"You are shameful."
"Women were created for being in the house."
Each day, the name-calling and barbs begin almost as soon as Shinaa Rasul slings her AK-47 rifle over her shoulder and steps out of her barracks to the snowy valley that separates her country from Iran. Rasul and 53 others are part of an Iraqi Border Patrol unit stationed on the 920-mile Iranian frontier. And as the patrol's first all-female outfit, they have become a spectacle for the thousands of people who cross between the two countries each day.
When people spot the patrols, with their neat brown uniforms and firearms, Rasul said, they typically have one of two reactions: "They are either upset or afraid."
Under the rule of former president Saddam Hussein, Iraq was a largely secular state, and women -- particularly in urban areas -- were free of many of the constraints placed on them in other Muslim countries. Accorded the same opportunities as men in education and professions, many women rose to positions of prominence. But postwar Iraq's leadership vacuum has been filled principally by religious leaders, many of whom advocate a system of governance more in line with Islam than Hussein's Baathist state was.
Before departing Iraq, the U.S.-led occupation authority hopes to ensure the rights of women are protected and appreciated by Iraqis. The United States is spending millions of dollars and a great deal of effort to create women's support centers, women's entrepreneurship groups, women's job training programs and women's cultural and political seminars.
The Border Patrol initiative is arguably the most visible of those projects.
"We are crossing a lot of cultural boundaries," acknowledged Staff Sgt. David Spence-Sales, who serves with the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division and helped train the female officers.
Such efforts have been applauded by many Iraqis, who point out that women make up about 60 percent of the population. Some groups have pressed the occupation authority to do even more, pointing out that only three of the 25 members of the Iraqi Governing Council are women and that none serve on the committee drafting the country's constitution.
But others, especially Iraq's powerful religious leaders, say the occupation authority's policy toward women is an example of how the United States is trying to impose its own values on a culture it doesn't understand or appreciate.
In Najaf, a city that is holy to Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, a U.S.-appointed female judge was forced to step down after some clerics protested, saying that the Koran does not allow women to hold such jobs. And in Baghdad, some men passed out leaflets that called for the exclusion of women from local councils, which occupation officials have held up as a model of diversity.
"The occupation forces do not understand that they cannot impose Western culture over Islamic societies," said Haider Nasrawy, spokesman for Hussein Sadr, a prominent Shiite cleric.
In the Islamic world, interpretations of centuries-old religious and tribal customs regarding women differ from ayatollah to ayatollah, imam to imam. But even the most liberal agree that their religion dictates that in some cases women are not equal to men. In court, for instance, the word of two women carries the same weight as that of one man. In mosques, women must pray in the back, behind the men. And in issues of inheritance, daughters get half as much as sons.
Women in Islamic Society
Several influential Sunni and Shiite leaders contend, however, that the different roles of men and women in Islamic society do not mean women are repressed. On the contrary, they say, women are revered and must be allowed to serve only in positions where they will be respected. They say they advocate initiatives to promote women to the highest ranks of society -- as doctors, professors, lawyers and the like -- but allowing women to serve in the police, army, Border Patrol or other security agencies is an insult.
"Many have identified Islam as a frightful thing that steals the freedom of people, especially women. This is all wrong," Nasrawy said. "What Islam is about is women being dignified and keeping their morals, of sticking to the veil but at the same time being able to do great things for society."
Harith Dhari, a Sunni sheik and scholar, said his objections stem not from his opinion about a woman's abilities but from the question of whether a particular job will "secure her dignity and the dispensation of her humanitarian mission in life."
In the beginning, at least, the women's Border Patrol unit was about practicality, not politics.
Because of religious and cultural taboos on touching between men and women who aren't married or closely related, an all-male Border Patrol could not search women. U.S. Army Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, whose 101st Airborne is responsible for northern Iraq, called for women to join the new Iraqi security forces that the occupation authority was trying to create. He said he was worried that terrorists would use women to ferry equipment and messages back and forth.
Several dozen responded. There were teachers, clerical workers and housewives as well as some former Kurdish guerrillas, known as pesh merga.
Nida Muhammed, 52, said her cousins begged her to reconsider her decision to join. "In general, our relatives didn't like the idea of us doing this job," said Muhammed, a grandmother of four. One of her colleagues, Asti Abdulla, 36, said she got a phone call from someone who said, "If you go to this job, we'll cut off your legs."
Elite solders from the 101st Airborne were put in charge of training, and at first they worried that the women would be too timid and weak. Sgts. Jacob Dixson and Louis Gitlin said they were surprised to find that women did better than men in simulated missions.
"They would always find the bombs fast and search fast," Dixson said. Added Gitlin, "The women had something to prove, so they took everything more seriously."
The Bashma border crossing station is two hours away, on a winding mountain road, from Sulaymaniyah, the closest major city. Between Bashma and other checkpoints lie miles of rugged terrain, full of land mines but shot through with secret paths developed over the centuries by smugglers.
The women in the Border Patrol range in age from 17 to 54. They include young waifs with chips of polish still on their fingernails and bulky, tough ones with wizened faces who carry several pistols and knives in addition to the AK-47s they are issued.
Some joined for the money -- a decent $120 to $140 a month. Others such as Rasul, 21, a thin brunette who wears her curly hair in a ponytail that makes her look even younger, joined because she had been left an orphan as a teenager. Aftaw Muhammed Salih, 54, decided to join because the former government threw her 13-year-old son in jail, alleging that her husband opposed Hussein.
"Everyone has a brother or father or cousin who was killed by Saddam," said Nuksha Ali Kadir, 54, the women's platoon leader in Bashma.
A Noble Profession
The women say they recognize that some religious leaders might object to their work. But they argue that their interpretation of the Koran makes them believe that working as a Border Patrol officer is a noble and respectable profession, and that objections to women carrying weapons or touching men in this capacity are old-fashioned. Female doctors can treat male patients, Kadir points out, so why shouldn't Border Patrol women be able to search men?
The women in Bashma serve alongside a men's unit. They search people, mostly women, coming through the border posts and help the men's unit search vehicles and patrol the unmanned parts of the border.
When traffic is especially heavy, they are called on to search men. They use the back of their hands, they say, and try to finish as quickly as possible, but it still makes everyone uncomfortable, especially when the men crack vulgar jokes.
For the most part, the women's male counterparts say they are enthusiastic about having them there. They say the women are proficient in their jobs and that the border has become calmer since they arrived.
But the Border Patrol is far from integrated. There are female commanders for women and male commanders for men, but while the male commanders sometimes give orders to women, the female commanders are never put in charge of men. And the women grumble that they aren't on the regular rotation for patrols and are only called on as needed.
"There is danger. . . . So for their protection, we don't want them to go out," explained Jamal Ali Karim, 27, the male platoon leader in Bashma.
The first time the men saw the women fire their guns was when they celebrated Saddam Hussein's capture on Dec. 14. They were impressed. "Men are better than women at shots, but they are good," commented Rafeek Mohammed Mustafa, 31, a former university student.
The women live in barracks next to the checkpoint, eight to a room. The bleak gray of the carpet and walls is in stark contrast to the girly things strewn about the room -- flowered sheets, a white plastic mirror and a brown purse with stylishly thin straps. There's no electricity, no hot water.
In the long, chilly winter evenings, the women make tea and sit around the sole kerosene heater telling stories about themselves. One recent day, they sang love songs until 3 a.m. They say working in a remote border outpost is lonely and that they miss their families.
The happiest day for the women was Sept. 16. That was the day the women's unit believes it caught its first terrorist.
They had been searching four women when one began to protest that she was offended that someone was touching her head. She had long, thick black hair that was wrapped in a white scarf. That made Ronak Ali, 25, curious, and she unfurled the scarf and inspected the woman's hair. It was matted to her head with tiny pins, and when Ali slipped the pins out, she found a 4-by-6-inch note, written in black ink. It talked about bombings at several mosques on the Iraq-Iran border and was dated 1995. But Ali knew better. The mosques had been the target of attacks a few months before. She suspected it was a message from one terrorist cell to another.
The women took the suspects into custody and handed them over to the U.S. military.
Whenever she is down, Rasul says, she tries to remember this victory and what a passerby -- a woman, a stranger -- told her a few weeks after she started working on the border: "You are doing a great job. Women are half of society, and you should be proud to be serving your country."
Email Benador Associates: email@example.com