2nd Marine Division
Story by CPL Meredith Brown
SANGIN DISTRICT, Helmand province, Afghanistan – Petty Officer 2nd Class Kimberly Ryan stands in an open crop field surrounded by children. Greetings of “salaam alaikum,” which translates to peace be unto you, are said as she high-fives the local residents. Smiles spread across the faces of the children and laughter rings out through the brisk morning air as the sailor attempts Pashtu, the language spoken in the area.
Ryan, the team leader for Female Engagement Team 8, continues greeting the children before a hand reaches out and will not let go. Her eyes follow the hand up to the face of an elderly woman; recognition lights up in her joyful eyes. The woman is Janet Bibi, a leader in the local area who serves as the chairwoman at the women’s shura at Forward Operating Base Jackson.
The attendance at the women’s shura meetings have been down because Bibi was ill, explained Ryan, 25, a native of Norwich, Conn. There is now hope attendance will grow after finding her again.
For more than a month, Ryan looked for Bibi. Tears of relief and delight streamed down Ryan’s face in this accidental encounter while assisting soldiers from the Afghan National Army’s 215th Corps and Marines from Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, during a foot patrol through the village of Tughay, which is located in the southern portion of Sangin district.
As part of the engagement team, Ryan and her teammate, Marine Cpl. Brandy Bates, not only host shuras for women and children on FOB Jackson, but they also support 3/7 by interacting with the women in the area and searching them for contraband when necessary.
The Pashtun code of conduct, "Pashtunwali," places great emphasis on the concept of honor, and a woman's honor is directly tied to the notion of overall family honor, Ryan explained. As a result, women are kept separated and inaccessible to other men.
For a Marine infantry battalion conducting counterinsurgency operations in a populated area, this can make interacting with the local women difficult. Female engagement teams are able to bridge this cultural gap by accompanying the Marines.
While supporting the ANA soldiers and Lima Co. Marines, the team met with many local women in the village. They were invited into two different Afghan homes, where the engagement team sat down and talked with women residents. The service members asked them simple things, such as how they were doing, before getting into a deeper conversation about security in the area.
“It's important to meet with them in their homes because it’s a safe area for them, so they are more keen to open up and talk to us,” said Bates, 23, a native of Ann Arbor, Mich. “The women aren’t allowed to leave their homes already since their husbands work all day, so it's nice to have a friendly face come and join in with some "girl time" company. I definitely like to see the smiles and share common ground with these women. The feeling of them trusting us definitely helps keep the motivation that we are doing the right thing to support them and give them that voice.
Bibi’s reunion with the female engagement team is a building block for continuous support and rapport with the local Afghans. It is a step in the right direction for the team and gives them a new hope for future interactions with the women in Sangin.
“We hope this brings more information and possibly women to the women's shuras, now that they know they can trust us and talk to us,” said Bates.
Editor’s note: Third Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, is currently assigned to Regimental Combat Team 8 in 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Force and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.