Leading Ladies: Adhamiyah women join Volunteer Guard Force
Monday, 15 October 2007
BAGHDAD — In a well-lit meeting room in a government building in the Iraqi capital, 20 Iraqi women were sitting in a circle, intently watching the demonstration in the center of the room. They were dressed modestly but with some flair: bright pink and blue headscarves mixed in among the black chadors, chunky, designer purses resting on the floor beneath their seats.
The friendly, casual atmosphere in the room looked similar to a suburban book-club meeting, or maybe a Mary-Kay cosmetics party. Except that these women were not learning how to apply foundation, they were learning how to lock and load an AK-47.
“Who can show me how to do it?” asked the instructor, an Iraqi Army sergeant, holding up the weapon.
One of the women jumped up and took the automatic rifle, expertly disassembled it and put it back together. When she cocked it by loudly slamming the charging handle back, the rest of the women applauded.
They might well have been applauding themselves. As members of the first class of female security volunteers in Adhamiyah, all 51 women in the class were groundbreakers. The women will join hundreds of male residents that are already helping secure Adhamiyah by guarding important public sites like schools, hospitals, and government buildings.
The four-day course running from Oct. 8 to Oct. 11 was organized by the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, and taught by U.S. and Iraqi Soldiers. The training focused on security procedures, proper search techniques, and weapons familiarization.
“I think it shows these women that, ‘I, too, can make a difference in my community,” said Los Angeles native, 2nd Lt. Lauren Cabral, the officer in charge of the training.
The necessity to have female security guards became clear earlier this month when a female suicide bomber was able to enter a public building without being searched in nearby Fadhil and blew her explosive vest up, killing several people, said Maj. Ike Sallee, the 3-7 Cav.’s operations officer.
“Insurgents can come in any size, shape, or gender,” Sallee said.
In Iraq, cultural sensitivities preclude men from searching women. But there is nothing stopping a woman from searching another woman. For that reason, it was important to give women in Adhamiyah the chance to assist with the security effort.
“It’s their lives that are in danger, too,” said Kalamazoo, Mich., native, Pfc. Paula Cook, a military policewoman with the 108th Military Police Company and one of the instructors in the class.
In a culturally conservative society like Iraq’s, there are some who might criticize the female security volunteers for stepping outside their traditional roles. But Mervat Hussein, a single mother enrolled in the class, said no one has the right to criticize the women for trying to protect their community.
“What is the substitute they have? Nothing,” Hussein said. “Should we just stay in our houses, suffering?”
However, while women like Hussein had the motivation to take part in security efforts, they lacked the know-how. The class was designed to remedy that by giving them a basic, working knowledge of several skill areas they will need in order to be effective as security volunteers.
Proper search procedures are one such skill area. On the second day of training, Cook demonstrated search techniques for the group. The class began with nervous titters among the Adhamiyah women, who blushed and looked away when Cook showed how to search sensitive areas.
The women were definitely operating outside of their comfort zone, Cook said.
“At first they seemed a little nervous, a little wary,” she said.
But when Cook showed them how easy it is to hide a weapon if a thorough search isn’t conducted, the women stopped being timid and started really shaking each other down during role-playing exercises.
“Once we got it across to them that it’s for their security as well as everyone else’s, I think they got it,” she said. “Towards the end they were really catching on.”
Cabral, who was supervising the entire program, said she felt a responsibility to the women in the class to make sure they received the best training.
“As a female, I definitely feel responsible. I want to teach them everything I know that could help them out on the street,” she said.
After only a few days of training, many of the women were already feeling more confident and better able to protect themselves. Hussein said she had gained a lot of knowledge from the training, especially about the AK-47.
“I really learned many things. I knew nothing about weapons before this,” she said.
She said she was looking forward to putting her new knowledge into action after she starts working.
“I am happy because now I am taking a part in protecting the community,” she said. “I am nervous, but happy.”
Story by By Sgt. Mike Pryor, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division Public Affairs