Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Concerning The Ladies

People have often asked me about the women in Iraq; what they were like, their general demeanor, and their treatment in an extremely lopsided, chauvinistic culture. Truthfully, my dealings with them were extremely limited, though I did hear Iraqi males’ opinions about them on a relatively regular basis.

To most men, they’re objects, either to induce great pity, or great respect at one’s accomplishments. I knew an arrogant little Iraqi NCO that would tell us every day that he had four wives. In part, I think he was bragging, and I think he was also trying to elicit some sympathy that he was burdened with caring for so many women.

But in reality, the women are the backbone of the country. While men do work, they don’t attack it with the same desperate fervor that most women do. Whenever we’d be out on patrols that kept us out until sunrise, the first people we’d routinely see were women. They’d wake at sunrise and begin mixing flour and cooking khubz – Arabic for bread. It was typically a flat bread much like a pita, but thinner, and they cooked it in tanoori ovens. At least that’s what they call them in India.

They’d be out there, kneeling over their small oven, tossing in bits of palm fronts, wood, charcoal, and whatever trash their children scrounged up, and slapping the dough into large, flat pieces. Then they’d toss it against the inside of the oven, cook it until it started to peel back naturally, then pull it out. Perhaps depending on their level of poverty or maybe cereal grain availability, some had better ground wheat flour and some had what tasted like cornmeal. I liked it all, and knew they’d labored hard to make it – well before anybody else had awakened.

While it was frequently children that tended to herds of sheep or goats, it was the girls that attended to the crops. I’d see them out early in the fields, hunched over at the waist, backs bent as they worked primitive hand tools on large plots of earth – and it was arid earth, beneath an oppressive sun. Yet they always wore their black garments from head to toe – with a few rare exceptions. Sometimes, on the hottest of days, they’d roll back their robes to expose extremely colorful layers beneath. Still, they were fully clothed, fully covered, would always cover their faces when they looked up at us.

For the longest time I thought it was fear of us, hatred of us, or maybe just social custom, but the conclusion I’ve recently reached is that, more than anything, it was a fear of what would happen to them if they didn’t cover their faces. Iraqi men are insanely jealous.

Though I don’t recall it happening to me personally, I know a number of women that, after being smiled at or spoken to by a soldier or Marine, would be promptly hit by the male traveling with them. This especially happened to the younger women, particularly when they dared smile back.

But in general, it was the younger women who were most mesmerized by us. Though I don’t claim to know the Islamic or social customs at all, I gather that once a woman married, she must spend the rest of her life covered from head to toe, hiding herself from public view. The only women who wore anything other than outer garments of black were unmarried, and young.

And honestly, they were gorgeous. Light, olive skin, dark eyes, and faces frequently smeared with too much makeup – like foundation and lipstick. I didn’t know they wore makeup at all, but I guess it’s okay when you’re looking for a husband. They’d wear tight skirts that would usually fall to their ankles, brightly-patterned blouses (also form-fitting), and a similarly colorful headscarf – probably more custom than functional. And they were quite pretty, though they did wear too much makeup, and often the patterns of their blouses looked more like drapery material than clothing material. I keep thinking of the VonTrap kids in the movie, “The Sound of Music,” when Julie Andrews sews them all clothes of the garish curtains hanging in the mansion. Awful, but decidedly colorful.

Yet chauvinism is pronounced, and total hypocrisy. For example, it was a well-known fact that brothels existed throughout the country. In fact, one of our fire bases lay directly across from one of them. They would frequently come to that base and attempt to market themselves. One price in the Marines came to their place, and another if the women came onto the base. I don’t know if any took the offers, and if I did I probably wouldn’t say, anyway. It’s not important – at least not for the sake of this particular story.

I got the impression that everybody knew about these brothels, and chose to do nothing about them. Everybody knows everybody else in these small towns, so it’s impossible that they NOT know about it. But every now and then, one would picked out and beaten for her prostitution, or maybe even stoned or killed. Same as in ancient times, the men suffered no punishment. Or if they did, we never found out about it.

A friend of mine was visiting a police station once for some mission or another, and a woman came in to plead for the release of her husband, who was jailed for reasons we never figured out. Well, rather than just send her away, they first threatened to lock her up too because she had a brother that was suspected to be involved in the insurgency. Then they surrounded her, started beating her, and ripping off her clothes. If I had to guess, they were going to rape her. We, by the way, were forbidden to do anything about it – though I think that’s a direct contradiction to the laws of war as laid out in the Geneva Convention. But, the officers were trying to suck up to the Iraqis, not piss them off, so nothing was done. If I was there, I probably would have threatened to shoot somebody – or just gone ahead and shot them.

It was almost a certainty that any girl or young woman that flirted with us would pay dearly for it – either with a beating from her father, her brothers, or any available man. It made no sense. I suppose it could have been because they hated us, but I imagine it’s more likely because they thought their daughters were acting like whores – by smiling at us.

Sometimes they’d get bold, however. We’d be checking cars at vehicle checkpoints and a taxi full of young women on the way to college would drive through, and we’d gawk at them. Usually they’d just smile shyly and look away, but sometimes they would laugh at us. I guess even they knew how pathetic we were.

I never saw a woman driving in Iraq – ever. I’d bet that nobody ever did – at least not anybody that I know.

Women age quickly, in part due to poor diet, childbearing, and the sun on what little of their faces are exposed, but I think it’s because they do most of the work. Men, it seemed, never really worked too hard. The running joke was that the women would do all the work and the men would sit around and dream up new ways to kill us.

Now obviously, a lot of the men worked, too, but never as hard as the women. It was the women doing the hardest manual labor, working the fields, and so on, and the men would be driving somewhere, hanging out, standing there with their hands clasped behind their backs doing nothing, or indeed plotting new ways to blow us up. Women work, men laze around. And the women die young because of it. They go from youthful and attractive to just bent, overweight, and halfway crippled.

The absurdity of it all was that they were treated as possessions, prizes, and slaves, and the men were quite content with it. Some clearly exhibited some care for their wives, but it wasn’t very often.

We had been briefed to never ever show an Iraqi porn, but I was surprised during my third tour, by which time the country was starting to rebuild its infrastructure, that innumerable Iraqi men came up to me and showed me the porn on their cell phones. They were proud of it – and wanted to know if we had any to show them. I did not, but others did.

I knew a couple people that somehow “allowed” porn to get out of their vehicles and get carried off by young kids, who where absolutely mesmerized with what the saw. We’re talking immobilized, rooted to one spot, and silenced. And then an older man would walk up, see what they were doing, and start throwing rocks at them, or beating them. One time I saw an old guy grab the magazine from them, rip it to shreds, and throw it back into the street – yelling at the boys the whole time.

We were doing a mission once where I ended up reinforcing a position on top of a police station, and from up there, I had a clear view into the courtyards of most of the surrounding homes. Out of curiosity, I suppose, a bunch of girls would constantly peek out from behind windows, curtains, trees and doors, and stare at us. If we waved, they’d giggle and run away. Sometimes they’d run in fear, though a few times they didn’t.

There was one girl I’d estimate to be in her early twenties that were absolutely fascinated with us (well, me since I was the only Marine she could see from where she was). She probably felt fairly secure inside her own courtyard looking up at me, and I guessed that her father wasn’t home. She’d come out, I’d wave, and them she’d go running back inside.

But before long, she always came back out. And at one point, she even took off the loose, outer garments she was wearing to reveal a brightly-colored toga-like dress. And she was gorgeous. Though she still wore a head covering, I could tell that her hair was long and wavy, and had the distinct color of burnished copper. It’s a natural hair color over there that I’ve only seen in Iraq and nowhere else. It was probably from hours in the fields with the sun on it – lightening it out. But honestly, since I never saw any women working in the fields with their hair uncovered, maybe it was just that away naturally. I’ve also seen it on a couple of little kids, since they don’t start wearing any sort of head covering until they’re at least eight or so.

Anyway, this girl kept coming out and staring up at me, and actually started to respond to the waves. Then she’d smile, which was pretty neat. I felt sort of predatory, but I wasn’t doing anything wrong. What she did next amazed me. She actually took off her head scarf altogether to reveal long, flowing, copper hair. Nowhere else in the world have I seen a natural color like that. I didn’t tell anybody what I saw, because I didn’t want anybody else to run around talking about it. I knew she’d get in trouble if she was caught. All her younger sisters were inside anyway, occasionally peeking out and then fleeing back inside again.

So I tried something. I took off my helmet, maybe as a gesture of good faith, courtesy, or perhaps to show that I would mimic her trust. I know it was stupid, pulling off my helmet somewhere in the middle of Iraq, but whatever. We’ve all done stupider things. Then I ran my fingers through my hair, mostly to eliminate the “helmet head” that you get from cramming yourself in a hard hat for hours on end. Much to my surprise, she mimicked the gesture – which looked far more alluring on her than it did on me. I really think she was showing off, so I gave her a huge smile and a thumbs up. As far as that culture is concerned, though, what she was doing was borderline pornographic. But, with a single Marine as an audience and the safety of the high walls around her home’s courtyard, I guess she felt secure.

They were curious about us. Maybe because we were the first males to overtly admire their beauty, rather than go find their fathers and offer some goats for their daughters’ hands in marriage. I’m not suggesting we had altogether pure motives, but when we see beauty, we usually acknowledge it – especially Marines – perhaps the boldest (and stupidest) people on the planet.

We kept up this little game for awhile, and she even removed her loose-fitting robe to reveal yet another full layer of clothing – but more form fitting. I simply watched with intent curiosity, interest, and probably ogled. If somebody had attacked right then, I would have missed it.

All of the sudden, a man I presumed to be her dad comes to the courtyard door, fumbles with the latch, and walks in. By the time he had the door open, she was already gone. I never saw her again, save for some furtive peeking from an upstairs window. More than anything else, I’m glad she didn’t get caught. He would have beat her right then and there for exposing herself to an infidel American swine. Maybe dragged her into the street and accused her of shaming her family and her father, and stoned her. In that culture, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

The Iraqi men typically fail to recognize the beauty of the women in their country, and fail to treat them as human beings, souls, and, quite simply, the crown jewels of creation. It’s a pity.

I’ve said before, jokingly, that the best thing we could have done for the country of Iraq is drop them porn leaflets from airplanes, and let nature run its course.

Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. Hey, I like this one. Having lived almost 70 years, I think I can observe that women are women, no matter where you find them. You did a good job on this one.

  2. Okay, wow, I have been rading your blogs daily, but I have to say so far this was my favorite. Very well written, very honest and truthful, and so descriptive. I felt almost like I was there standing right next to you looking down into the courtyard. The only oart that bothers me is the bit about throwing porn from airplnes. No, seriously, what would that really accomplish?

  3. The remark about dropping porn from aeroplanes was intended as humor. I apologize if I didn't do so well.


  4. She sounds lovely.

    I like how you write this "makeup" bit - "like foundation and lipstick" - which very well may be what they use; but your treatment of the subject with an air of clumsy generalization is endearingly masculine.