From left: Local guard force members Yelena Sakova, Olga Seyidova, and Milayne Abasova at the new embassy compound, May 11. Photo by Matthew A. Shedd
By Matthew A. Shedd
Approaching Ashgabat’s new embassy compound construction site in the morning, one cannot help but be overwhelmed by the southern backdrop of the Kopet Dag mountain range. As the sun crests the horizon from the east, it illuminates the rippled terrain giving it life like a towering and swelling wave. Focus on this magnificent landscape is suddenly distracted by another sight—a young woman in a U.S. embassy local guard force (LGF) uniform. One might ask, “Why does this sight so dramatically capture one’s attention?” Because women in the security profession are absent in Turkmenistan. Yet, in sharp contrast to Turkmenistan’s efforts to prevent women from serving in these roles, the Regional Security Office (RSO) is hiring an increasing number of women and empowering them through professional development opportunities.
The security profession has been historically perceived as a male career in most societies, including the United States, but in recent years “Women in Security” (WIS) has become a topic of study in the security field. Leading professional organizations are examining this issue and publishing comprehensive studies that reveal barriers to entry, under-representation in management and executive roles, and salary disparity. These advocacy groups are pursuing initiatives to promote gender equity in the security and law enforcement fields, not only of the moral and ethical imperative but also because there is a clear correlation between establishing diversity and promoting effectiveness and profitability. Meanwhile, in Turkmenistan, women simply want the opportunity to serve—in any capacity—in the security profession.
Many Americans ask if a U.S. diplomatic presence makes a difference in far-flung areas of the world. Ambassador Matthew S. Klimow meets with every employee upon their arrival. During the meeting, he conveys his vision for the embassy and the geopolitical significance of this country and region. He also speaks to American values and the importance of demonstrating them through our individual actions.
Meeting the women of Ashgabat’s LGF will dispel all doubts that naysayers—especially host country critics—have about a woman’s ability to serve in demanding security roles. For example, Djennet Tadjimova, a seven-year member of the embassy’s LGF, practiced judo for 12 years in her youth and is now a CrossFit disciple. Her goals are to advance in the security field and assume a leadership position, but her near-term focus is to become one of the ambassador’s bodyguards. Similarly, Mahriban Jumaniyazova has been with the LGF for six years and is a Turkmen national women’s powerlifting team member. Since 2009, she has amassed no less than 35 gold, silver, and bronze medals in multiple Asian games and in the World Classic Powerlifting Championship.
Shift Supervisor Anna Shamuhamedova’s professional trajectory epitomizes determination. She started by cleaning apartments for American diplomats, then transitioned to being a nanny before joining the LGF. During her 11 years with the LGF, her initiative and skills quickly propelled her into the senior guard role and ultimately to her current position as a shift supervisor.
“I’ve always admired those who protected others,” said Shamuhamedova when asked what inspired her to seek out a security position. She hopes to be more attentive to caring for and developing her subordinates in her future roles.
Female guards have a great role model in Adeliya Gasanova, the deputy LGF commander. After completing university abroad, Gasanova served in management positions in both the financial and hospitality industries before joining the LGF as one of only four female guards in 2005.
“It wasn’t easy, and our male colleagues didn’t really accept us at first,” said Gasanova. “But that didn’t discourage me, and I went on to fill each position in the LGF until I became deputy commander.”
Gasanova’s rise to deputy commander was somewhat of a rarity, even within the Foreign Service. She has seen many changes over her tenure, most notably a dramatic improvement in how male guards now readily accept and respect their female counterparts. As vivid proof, Gasanova’s callsign is “Sister,” a term of respect given to her by male colleagues.
“My daughter and two young granddaughters understand the significance of a woman being promoted to a position of such responsibility, especially in a prestigious organization like the U.S. embassy,” she said.
Even with the embassy’s efforts to provide women more opportunities, the government of Turkmenistan’s repressive laws hinder its efforts. For example, beginning in 2018, Turkmen authorities began pulling over women drivers and fining them without cause. The practice became progressively worse with the government seizing vehicles and banning women from driving all together. After widespread international criticism, the government rescinded its official ban on women driving, but that practice was replaced by another of “non-renewing” women’s licenses. This practice impedes the advancement of female LGF members as some positions require a candidate to have a driver’s license (i.e., mobile patrol, ambassador’s protective detail, LGF commander).
English proficiency is another barrier to advancement for LGF members. While it is incumbent upon an employee to improve their skills, language is among the most difficult to refine. Anyone who has studied a foreign language knows there is no substitute for practicing with native speakers. In the embassy environment, that opportunity is most common in supervisory positions requiring interaction with U.S. employees. If women employees cannot advance into supervisory positions, their ability to improve their English proficiency is impeded. Turkmenistan’s access to English language learning is incredibly limited, and the embassy offers some of the only opportunities in the country.
Undeterred by host nation restrictions, Embassy Ashgabat responded by developing a drivers’ training program specifically for women security staff. Inspired by the ambassador, Assistant Regional Security Officer Carlos Curran leads an initiative to give female guards access to driver training. The program, championed over the past two years by the Regional Security Office and the deputy chief of missions, includes enhanced experience of driving different size vehicles, both automatic and standard transmissions (the latter being how females are tested). This example also inspired several locally employed supervisors to volunteer to train their female colleagues.
Curran volunteers his free time providing English lessons further determined to eliminate barriers. He also has his sights set on diversifying the ambassador’s protective detail. To this end, he has added a special English class for female guards interested in applying. Post’s collective efforts not only propel the foreign policy goal of empowering women but also underscore—daily—the ambassador’s sentiments of demonstrating American values through individual actions.
Just as the sunrise illuminates and animates the rigid Kopet Dag mountain range, the women of the U.S. embassy’s security team represent a new dawn in Turkmenistan, one that aspires to a more diverse and inclusive society.
Matthew A. Shedd is a personal services contractor site security manager with the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations.