MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER, TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. --
When the focus of military operations in Iraq shifted from direct combat actions to stabilization and peacekeeping missions, Marines in combat units manning tactical control points throughout the country began using search and seizure methods to capture insurgents trying to smuggle weapons and other contraband through the checkpoints.
However, since Muslim tradition does not allow a man to touch a woman who is not related to them and knowing American military personnel would not search them unless a female service member was present, insurgents began to use women to smuggle contraband and act as suicide bombers.
To counter this threat, the Marine Corps developed the Lioness Program, which was formed five years ago to provide culturally-sensitive searches on Iraqi women, according to an article written by Regina T. Akers, a Ph.D. historian at the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, D.C.
The Lioness Program attaches female Marines to combat units to search Iraqi women and children who may be trying to smuggle money or weapons through security checkpoints in Iraq. The “lionesses” also train Iraqi women how to conduct proper searches on other women.
“Any time you’re talking about cultural differences, or any other situation, if there is a female involved, you want a female to search them,” said Staff Sgt. James Baker, the Combat Center Provost Marshal’s Office operations chief. “If you don’t follow that rule, you could potentially subject a Marine to the potential hardships of sexual harassment or cultural infringement.
“When you’re in a foreign country or hostile environment, there are a lot of considerations you want to take into account, like cultural differences, language barriers and overall situational awareness,” added the Lexington, Ky., native.
Baker said the Lioness Program observed those differences and successfully struck a balance between maintaining good rapport with the Iraqi people and still allowing Marines to safely do their jobs while deployed.
Cpl. Jacqueline Parker, the Marine Wing Support Squadron 374 supply warehouse noncommissioned officer, was a member of the Lioness Program while on her second deployment to Iraq with her squadron last year. During the deployment, Parker was the only female in the squadron to attend the program.
After attending a week-long training program, she was attached to 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, to provide security and search authority for the battalion’s corpsmen while they offered medical treatment to local Iraqis.
“I led a group of female Marines attached to 1/3 in [Camp] Baharia, Iraq,” said the Mobile, Ala., native. “Basically what we did was set up a tent to search Iraqi women and children prior to giving them medical treatment.
“When I first went to the program, I was nervous – you never know what to expect,” Parker said. “Overall, it was an exciting experience for me, though, and I have no regrets whatsoever. It’s good to know you’re doing something to help people, and I like helping out.”
By affording female Marines like Parker the opportunity to serve directly alongside combat units, the Lioness Program inadvertently provided women with more equality on the frontlines.
“Twenty years ago, seeing a female [Marine] at a checkpoint with a bunch of 03s [infantrymen] would’ve been really uncommon,” Baker said. “Now, it’s almost become a norm. It really isn’t a big deal to see women on the frontlines or at these checkpoints.”
With “lionesses” continuing to serve in Iraq, the significance of women Marines serving side-by-side with combat units has been accented by their ability to perform their duties as well as any other Marines manning the checkpoints.
“I don’t think there was a Marine out there who didn’t understand the importance of having females there,” Baker said. “No one I know ever questioned their abilities or their knowledge. We didn’t look at them as females serving at a checkpoint, we just saw another Marine.”