18 August 2011

She's Got a Way About Her

How's this for a declaration you weren't expecting...I'm not much of a traditionalist. And this week in particular I've been flexing my creativity in ways that may appear to the average, rational human being to be slightly off the charts. But for me, it's, well, par for the course.

I wore civilian clothes at work on Monday. I wonder how many American military women have tried that here. I'm guessing not many (mostly because the average boss would not allow it.) There are about 20 Afghan women who work for the Afghan National Army as officers, NCOs, or civilians at our Afghan base. They all tell me that they feel unsafe walking around the base in a uniform. So I made an agreement with them...once a week I will wear civilian clothes at work for all of my meetings, and once a week they will all wear their uniforms and we will be military women together in uniform. We'll start by staying inside the Women's Center on uniform day (which begins for them in September), but in a few months, I hope to transition that to conducting military skills training outside our little safe zone. The reactions I received to my much more feminine attire were well beyond anything I could have imagined. I shocked people. It worked! And this is only week one.

Speaking of learning and building skills, that's been a large focus for me for the past 7 days, as I embraced the very different roles women play in this country. My inspiration started around this time last week when I realized that it was my interpreter's 22nd birthday, and that I wanted to invest in her future rather than just handing her the answer in the form of some gift, like so many Americans have done here for the past 10 years. I reached out to my closest friends, and we raised about $900 (in $50 dollar donations) to help send Julia to the best English class in Kabul and to buy her very first computer. Seeing the tears in her eyes when I told her about her birthday present was the most incredible feeling I've had here...yet (and she doesn't even know about the computer!)

The culmination came yesterday when I somehow convinced the guys to take me to the Afghan National Army's Uniform Shop. Here about 130 women tailor make the dress uniforms for Afghan soldiers all over the country. The factory was incredible, full of Turkish-donated sewing machines and of women who have lost their husbands as a result of the violence in this country. They earn $65 a month. On the same compound was a daycare for their children. When I visited, about 20 adorable Afghan children welcomed me by singing a beautiful song (of which I did not understand a single word...but it was still touching enough to make me get a little teary.) It was a great reminder that I am human and lucky to be experiencing these special moments.

Rob also lives in Afghanistan now, and the extraordinary differences between our two deployments to the same country are not lost on me. Rob's base is entirely focused on the warfighting portion of the Coalition's mission in Afghanistan. They go hunt and kill bad guys, and track the bad guys as they attack the Coalition forces. He will never leave his base. As we say on our outreach and educate side of the mission, for every bad guy the Coalition stops, at least 10 more are inspired to start hating us.

So here I am on the other side of that mission, playing "Hug an Afghan" to his "Find a bad guy." Somehow the Air Force got this exactly right...send me on the peacekeeping and relationship building part of the mission, and have Rob help with that "pointy end of the spear" mission.

Brace yourself...I have just volunteered to stay for a year, working with amazing women like the ones you see in this post, and the ones you can find here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/roblisameehan/sets/72157627462493800/. No, it's not final yet, and maybe it won't be, but Rob and I agree that staying here is the right thing for me for a million reasons.

But the biggest reason is that building relationships takes time...much more time than 6 months, and that's the part the Americans have been so wrong about for so long. Some of the relationships I'm building here are worth cultivating for a bit longer, and I'd like to think I'm just the right person to give things a bit of a shake. I think my father described it better than anyone in saying that someone who is capable of building relationships can really get things done here. And yes, I do believe I have that way about me, and I fully intend to leave here feeling like I made a lasting difference in my own little way.