BAGHDAD (Army News Service, Oct. 18, 2007) - In a well-lit meeting room in a government building in Baghdad, 20 Iraqi women sat in a circle, intently watching the demonstration in the center of the room. They were dressed modestly but with some flair: bright pink and blue headscarves mixed in among the black chadors and chunky, designer purses rested on the floor beneath their seats.

The friendly, casual atmosphere in the room was similar to a suburban book-club meeting, or maybe a Mary-Kay cosmetics party. But these women were not learning how to apply foundation, they were learning how to lock and load an AK-47.

"Who can show me how to do it'" asked the instructor, an Iraqi Army sergeant, as he held up the weapon.

One of the women jumped up and took the automatic rifle, expertly disassembled it and put it back together. When she cocked it by loudly slamming the charging handle back, the rest of the women applauded.

As members of the first class of female security volunteers in Adhamiyah, all 51 women were groundbreakers. The women will join hundreds of male residents already helping secure Adhamiyah by guarding public sites like schools, hospitals, and government buildings.

The four-day course, which ran from Oct. 8 to 11, was organized by the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, and taught by U.S. and Iraqi Soldiers. The training focused on security procedures, proper search techniques and weapons familiarization.

"I think it shows these women that, 'I, too, can make a difference in my community,'" said 2nd Lt. Lauren Cabral, the officer in charge of the training.

The necessity of having female security guards became clear earlier this month when a female suicide bomber entered a public building without being searched in nearby Fadhil and blew up her explosive vest, killing several people, said Maj. Ike Sallee, operations officer for the 3rd Sqdn., 7th Cav.

In Iraq, cultural sensitivities preclude men from searching women, but nothing stops a woman from searching another woman. For that reason, it was important to give women in Adhamiyah the chance to assist with the security effort.

"Their lives are in danger, too," said Pfc. Paula Cook, a military policewoman with the 108th Military Police Company and one of the class instructors.

In a culturally conservative society like Iraq, some might criticize the female security volunteers for stepping outside their traditional roles. But Mervat Hussein, a single mother, said no one has the right to criticize the women for trying to protect their community.

"What is the substitute they have' Nothing," Ms. Hussein said. "Should we just stay in our houses, suffering'"

However, while women like Ms. Hussein had the motivation to take part in security efforts, they lacked the know-how. The class remedied that by teaching them several basic skills they will need to be effective as security volunteers.

On the second day of training, Pfc. Cook demonstrated search techniques for the group. The class began with nervous titters among the women, who blushed and looked away when Pfc. Cook showed how to search sensitive areas.

But when she showed them how easy it is to hide a weapon, the women started really shaking each other down during role-playing exercises.

"Once we got it across to them that it's for their security as well as everyone else's, I think they got it," she said. "Towards the end they were really catching on."

"As a female, I definitely feel responsible. I want to teach them everything I know that could help them out on the street," said 2nd Lt. Cabral.

After only a few days of training, many of the women were already feeling more confident and better able to protect themselves and looking forward to using their new knowledge. Ms. Hussein said she had gained a lot of knowledge from the training, especially about the AK-47.

"I really learned many things. I knew nothing about weapons before this," she said. "I am happy because now I am taking a part in protecting the community. I am nervous, but happy."

The women graduated Oct. 12, swore an oath of loyalty to the government and were prepared to join hundreds of men in protecting their homeland.

(Sgt. Mike Pryor works for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division Public Affairs Office.)