By the time we hit two weeks into Desert Shield, the army started to figure out there might be some special challenges. Saudi Arabia is pretty well-known for its view of women. The women are not allowed to drive, and yet, we were a transportation unit with women drivers, so we would be coming into direct conflict with that. So it was off for more training.
The women soldiers were sent to a nearby post auditorium, where we barely filled the first two rows. There were not a lot of us in our battalion. We were a mix of Caucasian, Black, a few Hispanic, and two Native Americans. I sat in the second row with a friend.
A male staff sergeant — that’s a platoon sergeant rank — walks in. He was Arab, and his distaste for women soldiers was really evident. His jaw was set and his eyes were flashing. His tone bordered on confrontational, and at times, it seemed like he wanted to pick a fight with us.
He was likely one of the few Arab soldiers on the post and was ordered to brief us. He did his duty, but he didn’t want to. But that’s part of being in the army. You don’t choose which orders you want to follow (anyone remember the film A Few Good Men and Tom Cruise’s cross examination of one of the officers?).
Some of the things he told us included:
- Showing our forearms was obscene. After the briefing, I rushed out and bought two long-sleeved shirts for my off-time. Believe it or not, I didn’t have any! I’m from Southern California, and I simply never wore anything long-sleeved.
- He also told us that suggestive book covers were off-limits, too. I leaned over and whispered to my friend, “There go your romance novel covers.”
- If we met the eyes of a Saudi male, we would be struck.
As I write about this briefing, though, I wonder how much of the briefing was the sergeant’s opinion, or if the army was completely clueless about what the women might encounter. Maybe a little bit of both.
It was quite frightening to think about how easy it would be to make a mistake that could be disastrous — and all simply by being American women. I came away from the briefing afraid of encountering Saudi men at all — not exactly instilling confidence as the army intended!
But one piece of “training” that was absent was equal opportunity. The classes were required, but largely covered racism, not sexual harassment and were for lawyers to say “We checked the box.” The army did not teach the men how to serve with women.
The Huffington Post published an article on Why Your Daughters Need Science Fiction. It’s about science fiction, but parts could be about the army, too:
Because girls are excluded and discouraged from [geek culture at] an early age, boys within this culture do not learn how to relate to girls and women as part of their peer group.
This creates all kinds of problems including discrimination, a condescending attitude and sexual harassment / sexual violence problems within both the scientific and science fiction communities.
Like science fiction, women were excluded from some military jobs. By Congressional Law, they could not participate in front line combat. That, in turn, created companies where men had absolutely no exposure to women and did not socialize with them beyond have girlfriends or relatives. Those men also served in companies with women.
Add to that young male soldiers who grew up only socializing with women in the context of dating and looking at women as they are portrayed in the media. It’s no wonder that the military is still having problems with sexual harassment of women soldiers 24 years later. They’re still stuck in the mindset of training, but they aren’t fixing the actual problem. And war has a way of getting inside the cracks and making things worse.