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Women in uniform

June 12, 2009

Since the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, opened its doors to women in 2001, their ranks have grown to a modest, yet proud seven percent. But of the 13,000-strong female force, very few are Muslims.

A female soldier in camouflage
Women are making their mark in the BundeswehrImage: dpa - Bildarchiv

Staff Sergeant Narima H. speaks five languages, wears a uniform, takes part in dangerous foreign missions and believes in Allah. And as a woman of Islamic faith, the 29-year-old is precisely the kind of asset the Bundeswehr needs when trying to bridge the cultural gaps that the security of its soldiers and the success of its operation depend on.

At present, the Bundeswehr is almost exclusively active in countries where the majority of the population is Muslim, and Narima's next mission is no exception. She is currently preparing for another deployment to Afghanistan.

“I am learning Dari,” she told Deutsche Welle. “My company is based in Kundus and that is one of the languages spoken in Afghanistan - specifically northern Afghanistan."

The trip will be her fourth foreign assignment.

"If we have migrants from countries where we are on a mission, we can learn a lot,” said Lieutenant Colonel Ulrich Kirsch of the Federal Armed Forces Association. “We can draw on their intercultural expertise.”

Opening doors

A group of women and one man in Afghanistan
A shared religious background can open local doorsImage: AP

Although Narima H. does not come from Afghanistan - she is of Moroccan descent but was born and raised in Germany - she shares her belief in Allah with the majority of the population in Hindu Kush. And that mutual faith has already proved useful in dealing with local people.

“I was in Kundus in Afghanistan last year and it was quite easy for me to communicate with people there, especially with Afghani women,” the young soldier said, adding that as soon as they realized she was Muslim, they opened doors for her.

Currently, there are some one thousand Muslims in the Bundeswehr, but changing demographics mean there is likely to be an increase of Muslims, both male and female, signing up to serve.

There are some concerns than a rise in Muslim recruits could lead to problems with the current dress code. But Narima doesn't see a conflict. “If it makes tactical or military sense for me to wear a headscarf, I'll wear one, and none of my superiors will tell me it's wrong,” she said.

Religious concessions

On the whole it seems as though the Bundeswehr is taking the necessary steps to incorporate the religious requirements of its members. Canteens offer pork-free meals and special rooms are provided for daily prayer rituals.

The Bundeswehr is even careful not to conscript during the month of Ramadan, when Muslims are not allowed to eat or drink until after sunset. Before Narima became a staff sergeant, she took a training course which was scheduled during the month of fasting. But she found a way around what could have become a real physical problem.

"The religion allows some exceptions to the fasting rule,” she said, “because it is not possible to endure such physical exertion with nothing to eat or drink.”

All applications welcome

Three young soldiers
The Bundeswehr says recruits from all backgrounds are welcomeImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Amidst a climate of falling birth rates, Lieutenant Colonel Juergen Amman of the North Rhine-Westphalia state command said he welcomes the increase in applications from Germans of foreign extraction.

“The Bundeswehr is open. And if young Muslim men and women apply to sign up, they are informed and advised and put through a test procedure,” he said.

And once they have made it to the other side of all that, and are installed in their barracks, the new recruits have to set about earning the respect of their comrades. But that, said Narima, is sometimes just a little bit harder to pull off when you happen to be a woman.

“Your qualities have to trump those of the others, and when you are performing in front of male colleagues, you can't just give 100 percent, you have to give 200 or sometimes even 300 percent."

Author: Ulrike Hummel / Tamsin Walker

Editor: Kate Bowen