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Af-Pak 2014: The plight of women in uniform

Qarib Shahab and Riffat Anjum
Daily death threats, sexual harassment and a life of ignominy. Meet the pioneer female officers in Afghanistan and Pakistan giving thousands of women their first ever access to law enforcement privileges and justice.
31.10.2014  |  Wardak/Kabul/Nangarhar/Peshawar
Safia at her office in 2014. (This and main photo: Riffat Anjum).
Safia at her office in 2014. (This and main photo: Riffat Anjum).

Safia was shot four times during a raid on the home of a suspected militant in 2011 in Peshawar. The police constable took three bullets to the leg and apprehended the suspect. Only when the fourth bullet impacted did she hand over command to her deputy.

“I still remember that gruesome day,” says a recuperated Safia, who joined the Pakistani police in 2009. “I received a call early in the morning at 5am to get prepared for a search operation. I lost blood on that day but I will always be ready to sacrifice my life for the restoration of peace in the province,” adds the officer from the troubled Charsadda district, who is back serving in the police after a year out injured.

Six hundred women in police in KP

Safia is one of 600 women now serving in the police force in the northeastern mountainous province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The number has grown rapidly since 20 years ago, when many Pashtun women were barely able to bend the patriarchal rules to leave their homes, let alone enforce law and order at road blocks and in the homes of others. The demand for female officers has grown in Pakistan as communities recognize the need for women to perform vital law and order duties, such as stop and search operations on women and investigations into domestic violence.

Female policing mirrors the need for a gender-sensitive approach to law enforcement. Safia says women police have a two-pronged approach to combating terrorism, for example, that combines the hard-hitting demands of tackling insurgent cells and violent criminals face-two-face with the use of a softer touch to gain information from the daughters and wives of suspected militants. Such intelligence gathering with women can only be undertaken by women, she explains.

Legal help for rural women

Sixty-five desks exist at police stations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to facilitate local women registering legal complaints. Three specific 'Lady Complaint Units' have been set up with the collaboration of Aitibar, a non-governmental organization, to help women register cases of abuse, domestic violence and other gender-related crimes throughout Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf, the ruling party in KP's provincial government, in 2013 introduced the First Information Report (FIR), a simplified procedure for plaintiffs to register their complaints easily at local district police stations. Alongside the introduction of a mobile court, the FIR is supposed to expedite a backlog of cases that has clogged up the judicial system and made many residents in rural areas lose faith in the state's ability to deliver justice.

Across the border...

A female officer performs a luggage search at a Wardak checkpoint. (Photo Qareb Shahab)

Such gender-sensitive law enforcement development is largely absent across the border in Afghanistan, where in many frontier areas, local police forces are still staffed entirely by men. In Wardak, the corridor to Kabul, there is not a single woman in the entire provincial police force. Thirteen female officers commute daily from the capital Kabul to the region to perform essential traffic police duties, but even they can only be deployed in the provincial capital Midanshar, where it is safe enough for them to work. In eight of the province's chaotic districts there are no female police.

Even in more urbanised settlements like Midanshar, Afghan female police face an uphill struggle to be accepted. “People see us and think 'When a woman becomes a police officer, she is no longer a human being,” says Ruqiya, one of the 13 women of the Afghan National Police (ANP) stationed in Wardak.

Ruqiya leaves her children with her eldest in Kabul every day to commute the 35-kilometres to Midanshar, where she searches vehicles and female passengers at a roadblock. She says the Wardak force has tried to accomodate her and her female colleagues by providing changing rooms and toilets, but that the job remains very challenging because she is on her own at her post.

The sense of outcast, fear and despair felt by Ruqiya is echoed by many of her female colleagues across the country. For many Afghan women, joining the police is tantamount to signing their own death sentence. “I joined the police out of desperation, otherwise I would have never chosen a job for which people make fun of me,” says one Kabul-based female officer bluntly.

“Women police officers cannot live in ordinary homes because their lives are always threatened with death,” says Laila, who works as a guard at the site of the Nangarhar provincial government in eastern Afghanistan. The young officer says she is regularly insulted and abused in her work and that people see her profession as “immoral” and “shameful”. Laila believes more women need to be recruited for prevailing attitudes to change.

One officer for every 6,400 women

Sedid Seddiqi, spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Interior Affairs (MoIA). (Photo: Qareb Shahab)

There are currently 2200 women serving in the Afghan National Police (ANP), according to Ministry of Interior Affairs (MoIA) spokesman Sediq Seddiqi. That is roughly one officer per every 6,400 women, in a rigidly conservative society where only women can investigate certain gender-sensitive issues. Several years ago Karzai's government, flanked by NATO, announced that 5,000 women would be recruited into the police by 2014. These targets are unlikely to be met, and assassinations of high-profile women commanders have hampered recruitment efforts. Last year two high-ranking female officers were killed in the space of two months in Helmand Province. One of the officers reportedly received death threats from members of her own family. The stigma attached to women who serve deters others in the community from signing up, says MoIA spokesman Seddiqi, despite ongoing efforts to diversify law and order enforcement.

“We do everything possible to increase the number of female officers, we are providing every service and facility, but it seems that there is no interest,” Seddiqi told Afghanistan Today. Brigadier Wali Mohammad, chief of media at the Wardak security directorate, says he is yet to recruit a woman. Wardak residents recognise the need for more female police officers but few patriarchs want to see their family members join the force, fearing the safety risks as well as the associated social stigma. 

Not my daughter, please

Three female officers man a roadblock at the edges of Kabul. (Photo: Qareb Shahab).

 “I accept the fact that society needs female police officers, but Afghanistan is not in a state where people could send their daughters and sisters to join the police because these days the police don’t have a good reputation,” says Hayatullah from Sayed Abad, a turbulent district 40-kilometres south of Midanshar and home to a rising insurgency. The 30-year-old says police have searched his house several times but that he would never allow male officers to search his wife or daughters.

The depleted women's force is often only visible at roadblocks. At one of the southern gates to Kabul, 35-year-old second lieutenant Nadia searches the luggage compartment of a bus and the female passengers at a roadside stop on a busy thoroughfare. “My male colleagues treat me well,” says Nadia, flanked by two other female officers. While many Afghan women in the police put on a brave face about their daily struggles, a 2014 report by British NGO Oxfam claims female officers are regularly abused and sexually assaulted by their male colleagues.

Nevertheless, the current crop of Afghan female police officers may take solace from the advances made by their colleagues across the border in Pakistan. “People stared at us when we used to visit a festival or market, or at roadblocks, but now we are given respect in society because our need is felt. Male police officers accept our assistance in every action they do on duty,” says Station House Officer Rozi Altaf.

Where there's a Gill, there's a way

Station House Officer Rozi Altaf. (Photo: Riffat Anjum).

Such inroads were made largely thanks to pioneers such as Shehzadi Noushad Gillani, the current director of the KP branch of the National Women's Police Network. Gilliani joined the force in 1994 as a cadet at the recommendation of her father who was in the army, and soon achieved promotion to lieutenant. She held the rank for more than a decade and even served as an instructor at Hangu Police Training School. In September 2014 she became the first-ever female Superintendent in KP province.

Gillani says more and more women are joining the police, but that every single officer needs to be strong to succeed in the face of societal prejudices. “Social norms and cultural barriers have limited women to their houses,” says Gillani. “If we do not face such challenges, then none of us can dare to go outside of our homes.” Thousands of Afghan women in need of justice and support will be hoping more and more women follow in Gillani's footsteps through doors on both sides of the border.

Ughay Safi contributed reporting from Nangarhar province.

 

When Safia was shot four times in the leg during a raid on the home of a suspected militant in 2011 in Peshawar, the police constable took three bullets to the leg and apprehended the suspect. Only when the fourth bullet impacted on her leg did she hand over command to her deputy.

I still remember that gruesome day,” says Safia, who joined the Pakistani police in 2009. “I received a call early in the morning at 5am to get prepared for a search operation. I lost blood on that day but I will always be ready to sacrifice my life for the restoration of peace in the province,” adds the officer from the troubled Charsadda district, who is back serving in the police after a year out injured.

Safia is one of 600 women now serving in the police force in the northeastern mountainous province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The number has grown rapidly since 20 years ago, when many Pashtun women were barely able to bend the patriarchal rules to leave their homes, let alone enforce law and order at road blocks and in the homes of others. The demand for female officers has grown in Pakistan as communities recognize the need for women to perform vital law and order duties, such as stop and search operations on women and investigations into domestic violence. Female policing mirrors the need for a gender-sensitive approach to law enforcement. Safia says women police have a two-thronged approach to combating terrorism that combines the hard-hitting demands of tackling insurgent cells and violent criminals face-two-face with the use of a softer touch to gain information from the daughters and wives of suspected militants.

There are now 65 desks at police stations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to facilitate local women registering legal complaints. Three specific 'Lady Complaint Units' have been set up with the collaboration of Aitibar, a non-governmental organization, to help women register cases of abuse, domestic violence and other gender-related crimes throughout Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf, the ruling party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's provincial government, in 2013 introduced the First Information Report (FIR), a simplified procedure for plaintiffs to register their complaints easily at local district police stations . Alongside the introduction of a mobile court, the FIR is supposed to expedite a backlog of cases that has clogged up the judicial system and made many residents in rural areas lose faith in the state's ability to deliver justice.

Such gender-sensitive law enforcement is largely absent across the border in Afghanistan, where in many frontier areas, local police forces are still staffed entirely by men. In Wardak, the corridor to Kabul, there is not a single woman in the entire provincial police force. Thirteen female officers commute daily from the capital Kabul to the region to perform essential traffic police duties, but even they can only be deployed in the provincial capital Midanshar, where it is safe enough for them to work. In eight of the province's anarchic districts there are no female police.

Even in more urbanised settlements like Midanshar, Afghan female police face an uphill struggle to be accepted. “People see us and think 'When a woman becomes a police officer, she is no longer a human being,” says one officer in Wardak, who preferred not to be named. Ruqiya, another one of the 13 women of the Afghan National Police (ANP) stationed in Wardak, leaves her three children with her eldest in Kabul every day to commute the 35-kilometres to Midanshar, where she searches vehicles and female passengers at a roadblock. She says the Wardak force has now provided female changing rooms and toilets but that the job remains very challenging because she is on her own.

The sense of outcast, fear and despair felt by Ruqiya is echoed by many of her women colleagues across the country. For many Afghan women, joining the police is tantamount to signing their own death sentence. “I joined the police out of desperation, otherwise I would have never chosen a job for which people make fun of me,” says one Kabul-based female officer bluntly. “Women police officers cannot live in ordinary homes because their lives are always threatened with death,” says Laila, who works as a guard at the site of the Nangarhar provincial government. The young officer says she is regularly insulted and abused in her work and that people see her profession as “immoral” and “shameful”. Laila believes more women need to be recruited for attitudes to change (CUT?but also to combat the rising number of suicide attackers disguised as female officers. )

There are currently 2200 women serving in the Afghan national police, approximately one officer per every 6,400 women according to Ministry of Interior Affairs (MoIA) spokesman Sediq Seddiqi. That is roughly one officer per every 6,400 women, in a rigidly conservative society where only women can investigate certain gender-sensitive issues. Several years ago Karzai's government, flanked by NATO, announced that 5,000 women would be recruited into the police by 2014. Those targets will not be met and assassinations of high-profile women commanders has not helped find new recruits either. Last year two high-ranking female officers were killed in the space of two months. One of the officers had reportedly received death threats from members of her own family. The stigma attached to women who serve deters others in the community from signing-up, says MoIA spokesman Seddiqi, despite ongoing efforts to diversify law and order enforcement.

We do everything possible to increase the number of female officers, we are providing every service and facility, but it seems that there is no interest,” Seddiqi told Afghanistan Today. Brigadier Wali Mohammad, chief of media at the Wardak security directorate, says is yet to recruit a woman. Wardak residents recognise the need for more female police officers but few patriarchs want to see their family members join the force because of the obvious risks and the dangers associated, let alone the stigma for the family.

Hayatullah is a 30 years-old former of Sayed Abad district, located 40 km to the south of the provincial capital of Wardak province. Security forces have searched his house several times, but he would never allow male police officers to search his female family members. “I accept the fact that society needs female police officers, but Afghanistan is not in a state where people could send their daughters and sisters to join the police because these days police don’t have a good reputation,” says Hayatullah from Sayed Abad, a district 40-kilometres south of Midanshar and home to a rising insurgency. The 30-year-old says police have searched his house several times but that he would never allow male officers to search his wive or daughters.

The depleted women's force is often only visible at roadblocks. At one of the southern gates to Kabul, 35-year-old second lieutenant Nadia searches the luggage compartment of a bus and the female passengers at roadside stop on a busy throughfare. “My male colleagues treat me well,” says Nadia, flanked by two other female officers. While many Afghan women in the police put on a brave face about their daily struggles, a 2014 report by British NGO Oxfam claims female officers are regularly abused and sexually assaulted by their male colleagues.

The current crop of Afghan female police officers may take solace from the advances made by their colleagues across the border in Pakistan. “People stared at us when we used to visit a festival or market, or at roadblocks, but now we are given respect in society because our need is felt. Male police officers take our assistance in every action they do during the duty” says Station House Officer Rozi Altaf.

Such inroads were made largely thanks to pioneers such as the current director of the KP branch of the National Women's Police Network, Shehzadi Noushad Gillani. Gilliani joined the force in 1994 as a cadet - at the recommendation of her father who was in the army - but soon achieved promotion to lieutenant. She held the rank for more than a decade and even served as an instructor at Hangu Police Training School s well as gaining experience in a number of senior roles in law enforcement. In September 2014 she became the first-ever female Superintendent in KP province.

Gillani says more and more women are joining the police but that every single one needs to be strong to succeed in the face of societal prejudices. “Social norms and cultural bearers have limited women to their houses,” says Gillani. “If we do not face such challenges then none of us can dare to go outside of our houses”. Thousands of Afghan women in need of justice and support will be hoping more and more women follow in Gillani's footsteps through the door both sides of the border.