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Women in combat picture speaks a thousand words

Corporal Freeman with Afghani woman (screen capture: Sisters In Arms website)

Last week the National Post ran a story about the role of women in combat positions in Afghanistan. It was accompanied by a truly arresting photograph — one that contained no bloodshed, guns or evidence of violence*.

I find the image of Canadian Corporal Tamar Freeman and the unidentifiable Afghani woman incredibly moving. The gesture is so intimate and at the same time underlines the vast chasm between the two women and the opportunities and realities of their daily lives.

It’s also impossible to look at the caress of appreciation and imagine it ever being offered to a male soldier, given the cultural contexts and barriers. Although I deeply lament the investment in military action, I respect Ms. Freeman’s choice to serve in the arena. Without women in combat roles, such interactions between Afghani women and Canadian soldiers simply could not occur. The exchange captured by the photograph would be literally inconceivable.

Similarly, the absence of women’s voices on a vast array of public policy issues leaves a gap in our national conversation that is inconceivable. We can’t possibly foresee exactly what impact the presence of women’s perspectives on everything from nuclear power and military spending to assisted suicide and crime prevention would have on the spending choices we make.  We genuinely can’t predict how our world, our culture would be different as a result of hearing and learning and benefiting from their informed opinions.

But I am certain that some of the differences would be as profound and significant as the interaction in this photograph.

(*Depending on your perspective, of course, a woman fully enveloped in a burka that completely covers her head and requires her to regard the world through a small meshed opening so opaque that others cannot distinguish her eyes, may well be a kind of violence. But the nature of the interaction depicted here is clearly not the kind of image we ordinarily think of as emblematic of war or conflict.)