Afghan policewomen tout gains, but live in fear of losing it all
Police officer Roina Durani sits in an office at the police headquarters near Forward Operating Base Airborne in Wardak province, Afghanistan in July.
FORWARD OPERATING BASE AIRBORNE, Afghanistan — Roina Durani had dreamt of wearing a uniform since she was a little girl. She might not have known exactly what type of uniform, but before 2001, she was pretty sure it wouldn’t be that of a police officer.
Yet 12 years after the fall of the Taliban government, Durani proudly sits in her own office sporting an Afghan National Police uniform.
“When the Taliban were in power, we couldn’t even leave the house without a male relative with us. We couldn’t get jobs — girls couldn’t go to school,” said Durani.
“The last 12 years we’ve been like birds flying freely. If the Taliban come back in power, we will be back in a cage.”
Durani and other women represent a very small portion of the Afghan Police Force — around 1 percent, according to the United Nations Development Program.
But despite their small numbers, Durani and the other female police officers stand the most to lose if the Taliban come back to power. While significant and visual gains have been made for women who serve in the police department, they face immense obstacles: Male officers resist their promotion and the Taliban issue death threats and make attempts on their lives.
“In Chak District, the Taliban hung a woman from a tree and shot her five times for working with a Swedish NGO (nongovernmental agency). The same thing could happen to us,” Durani said.
In July, the top female police officer in Helmand province, Islam Bibi, was shot and killed on her way to work. Bibi was regarded as an example of progress for women, especially for women who wanted to work for the government.
According to local news reports, before she was killed, Bibi received death threats not only from the Taliban, but from her family.
Durani’s colleague, Razia Yaqoobi, a 26-year-old police officer who has been on the force for four years, has already come to terms with the dangers she faces in her profession. She says her family is happy she has a job, just not this one.
“When we accepted this job, we knew it was dangerous, but we accepted the risk anyway,” said Yaqoobi.
Most female police officers have only a few tasks assigned to them — the main one being to search women and children. They are armed, most with Makarov pistols, but Durani says the men are still hesitant to put them in the line of fire.
“Two years ago, around the time of Ramadan, we went on a mission to Sheik Habad and the insurgents attacked us. The male officers fought back with Kalashnikovs and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). We were armed with pistols, but were told to take cover in the vehicles and not to shoot,” Durani said. “I would have shot back, if I was allowed.”
According to a 2011 UNDP-sponsored survey, 53 percent of Afghans reported they were in favor of having female police officers, reflecting an increase in acceptance of women in positions of authority — progress female policewomen are scared to lose.
The report also said that in August 2012, there were 1,445 female police officers spread across various ranks in the National Police Force, an increase of 1,000 from 2007. Currently, there are more than 2,200 female police officers, with representation in every province.
The recruitment program, which is run in conjunction with the UNDP, hopes to bring that number to 5,000 by June 2014.
“We are focusing on this a lot these days,” said Najeeb Danish, deputy spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Interior.
“We have brought some new options for women police to encourage them for the job,” said Danish. “For example, separate classes during the training, enough salary and taking good care of them.”
Monawar Shah, a police officer in eastern Nangarhar province, said that working with female police is essential.
“We live in a traditional society, we can’t body-search a woman anywhere, so we need women police for this,” he added. “We ask all the respected families to let those girls who want to join the police, to join. Without their help we can’t provide a secure environment,” said Shah.
For Durani, the recruitment campaign is hitting closer to home than she is comfortable with.
“I have a daughter in the 11th grade who has expressed interest in becoming a policewoman herself,” she said as she acknowledged the risks of her profession.
As U.S. and coalition troops withdraw from the country to keep in line with the 2014 deadline, Durani said she worries the security situation will deteriorate, and, along with that, some of the rights women have gained over the years. It makes it hard to give her blessing to her young daughter’s aspirations.
“I just don’t know how I feel about it yet,” she said.