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Burqas and kalasjnikovs

Afghanistan has six hundred police women; in 2014 there should be five thousand. Even though they run a high risk of getting killed there are still women signing up, often driven by financial problems. Despite government efforts people don’t seem to take them very seriously. A lot of these female police officers don’t even have a service weapon and others are threatened by their male colleagues.

‘They refuse to give us a weapon.’ Sima stares sadly at the floor in the office in the provincial police department in Herat, the second-largest city of Afghanistan and close to the Iranian border. Her white headscarf, shining jacket, black pants and ballerinas do not make her look like a police officer. ‘There are only big male uniforms. I don’t have the money to alter one’, the thin 25-year-old girl explains, while picking at the fraying threads of the sofa.

It’s hot in the office. A thick layer of dust covers the wooden desk. The chair behind it has been wrapped together by tape. Only the folded prayer rug on the coat rack appears to be spotless. At the other end of the room two robust ladies wear oversized uniforms but have also wrapped themselves in blue burqas. ‘Outside I always wear a burqa on top of my uniform, otherwise I’ll get killed’, one of them explains timidly.

Police women are a favorite target of the Taliban. Many more male than female police officers die from the hands of insurgents. The difference, however, appears to be that male police officers get killed indiscriminately in their line of duty as representatives of a government opposed by the insurgents. Police women appear to be individually targeted and killed because they are women exercising an Islamic right to work which is opposed by traditionalists.

Most familiar is the assassination of Malalai Kakar, Afghanistan’s highest-ranking female police officer – famous worldwide for her brave struggle to reduce violence against women and children. One and a half year ago the mother of six was shot to death in front of her house in Kandahar on her way to work. While a female agent in Herat suffered the same fate, still the majority of the police women in the West-Afghan city don’t have a weapon.

Sima, fiercely: ‘At first they said I was not able to use a weapon. Though at the police academy in Kabul I was trained in shooting with a pistol as well as a kalasjnikov. After an order of the ministry of internal affairs to give all the police women a weapon, they had another excuse: people in the street would be able to snatch my pistol.’ She sighs. ‘In theory it sounds great, but in reality they look down on us. Nobody is interested in us. We are symbolic agents.’

While the police is one of the worst paid sectors in Afghanistan – the average police salary is around 150 dollars per month – Sima’s first motive to join two years ago was the money. After her husband died in a traffic accident she had to find a job to support herself and her three children. Despite her financial motive Sima expected to work on the street, fighting criminals, helping people and giving women better rights. Sadly this seems to be nothing more than a sweet fairytale.

Twice per week at the most she has to join her male colleagues to a checkpoint – officially to body search women – usually doing nothing. At the office she doesn’t get any tasks either. ‘I would love to do the men’s work. But most of the time we only sit inside. It’s unbelievable; as a literate woman I am perfectly equipped to do administrative work.’ Similar to the whole Afghan society, the majority of the police officers – seventy percent – is illiterate.

    

When a male agent enters the room, a burst of urine odor evaporates, presumably coming from the toilets opposite the office. Sima has to go to a checkpoint at the border of the city to body search women.

Two hours later we visit her at the checkpoint where she’s sitting in a green police container, looking glum. Her male colleagues sit outside busy doing nothing. Unfortunately Sima doesn’t want to talk to us anymore: one of her colleagues called her brother, who was not pleased about the fact that his sister had been interviewed by foreign journalists. An earlier agreed upon visit to her house gets cancelled as well.

Back in the center it’s a chaos of honking cars. Amongst blue burqas and dusty street children a female police officer attracts attention. On black pumps – wearing a spotless green uniform and headscarf to match – she’s standing in front of a rickety police cubicle in the burning sun. A black pistol dangles from her belt. With a serious glare she checks the surroundings, ignoring the astonished glances from men passing by. In the doorway of the cubicle a little boy peeks curiously outside. ‘That’s Rafi, my 7-year-old son’, she tells proudly. ‘After school he always joins me.’ Despite her small size, she radiates an – especially for Afghan women – exceptional self-confidence.

Mariam (26) is living nearby and invites us for a cup of tea. Her house is simply furnished. She’s also a widow. In a few minutes Mariam undergoes a transformation: from a severe police woman with weapon into a caring mother in a long colorful dress and headscarf. Her shy 10-year-old daughter puts a tea tray on the red carpet. In a corner cupboard – the only piece of furniture in the room – a photograph of Mariam in white uniform and big police cap is displayed. ‘I love my work’, Mariam starts her story while she sits down cross-legged on one of the pillows in the living room. Her son curls up to his mother while every few minutes he orders his older sister to get more tea. Mariam: ‘Recently during a house search two women in burqas tried to escape. While they ignored my orders, I started to yell and pointed my weapon at them. Because the women put their hands in the air, I discovered a pistol and kalasjnikov under their burqas. The men had been trying to smuggle those outside with the women.

According to Mariam bureaucratic procedures are the reason why many of her female colleagues haven’t got a weapon yet. ‘Most of them still haven’t been officially appointed by the ministry of internal affairs in Kabul.’ She also believes that some of the women are frightened deep down and don’t want to get a weapon. ‘They beg me not to go to dangerous provinces, otherwise they must go as well. They prefer to stay inside.’

Mariam thanks the gun to her boss who came into action after she received a death threat. ‘Two masked men on motorbikes shouted that they would kill me if I would continue doing this job.’ The incident didn’t frighten Mariam. ‘I searched for the men for days, determined to arrest them. When I took the decision to join the police, I considered everything, even the risk to get killed.

    

In the future police women are supposed to play a big role in reducing the large scale of domestic violence in Afghanistan. For this reason so-called Family Response Units have been built next to several police departments throughout the whole country. Abused women can turn to these containers – mostly manned by female officers. Also in Mazar-e-Sharif – the fourth-largest city of Afghanistan in the north close to the border with Uzbekistan – such a Family Response Unit has been built.

Inside the messy container Friba (45), Zahra (50) and Shahnaz (46) are sitting next to each other on a worn sofa. ‘In case of abuse we first of all register the complaint of the woman,’ tells Friba. ‘Mostly it concerns the husband. We invite him to come over and get him to promise not to do it again. In more serious cases, when a woman fears to be murdered by her husband, we also invite both of their parents. And we warn the husband that he will be held responsible for his actions.’

The three police women seem to be totally convinced about the effectiveness of their method. Rape-cases have to be referred to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). In Mazar, however, no women work at that department – an incomprehensible situation if you think about the fact that according to the Islam Afghan women are under no circumstances allowed to speak about sexual issues with a man. Raped women most of the time turn back home without filing complaint because of that.

Friba, Zahra and Shahnaz admit that the situation is far from ideal. ‘We cannot do anything about it. It’s the decision of the chief of the police department.’ Clearly he does not put any priority to the activities of the unit. ‘Recently a woman was beaten up by her husband,’ Friba tells. ‘I wanted to go and arrest him. But I didn’t get permission to take a police car. Finally I took a taxi to at least help the woman. Her husband was not arrested until the next day.’

The story of Nazreen (30), black dress, scarf, and also from Mazar, illustrates that joining the police can even get a woman into big problems. ‘Since the beginning of my marriage – I was only 14 – my husband physically abused me. Three years ago I finally turned him in to the police. However, after one night they let him go and he flew.’

To support her three small children Nazreen joined the police two years ago. A few months ago she suddenly started to receive phone calls from male colleagues of the CID who made her indecent proposals. ‘Of course every time I refused. But one night all of a sudden CID-detectives appeared at my door. A befriended couple and a male friend were visiting. Together with that male friend I was taken into custody, on the charge of adultery. I was in prison for more than two months, a horrible experience. Female prisoners were fighting daily. There was no clean drinking water. The food was disgusting. And after every visit from police officers of the European police force EUPOL, I got threatened by the guards. During my captivity my three sons stayed with my brother and sister. But they had scarcely enough money for their own families and told me they would soon send them to an orphanage if I would be in custody much longer.’ Finally Nazreen’s mother paid 200 dollars ransom – for many Afghans more than a monthly salary. Her case is still in the Supreme Court. She can only divorce when her husband also signs the divorce papers. But he is untraceable. ‘What kind of government does this country have if it is not even capable to give me a divorce?’

Before the tragedy, Nazreen enjoyed working at the highway police. ‘I had to body search all the women on the buses coming from other provinces. I intercepted a lot of knives, pistols and opium.’

According to Nazreen women are needed badly at the Afghan police. ‘When we go to the doctor and it is a man, there are many issues we cannot talk about. The same goes for the police.’

    

‘It’s not only the fault of the men, another problem is our culture,’ says colonel Shafika, the highest ranking colonel of the recently set up gender and human rights department within the ministry of internal affairs in Kabul. ‘Afghan women are not used to stand up for themselves. They don’t dare to demand a weapon or to claim a position within the CID. Surely it is not my fault. I have issued an official order that every police woman should carry a weapon.’

According to Apolonia Bos, human rights advisor at the European police force Eupol, the situation of police women depends a lot on the willingness of their male superiors. Some understand the importance of women in the police force. But a lot still resist, partly because many former Taliban warriors joined the police force. ‘Some are still convinced women belong in the cellar.’ Some death threats even come from male police officers. Because of that it’s not very surprising that some female police officers wear a burka on top of their uniform.’

To increase the number of police women with 4400 within five years, first of all the security of the police women has to be improved drastically, Bos explains. ‘Malalai Kakar reported several times that she was receiving death threats. The ministry ignored her. If they had listened, she might still be alive.’

In cooperation with among Eupol the ministry has installed a phone number that threatened police women can call for immediate help. And Norwegian officers are working on their defensibility on behalf of the ministry. First the Norwegians have trained thirteen Afghans. Later these Afghans will train the Afghan police women in the area of self-defense and arm use.

But the shooting course did result in some problems. ‘For each course member we only received ten bullets,’ tells Jane Bakken of the bilateral mission Noraf. ‘After we threatened to stop the course, they gave in. I’ve never heard of these kind of problems from my colleagues at Eupol regarding the male shooting course.’ Despite the problems Jane is optimistic. ‘In our train-the-trainer course we trained ten women and three men. At first they were rather uncomfortable to touch each other for example during physical practices in the self-defense course. But after only a few days, this started to improve. Especially among the younger generation we notice a change; boys and girls more and more start to see each other as equals.

At the police academy in Kabul we meet Najiba (26), one of the police officers trained by Noraf. She’s one of the agents who is going to train the 5000 Afghan police women in self defense through whole Afghanistan. Dressed in jeans, a long black coat and scarf, she leads us to the indoor firing-range, where some girls in uniform are looking at the boys getting shooting lessons. ‘This is the way it always goes. Women are not supposed to take part in physical trainings. And they don’t dare to claim their rights.’

All of a sudden the teacher does ask one of the girls, Liza, to step forward. As fast as she can she has to grasp a pistol from the ground and fire. Every time Liza bends down a female classmate pulls back her coat so the others won’t see her bottom. The male students laugh loudly. ‘The boys shouted all the time that I’m too small and too slow for the police,’ Liza tells after the lesson. ‘I felt so embarrassed.’

According to Najiba it will take at least ten years before there will be more equality within the police. ‘It has to come from both sides. Also the women must have the guts to stand up for their rights. But this is very difficult. Also during my training I was expected to wait obediently in the corner. But I decided not to accept this culture any longer; I demanded to join the physical training.’ Najiba hopes to be a role model for other girls. ‘If they see that women can teach something to their male colleagues, it will give them a lot of self-confidence.’ During the training by the Norwegians she did certainly surprise her male colleagues. ‘I was the best in shooting. Even better than the men.’