Army Girls Can Be Girly Girls in Afghanistan

By Elektra Kotsoni

I don't know about you ladies, but to me the army has never seemed like the ideal place to spend your early twenties. In my mind, there would be no shopping, Gossip Girl, or spending hours in one position under the sun trying to achieve the perfect tan. Or basically anything else that's silly and unimportant, but is an important part of me feeling unashamedly like a girl.

Turns out I was wrong. Lalage Snow is a photographer who has spent a good part of the last five years in Iraq and Afghanistan photographing female soldiers. According to her work, girls in the army remain very intent on "being girls."

Not that this makes the army any more appealing to me personally, but I think it's cute to know that, while you're sweeping the roadsides for Taliban IEDs, you can also sorta smile to yourself whilst imagining Spencer from Made In Chelsea getting blown up by one. So I called up Lalage for a chat.

VICE: Hey Lalage. What’s up?
Lalage Snow:
Hey! Just got back from holiday with some friends. We stayed in a house in Assenois, which is in the south of Belgium. We ate lots of paté and drunk biére blonde.

And how did that differ from your time in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Haha! It was different, but you know, it was much girlier than you’d think. The British girls in Iraq, for example, would sunbathe any chance they got, while when it came to the way they decorated their bunks everything was over-the-top girly. Pink washbags and sponges, pink iPod cases. The American girls would have a slumber party almost every night. They’d watch scary films and eat popcorn in their little bunker on a computer. When you are in such a masculine environment you sort of need to cling on to your femininity really tightly.



How old were most of the girls?
Young. The American female engagement team were like, 19 to 22 years old.

You know how they say women are more tolerant to pain, because of our periods and baby birthing and all that? Did you find that to be the case with the female soldiers?
Well, for the time I hung out with the girls they never came under fire. Their main job is to go out and find Afghan women on the streets and search them. Because men are not allowed to speak or touch Afghan women, they were finding that often they were hiding rifles or thousands of dollars under their burqas, and so the female team was brought in.



Right. Were they being treated differently by the male soldiers?
Yes and no. They would get some hassle and some slack at the same time from the other guy soldiers, but I think at the end of the day, they look at it and say we are just soldiers together—a job is a job. They have the confidence to do so.


But the funniest thing was the Afghan response to these girls. They can see that it is a soldier in uniform, but they also see the blonde hair underneath the cap in a ponytail and they are like, “Oh my God, it’s a girl looking like a man!” They all think that Western girls are really weird.



But you have also photographed Afghan women soldiers. What were the differences between the two teams in the way they were treated?
There were indeed differences because it’s an extremely segregated culture; Men and women can't even sit and eat in the same room together, unless they are their own family. So for them to be going into the army, it is an incredibly brave thing to do. They are breaking every boundary, they are pioneers and they are still a long way from building any kind of real equilibrium in Afghanistan. But it’s a step, I guess.

How was that demonstrated in the soldiers’ everyday lives?
Well for instance, the camp where they were training was completely isolated and heavily guarded—fortified! When they are outside of the training camp they wear civilian clothes because they are not fully-fledged soldiers yet, it is sort of kept as a secret.



How are they treated by Afghan society?
Not very well. Afghan girls aren’t allowed to stay away from home, full stop. So the fact that they are actually staying away for a week at a time is a huge deal. Also, girls don’t go into the army, they stay at home and make children and food, that’s what they do. It’s very taboo; almost akin to being a prostitute or a "naughty girl."

What are the reasons that make them become soldiers, then? Does vengeance have anything to do with it?
No, it’s mostly seen as a way out, and the money is good. If they went to university in Kabul, they would have to pay quite a lot of money, and they run the risk of being hassled by boys, so for some of them it is a chance to do something interesting and good for their country. And then there’s the air force, which means you get to be sent to the UAE or to America. It’s a passport.

One of my characters was trying to get out of a forced marriage, and the only way she could do that would be if her fiancée rejected her for being in the army, which he eventually did. Of course, he tried to kill her because of it. He took a knife to her throat, then beat up her father, and then the engagement got cancelled.



Grim, hope she’s OK. How about the Western girls, what are their reasons?
They either have family in the army, or they like the idea of running around and being outside. The pay isn’t bad, either. And you know in the case of the British, the army recruitment campaign is pretty good. It basically says, “If you like to travel, join the army and you’ll see the world.”

Yeah, I’ve marveled at the ads myself. How about you then, did you face any difficulties—as a female photographer?
Yeah, absolutely. I am very tall and have fair skin and green eyes so it’s impossible to blend in. So, I get people shouting at me in the streets, sometimes they even throw rocks at me. But you get used to it. And then obviously there’s the threat of things like suicide bombs and attacks going on... As a journalist you’re drawn to that kind of stuff. You hear a bang and you think “Great! Where is it?” Well, not "great." Maybe, “Crap, where is it? I need to go and take pictures.” You know.

I personally, honestly don’t. Thanks, Lalage!

See more of Lalage's work here.

Follow Elektra on Twitter: @elektrakotsoni

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