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Culture shift: Women help guard detainees

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GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — The Taliban fighters who wouldn't allow women to study in Afghanistan and punished them if a veil slipped or ankle showed now are getting orders from women guards and care from female doctors.

"In their culture they get to tell their females what to do," said Pfc. Courtney Sletter, 21, from Waconia, Minn. "Well, they are now in a new culture, and I get to tell them what to do."

Some 130 women are among the 1,300 U.S. military personnel at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, and they perform much the same duties as the men. Unarmed female guards watch over the orange-clad inmates in Camp X-ray; medical workers administer care to the sick or injured; and women escort prisoners to restrooms and showers. The women are replaced by male guards when the inmates undress.

For the prisoners, it's a world apart from Afghanistan where, until their recent ouster, the Taliban prohibited women from attending school and from working and punished them for wearing anything other than the all-encompassing burqa, and relegated them to a life without choices under a strict brand of Islam.

"Generally when you're talking to the detainees, their eyes will tend to be in a downward position, possibly because they see you as a woman," said Sonia Kurichh, 29, a podiatrist from Washington, D.C.

Kurichh has performed surgery on at least two inmates and will be among medical personnel manning a new tented field hospital.

"Some of them utter prayers, possibly because they think I'm contaminated, but generally they've been appreciative of the care," she said.

Female personnel are given a briefing on the culture clash and potential problems. So far, they say, there haven't been any. They have noticed, however, that even the prisoners who speak English address them only to ask for water or to be escorted to the latrines.

"I was warned about certain aspects of their culture, like if they see ankles they will cut them off because it's a sin," said Emily Monson, 19, of American Falls, Idaho. "I'm not concerned they're going to do anything to me," she said.

The 158 inmates are all suspected terrorists who fought for al-Qaida or the ousted Afghan Taliban regime that sheltered the network. They are locked in temporary cells of chain-link fence walls set on a cement slab, open to the elements. Like many women in the military here, she says she was raised in a U.S. household where men and women shared responsibilities.

"I believe that everything should be 50/50," she said. "If a woman does dishes, a man should too. I'm sure they (the detainees) don't feel that way."