"We want to protect our women - not have them protect us," the head of military training for all of Iraq said with a wide grin.
I suppose that was the bottom line.
The symposium I attended was held by the Iraqi Center of Ethics and Military Principles inside the Green Zone, at a place called "The Crossed Swords."
In our society, as in many societies around the world, it is the sacred duty of the man to protect the women and young. It's the highest expression of manhood. And his failure to do so is shameful. It is not easy to reconcile this deep-rooted human feeling with training women to do the "protecting."
" They (the women) can't give their lives to the service as men can. Their first duty will always be to the family," said one of the officers, who gives lectures on ethics and human rights through the center. "And even though we have female officers who graduated from military college with honors, they are given administrative jobs, which, frankly, they do better than the men. Others are military doctors or engineers, and they prefer it that way."
When I was speaking to some of the officers in charge of training in the presence of "the friendly side," as the Iraqi security officials refer to the U.S. military, they were all for developing the military to include the "female element," in a subdued way. But when I had a chance of talking to them alone – it was a different story.
"You understand that the "friendly side" wants to give us the benefit of all its years of experience – in all avenues. Maybe after they're gone, this issue will be put to the vote. And who knows, it may be revoked," said an Iraqi colonel at the center.
Talking to the women, around whom this story revolves, Rasha Ahmed, 27, said that after working in the military for three years, she would transfer to a civilian job even with less pay if she could. "The problem is not the women themselves. Many are capable and willing. It's the men. They don't take us seriously as professionals. They don't even train us as they do other men – "What a waste, where will you practice fighting? In your homes? Ha ha ha." That's their attitude," she complained.
But not all the women held Rasha's point of view.
Sura, 32, was appalled at having to attend an actual training course, with weapons instruction. "I needed a job, and there was nothing but a military job available. I checked and they told me that I would be doing a desk job – I would never ever think of being in the army. That's a man's job. We (the women) are doing everything from providing for our families to housework to having children and raising them and much more – Let the men at least do this (soldiering)."
The majority of the women were worried about the social issues. "If my husband's family knew what I do, we would be ostracized. They would never ever show my husband respect any more – and as for me, they would say that I had strayed from the path of virtue, and my children would be shamed forever," said Anita, 38.
Ramiza, who appeared to be in her mid-30s, was undecided, "The military life has good and bad things. But what scares me is the security issue. If anyone in my neighborhood were to find out that I was a military person, I would have to run, leave my home and live somewhere else. Many people still have no love or trust for the security forces, and although there is the social issue also – it is the security issue that scares me. I leave my home in plainclothes and get into uniform when I get here. All of us do."
"We are pioneers," said Rasha. "We will pave the way for other women who wish to take this path. We may be a novel spectacle in our society today, but if we prevail, the next generation will not laugh when they see a woman in uniform."