Women on the front lines in Iraq

The New York Times Sunday Styles section sheds light on women fighting in Iraq.

Published November 21, 2005 5:27PM (EST)

The story of female soldiers currently fighting in Iraq hasn't gotten a lot of attention, but this week's Times Sunday Styles section -- of all places -- featured a captivating story about 21-year-old Pvt. Safiya Boothe, one of eight women and 700 soldiers stationed at Camp Normandy, north of Baghdad.

Though Pentagon rules still forbid women from holding combat positions in the armed forces, the unpredictable warfare in Iraq has meant that female soldiers cannot help finding themselves on the front lines. According to the Times, women make up 15 percent of the 160,000 American troops in Iraq; and, as of Friday's casualty numbers, 43 of the 2,067 American soldiers killed in the war are females.

The details of the Times story, by Juliet Macur, are fascinating.

There are, apparently, no women-only bathrooms in Camp Normandy. In the base's general store, panty liners are sold only because "they are good for cleaning rifles." Boothe says that the base's computers are often set to the Playboy.com home page; she talks about her humiliation at worrying she was going to die on the toilet when a mortar fell next to the portable toilet she was using, and about how if she wants to feel feminine, the best she can do is wear perfume, which attracts sand fleas.

Lory Manning, the director of the Women in the Military project at the Women's Research and Education Institute in Washington, tells the Times that "for the first time women are shooting back and doing heavy lifting in a real war. The bullets are real; so are the roadside bombs and the blood. Now we see that women are bonding with the men and not going to pieces."

Boothe, for her part, is incredibly articulate about her position, and tells the paper about how she met a female mechanic when she first arrived at base. "She didn't show emotion. It seemed like she was numb," Boothe says. "Now, I know why."

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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