UK women soldiers aim to win 'hearts and minds'

A female soldier exiting a shower tent Lack of privacy is an issue which has seen some necessary improvisations

The death this week in Afghanistan of Army medic Channing Day has again highlighted the dangerous roles that women often undertake while serving their country overseas.

Photographer and ex-RAF member Ali Baskerville has a London exhibition of images taken in Kabul and Helmand of British women helping armed forces' attempts to forge links with Afghan communities.

"These women aren't gaining intelligence, they work to see if there's anything they can do for the locals, to build relationships with them."

Ali Baskerville spent six weeks photographing seven Female Engagement Officers (FEO) serving in the British armed forces in Afghanistan, starting her project last May.

She watched them as they joined foot patrols in the Nahr-e Saraj district of Helmand Province and reached out to Afghans caught up in the struggle between British soldiers and the Taliban. Her assignment there was organised by the Royal British Legion.

She describes the women as a valuable asset for their fellow soldiers, whose role is to "win hearts and minds of the Afghan people".

She adds: "There were seven FEOs when I was there, and they volunteer for the job. Most were full-time soldiers but one was a member of the Territorial Army. Another was a teacher in the Army.

Female British soldiers Female members of the British armed forces are volunteering to leave behind their lives in the UK to work with Afghan communities

"They spend 18 months learning the Pashto language at a training centre in Beaconsfield before they're deployed to Afghanistan. They're all in their 30s - girls that have had more life experience tend to volunteer.

"Women aren't perceived as a threat out there, so they can access communities more easily than men. They attach themselves with ground patrols and get around that way.

"The girls want to do this job. They are very driven and passionate. They have to volunteer to take this role on."

She says that the exhibition is called The White Picture because that is how information gathered by the FEOs is categorised by the Ministry of Defence.

"It doesn't fall into any category but the MoD has to call it something. It's immeasurable, actually, because it's about people and how can you measure that?"

'Lack of privacy'

Ms Baskerville speaks of the adaptability of the women who serve in Afghanistan, of how they cope with such a harsh, dangerous environment, one far removed from what they are used to.

"There is a big lack of privacy. They all have to go brush their teeth alongside the men and even use the same shower tent. But they're pretty adaptable.

"One of my pictures shows one of the women exiting that tent with a sign put up outside, warning there's a woman inside. The girls actually made that sign themselves.

"It's a very different experience for them. One of the women I photographed, for example... is with the Territorial Army and works as an accident and emergency nurse at a London hospital. She volunteered to leave that behind for a while and serve as an FEO."

A British female soldier talking to Afghan villagers An ability to speak Pashto plays a part in attempts by soldiers to earn the trust of Afghan locals

Ms Baskerville, originally from Hednesford in Staffordshire, was also impressed with how the FEOs adapted to camp life.

"There's a mosquito tent and they covered it in material to give themselves a private place to go to. And what amazed me was how they made part of their tent into a living room where they regularly watched Downton Abbey."

She also noticed how one FEO took some colourful personal items of clothing with her from home: "It was all about holding onto to her femininity while serving in those tough conditions".

The 37-year-old Ms Baskerville spent 12 years as a policewoman in the RAF, serving in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Iraq among other places. She left in 2009 to become a photojournalist and is now a reservist with the Territorial Army herself.

"The FEOs I photographed attended the private showing for the exhibition. I had to introduce them to people afterwards as no-one recognised them, saying they were so feminine in real life.

"People often say that women in the Army have to be butch. But that's just not true and the women I photographed are beautiful."

The White Picture exhibition runs until 11 November at the Oxo Gallery on the South Bank in London.

A soldier watching Downton Abbey Some of the living areas have been adapted to create a comfortable space where off-duty personnel can watch the likes of Downton Abbey

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