home without being invited. Another focus of anger has been the disregard for privacy and Afghan culture because women and children are usually home during the raids.
The raids now are conducted jointly by U.S. and Afghan forces, but the women Afghan special forces soldiers play an important role. Their job: round up women and children and get them to safety while guarding against the potential dangers of women suicide bombers or militants disguised in women’s clothes.
The missions have taken on increasing importance and the Afghan government and the U.S.-led coalition have stepped up training of the Afghan special forces as international troops prepare to end their combat mission in 23 months.
Afghan women have been part of their nation’s security forces for years, but they didn’t start being recruited for the special forces until 2011. Defence Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi said more than 1,000 women were in the army — a small fraction of the total force of 195,000.
The role of female soldiers also has come under debate in the United States after the Pentagon decided last month to open up front-line combat jobs to women.
The military advantages to having Afghan women special forces soldiers, however, have not yet offset the social issues women like Ms. Abdali face.
A woman conducting night raids with male soldiers in a conservative country like Afghanistan is still not socially acceptable. Before she starts to fight the enemy in military operations she has to struggle with her family, relatives and others who might disapprove.
Ms. Abdali said that while she hides her occupation from many family members because of security concerns, she is proud to fulfill a duty she feels is important to her homeland.
“If I will not come and put my life in danger for the women and culture in Afghanistan, then who will do this?” she asked.
Ms. Abdali wears a traditional Afghan headscarf under her helmet, but otherwise she is clad in an army uniform and heavy flak jacket just like the men. Her weapon and equipment is heavy, but she runs with it along the peaks of snow-covered mountains, unpaved roads under the hot summer sun and on rugged paths in remote areas of the country.
“Women must show their bravery and power by carrying out this duty as men do,” Ms. Abdali said as she loaded her weapon to take part in a drill.