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Women in Hard Security: The Meaning of Military Interactions for Females

WRN spoke with

, a former United States Marine officer and AH-1W pilot and liaison officer to the House of Representatives. Kyleanne is currently a PhD candidate at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. We were excited to speak with her about current events and her experience in the US military including the many cultural and societal impacts she has witnessed.

In your more than ten years as a Marine Corps Officer, you served multiple tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. Going in, what were your first impressions of the people, culture, society in the two countries? How did your perceptions change over time?

As a pilot, I understand that my experiences and interactions were significantly different from someone on the ground. However, the training in the military is frequently the same, especially in terms of how combat is approached with a micro-tactical framework. When you are actually on the ground, experiencing the people and culture, you encounter somewhat of a “cognitive break,” there is a tension between the culture you experience and the conflict you are pursuing. I think there has been a continual struggle in international relations that people are caught between carrying out their jobs while also witnessing people in real time, always asking ourselves: “who are these people?” Fortunately, the US Military has been increasing cultural briefs during training largely because counterinsurgency missions have overtaken conventional wars. Now, interacting with local populations has become more relevant, making these briefs very important.

In what ways are Afghanistan and Iraq different than how an average American views them? How are the women in the two countries different than how mainstream media in the West portrays them?

I have found that there are three general stereotypes that Americans have about Iraqi and Afghan people. The first is that the people in these countries are generally uneducated, poor, backwards, and rural. However, while there are still nomadic populations, Iraq and Afghanistan are also home to very large, urbanized cities full of educators, students, lawyers, doctors, beauticians. Contrary to stereotypes, the people are not all “backwards.” Another common stereotype encountered here in the US is xenophobia that all Muslims are extremists and militants. Yet, as we know these religious populations are not all violent. Additionally, there are many other religious populations in these countries, it isn’t just Muslims. The third stereotype is geopolitical: everyone in Iraq and Afghanistan either hates or loves the United States. Before US intervention, many of these people did not give much thought to the US, an attitude that is still seen today.

As the only woman attack pilot in your squadron, how did the locals in the host countries receive you? What did your interactions at the grassroots look like?

I found myself being treated like a “third gender.” I was clearly not a man, nor was I treated like one in these societies. I wasn’t given responsibilities and many other men were unsure how to approach me. However, I wasn’t a local woman, either. I did not wear the traditional headscarves and encountered many unsure reactions from both local men and women. I was able to speak to both, but I was not fully accepted by either.

You have worked closely with the women in the Afghan army’s air branch, assisting in their training and mentorship. What have these partnerships taught you? Why do you think it is important to have such cross-border relationships?

A large challenge for women in the Afghan Air Force is that there are no female trainers. This discourages many prospective women in the military out of fear that they won’t receive adequate instruction from male trainers. The partnership I have participated in has been very successful. These partnerships have allowed interested Afghan women to be trained in safe and productive environments. More informally, these women also serve as ambassadors by breaking stereotypes about Afghanistan and Afghan women. They are not just exceptions to the norm, women in the Afghan military are increasingly prevalent.

You are also actively involved with the Afghan National Women’s Cycle Team through the Colorado-based Mountain2Mountain organization. Tell us about your experience mentoring young women cyclists. In what ways does sports help create spaces for women? What are the major challenges that the team faces?

The Afghan National Women’s Cycle Team kills a lot of stereotypes about females and Afghans. These young women are very well-educated, either graduates or students, and they come from very supportive families. This dispels the myth that Afghan families are often oppressive and uneducated. For the girls themselves, participating with the Team is an act of defiance but their reason for biking is much more personal and normal than it is political. These young women have a large sense of pride in their country and bike because they want to. The Cycle Team is experiencing many challenges currently. The infrastructure of the cities isn’t usually safe for biking. Securing the proper logistics for the Team, be it funding, clothing, materials, or training, for the young women is also becoming very difficult due to the corruption we have encountered. Due to this corruption, many of the girls want to leave Afghanistan and some have sought asylum in France.

In your PhD work at Korbel, you explore why women’s mobilization during revolutions does not translate into formal political spaces. Could you tell us more about your findings? How can states, leaders, and international actors safeguard women’s achievements once movements have died down?

My research largely focuses on how feminist movements and the military interact. I have found that there are two common threads of feminist approach to the military. On the one hand, there are feminist groups that use the military as a catalyst for their anti-militarist sentiments. On the other, there are feminist groups that ally themselves with hard security efforts, using the military as a tool for their work. Those that are anti-militarist often fizzle out after conflict ends and therefore has been a theme of downfall for many of these women’s movements. This attitude also separates women from any identity other than resolving conflict which is very detrimental to the many other identities than women possess. For the feminist groups that include the military in their work, research finds that they are more successful, such as those in Afghanistan, Portugal, and France. Their work has an enduring impact because these women offer their advice on how wars should be fought and how policies should be made. In order to promote women’s achievements in the aftermath of conflict, leaders must avoid discrediting the existence of these feminist movements. Women’s movements must be willing to engage in the hard security arena not only because their influence in this arena is growing worldwide, but because these actions will strengthen their credibility when discussing peace negotiations. With women saying “security is more important than dropping bombs,” there is more hope for lasting peace. Women can influence Infantry Doctrines to include more than just how combat should be executed with the addition of more inclusive topics. For example, in India, women are becoming more engaged in the regional police forces. The police academy has changed their training programs to include how police actions will impact the totality of a given situation, rather than just a focus on conflict.

Given the new US administration, what shifts do you predict in the larger field of peace and security in the next four years? What will be the main barriers to progress in Women, Peace, and Security in particular? What role should academics and practitioners like yourself, play in promoting a more inclusive defense agenda?

There has been a fundamental shift in the US worldview to become the idea that the only security measure for the US is hard security. However, we must also recognize that human security, rather than hard security, offers a more robust view of protection and is necessary for maintaining security. The US is the only country moving in this direction as other countries are progressing towards more human security agendas. This sends a dangerous message to other strong and powerful nations that may feel threatened by the US. There has also been a noticeable shift in the national view of women. In recent decades, we have made many progressive strides for female equality, but we are now backsliding. In the military, for instance, the government is sending a message from top-down that women aren’t wanted. The recent national women’s movements are a good sign, especially if these groups are willing to engage in hard security. Women and security leads to more durable, long-term peace.

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