26 September 2010

Wishing for the Land of Women

During a recent site visit to our offices in Mazer-e-Sharif, I spent a great deal of time with the assistant site manager there, another 20-something woman.  She's one of the few other contractors near my age, and in addition to being fun to hang out with, she reminded me how much I miss girlfriends.  Of course I miss my actual friends; Skype isn't a sufficient substitute for a groggily shared cup of coffee before work or hummus-laden happy hours.  And I certainly enjoy the male acquaintances I've made and am having fun being one of the fellas.  But I find I also simply miss the presence of other women in my cohort. 

There are, of course, a not insubstantial number of young women in the armed services.  Actually, I recently saw a Female Engagement Team, or FET (all-lady ground patrol, meant to ease interactions with Afghan women) at the PX.  Rather strangely, as I watch them laugh together, picking out their snacks and socks and hair dye, I felt…jealous.  I was reminded of my last girls' day before I left DC, making fun of my roommate for even considering the purchasing a pair of jeggings and going for cupcakes at Baked and Wired with my friends.  The sense of a loss of that community was almost painful.

While I was with the site manager at MeS (who had herself previously been in the Army), she began reminiscing about the 'pajama parties' the women in her unit would throw in Iraq.  Dressed in their PJs (generally the only civilians cloathes most of the military has with them), they would pool their makeup and booze, getting all gussied up just to dance around their B-Hut.  This sounded like the best idea I've heard in a while, possibly months.  It's more difficult as a civilian contractor, however.  The military ladies have ready-made cliques within their units, while most of the other contractors are older or Eastern European.  However warm most the women around here are (and many are not at all), I can't break into the former and find it difficult to really connect with the latter. 

I'm frequently surprised, actually, how unfriendly some of the women are.  I would have thought there would be a natural tendency to bond, being such a stark minority.  Of course, there are a number of possible reasons for reticence.  I myself am quite shy, and my natural introversion is augmented by living in such a strange environment.  There also exists the possibility that some of the ladies enjoy the attention that comes with being so outnumbered, or simply prefer the company of men. 

Still, whatever the reason – cliques, defense mechanisms, territorialism, what have you - I wish they were a bit more open.  There is something about being in the company of like women that is freeing.  Particularly in the theatre context, women offer the companionship that might allow one to be both less pretty and, somewhat counter-intuitively, more feminine.  I wouldn't feel the need to do my hair, but could also wear a tank-top without fretting that I'm sending the wrong message or am being ogled. 

More importantly, though, there are just some things I prefer to talk about with women.  Relationships, family, men, even life here – sharing and commiserating and bitching all sometimes call for a similar framework of understanding.  For example, both the site manager and I recently had our sexual preference questioned.  We spent a very fulfilling dinner, roundly abusing men who assumed we were LGBT-identified, simply because we weren't interested in them.  The attached or lesbian dichotomy went from frustrating to funny when shared with someone who empathized.  I don't normally have that outlet in my life, whether to talk about missing high heels or the man who decided he could hit on me while I was eating my toast, and it was bittersweet to enjoy it for a few days.

But just as much as I miss women, I miss the sense of them as equals.  I've come to realize that, even when I am respected, I am never treated as an equal.  Mostly, I notice it in small, stupid things, like how my co-workers refuse to cuss around me.  However, there are also times with the sense of inequality manifests itself a bit more significantly, such as when my supervisor challenged me as being somehow weak or paranoid when I expressed a reticence to drive around the south in an unarmoured NTV (non-tactical vehicle.  Translated, it means a regular old SUV, in a country littered with IEDs).  He suggested that maybe I just couldn't handle a trip to Kandahar, so he would go in my stead.

Further, even when I am treated kindly, I am not necessarily respected.  Universally, the men on base will not allow me to hold the door for them or even carry my own computer.  Strangers offer me rides in the combat golf carts known as gators for a walk that only takes ten minutes, while my local co-workers frequently bring gifts like lapis trinkets or boxes of dates.  I am disinclined to refuse, lest that be considered rude, but I also feel that in accepting I compromise my professionalism  I sometimes feel like a mascot more than anything.  Perhaps I'm over-thinking it, and should simply accept these perks as the flip side of the rampant sexual harassment.  Even so, it doesn't sit well with me.

Sometimes I just want to be invisible.  I don't want gifts or attention or demands.  I don't want to be objectified or sexualized or even mentored.  I want quiet and space and solitude.  And to be able to finish a New Yorker article at breakfast.