AFGHANISTAN: Women Soldiers' Role in Afghan Frontline Villages Caught on Camera

Friday, October 19, 2012
The Guardian
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 

The decade-long war in Afghanistan has been the focus of countless books and exhibitions, but there is one view of the conflict that has not been described well – until now.

The Royal British Legion commissioned a photographer to accompany women serving in the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan. The aim was to highlight the roles they perform, which rarely grab the headlines but have become a critical part of the military's strategy.

Spending weeks embedded with UK forces in Helmand province, the photographer Alison Baskerville, herself a former member of the RAF, followed two women who had one of the most difficult jobs in the country, though it did not involve shooting at the Taliban. Lieutenant Jessica French, 26, and Captain Anna Crossley, 32, spent six months going into villages and small settlements to talk to the women and try to earn their trust.

Male soldiers are forbidden from going into the village compounds. French and Crossley volunteered for the role. "Most of the women I met didn't leave their compounds," said Crossley. "They hadn't seen a white woman, let along a white western woman in army kit who can speak Pashtu."

Crossley was stationed in the northern reaches of the Upper Gereshk Valley, one of the most troubled areas of the most troubled province, Helmand. Communities are tightly knit, wary of outsiders, and often sympathetic to the insurgency. But even in such traditionally patriarchal areas, women are trying to get their voices heard, and are beginning to defy their husbands and families to speak out.

"Some of the women we spoke to did not want to talk about the security, but others had very strong opinions about what we should be doing in Afghanistan, and what the Afghans should be doing," said French. On most days, French and Crossley would go on patrol with other soldiers.

When they approached communities, they would take off their helmets, set aside their weapons, and seek out the wives. "They are in the frontline, but they have to walk into the compounds, take off their helmets and suddenly become more feminine," said Baskerville.

Crossley and French said they met some incredibly brave women, some of whom were putting their lives at risk either by speaking out, or deciding to work. A few have even joined the local police.

But in the hinterland of the Upper Gureshk valley, time has stood still for decades.

"In the areas where I was working there is still a long way to go," said Crossley. "There are so many things that need to happen. Sadly, they have been a little bit left behind."

Access to education is the key to a better future for the women of Helmand, said French, who is likely to return to Afghanistan for another six-month tour in 2014.

"It's a tough world," she added. "But some of the women we met were so determined and positive. I hope they have a better future ahead of them."