One by one, each smartly uniformed member of the class stood at full attention, brandished a graduation certificate and uttered the ritual call-out: “I will serve Afghanistan!”
But for the first time, the proud group of newly commissioned army officers was made up entirely of women. The 29 second lieutenants were the first female recruits to complete a 20-week officer-candidate program mentored by U.S. troops.
Their graduation ceremony this week at a sprawling training facility on Kabul’s eastern outskirts marked a milestone for Afghan security forces and spoke volumes about the complex interplay here of gender roles and security demands.
The drive to bring Afghan security forces up to a reasonable fighting standard has taken on added urgency; their role is considered central to the U.S. exit strategy. Western officials hope that in three years, Afghan soldiers and police officers will assume the lead role in safeguarding the country.
For that, women are badly needed, not only for culturally sensitive tasks such as entering homes and dealing directly with the women present, or carrying out body searches on other women. They also are expected to fill out the ranks as the armed forces embark on a concerted expansion.
But in a society where religious, social and tribal taboos color every aspect of daily life, women in uniform — in this case, dark-green belted jackets and trousers, with black head scarves beneath wide-billed caps trimmed with gold braid — remain an anomaly.
Women account for a tiny fraction of both the police and army, even after almost a decade of intensive nurturing by U.S. and other foreign forces. Only a few hundred women serve in the army. But the goal that women eventually will make up 10% of a force that is slated to grow to nearly 300,000.
Many of the women who have joined the security forces, particularly those from rural areas, face intense opposition from family, community elders and sometimes from the men they serve alongside.
These new graduates are well-educated for an army in which as many as 70% of the recruits are illiterate. All of them have finished high school and a few hold college degrees. They will not be deployed in battle, where Afghan police officers and soldiers suffer high casualty rates in the fight against the Taliban and other insurgents. Instead, they will take administrative jobs in logistics and finance.
But as in most war zones, military support personnel can also find themselves in harm’s way. And even behind the lines, there is no hiding from Afghanistan’s male-dominated culture. It remains to be seen whether the Afghan army’s dedication to gender inclusiveness will survive the departure of Western trainers, in whose home countries it is a given that greater opportunities for women strengthen society as a whole. It is unclear whether pay for female officers will match that of male officers of equal rank.
After weeks of training and confidence-building exercises, one of the new graduates blushed to the roots of her hair when asked what she would do if a male soldier challenged her authority.
Women made earlier inroads in the Afghan national police, but are often relegated to somewhat menial jobs.
One of the new officers in Thursday’s graduating class confided that with men in virtually all supervisory roles in the army, it was an open secret that good looks would play a big part in the assignment they would receive. But the same young officer also said that as she rose through the ranks, as she expected to do, she would try to help other women along.
For the pioneering female officer candidates, the physical training was a huge hurdle. Literally.
In all but a few big cities, it’s unusual for Afghan women to undertake any kind of exercise regimen, aside from the backbreaking physical labor performed by village women. There are a few women-only gyms, but it would be unheard of, for example, for an Afghan woman to jog on an urban street.
“Most of them could barely do a push-up with their knees bent when they started out,” said Capt. Janis Lullen, a reservist with the Oklahoma City-based 95th Training Division. Now, she said with considerable satisfaction, “they can drop and give me 20.”
For such drills to be held, it was essential to ensure privacy from prying — that is to say masculine — eyes. Overseen by women drill instructors, the officer candidates worked out and attended classes in a “female-pure” compound in downtown Kabul.
A new facility is being constructed for them at the main Kabul Military Training Center, and the next women’s officer-candidate class is expected to be five times the size of this one.
Like the army as a whole, the class included members of Afghanistan’s varied ethnic groups. However, there are more Tajiks and Hazaras than Pashtuns, the ethnic group from which the Taliban is mostly drawn, and which often hews to a more conservative social code.
As so often happens in Afghanistan, what appears to be an advance for women is simply a matter of regaining rights once freely enjoyed.
Twenty years ago, it was not uncommon for women to hold top ranks in the Afghan military. But during the ferocious civil war of the early 1990s, followed by the five-year reign of the Taliban movement, women could barely leave home, let alone hold positions of authority outside it.
Though some recruits wrestle with relatives’ disapproval — the four women who dropped out of this class all cited family problems, trainers said — some receive warm support, even from fathers and husbands.
Jamila Amiri, a 29-year-old mother of five from Parwan province, north of the capital, was hugged and congratulated by her trainers as her husband looked on, beaming.
“This is one of my most happy days ever,” she said, wiping her eyes and clutching a spray of flowers.
Graduation day also meant a lot to the trainers.
“They were shy at first, but then so eager,” said Staff Sgt. Rebekah Martinez, another reservist trainer. “To think of where they came from, what they’ve dealt with in their lives, and how dedicated they are, to me, it’s inspirational.”