Headscarves and Kalashnikovs The Women of the Kabul Police Academy

Of the over 1,600 cadets at the Kabul Police Academy, only 10 are women. They are breaking traditions and taking considerable personal risk.Yet it is still almost impossible to find female officers patrolling the streets -- many are still stuck in desk jobs.

By Edda Schlager in Kabul

Latifa is sitting at home with her young son when female police officers suddenly storm into the room. "Hands up, back against the wall," they yell, two of them pointing their pistols at Latifa. The boy stares, wide-eyed, into the barrel of a gun. Then Latifa is led out of the room. Outside, one of the police officers orders her to stand with her face against the wall, handcuffs her and pats her down.

Suddenly Latifa's mobile phone rings. The policewomen giggle. One of them quickly opens the handcuffs so that Latifa can answer her phone.

Latifa, in fact, is a police officer herself, or at least a future one. But today she is playing the role of a woman suspected of being a drug dealer, together with her young nephew, who she has "borrowed" from her brother. Latifa and her fellow cadets are attending the Kabul Police Academy, and they are currently practicing the techniques of raiding houses in a special, two-story Tactical Training Center set up for this purpose on the grounds of the academy.

Ten women, together with about 1,600 male students, are currently undergoing training here to become police officers. They are part of the one-third of all students destined to become higher-ranking officers. For these young women, this means attending the academy for three years.

Ten Female Officers for a New Afghanistan

Together with the men, the female students complete courses in shooting pistols and Kalashnikovs, in computer science, tactics and house-to-house combat. There is no separate girls' class. The women and men are trained together, except in physical education and in certain exercises like today's.

In terms of their appearance, the only difference between the young women and their mail counterparts is the black headscarf they wear. Their hair, ears and necks must be covered. The headscarf is part of the uniform, which consists of grey slacks and a corresponding jacket -- for men and women.

The female police cadets are quick to note that they wouldn't even wear a burka in private. The burka, a blue garment covering the entire body, was once required under the Taliban, and is still worn by many women in Afghanistan today. "We respect the headscarf, which is considered a dress code in Islam," says Habiba, 19, "but not the burka."

Fazel Rahman Ayubi, one of the instructors, is firmly convinced that women belong in the police force, even in Afghanistan. The girls, says Ayubi, are aware of their future responsibility early on. But the colonel has his doubts about the male recruits. "Close to 80 percent of our students only want to become police officers because they hope to gain privileges and corruption money."

"Why Do Men Have the Right to Insult Women?"

Besides, says Ayubi, female police officers are needed when women with problems go to the police. "Many Afghan women refuse to confide in male police officers," he adds.

Habiba explains that this is why she decided to join the police force. She says that when she and her family returned to Afghanistan after living in Iran during the Taliban era, she saw the way male border guards humiliated women at the border. "Why do men have the right to insult women?" Habiba asks indignantly. To avoid such injustices, she plans to be an advocate of women's rights as a police officer, preferably as a detective.

But Soraya, 27, knows all too well that, as a female police officer, dealing with criminals and victims of crimes is not always easy. She too completed the training at the police academy and is already an officer. But she is currently working as an instructor at the academy -- not exactly the job she had envisioned.

Almost all of the few dozen female police officers in Afghanistan work at the police academy, with the customs agency, where they inspect female travelers, or at desk jobs in the Interior Ministry.

Danger Lurks for Women in Uniform

But this is not surprising, given the role allotted to women in Afghanistan's patriarchal society. Although comprehensive legal reforms introduced after the fall of the Taliban regime gave men and women equal rights under the law, equality for women, especially in the working world, is still a distant goal.

In addition, the police force in Afghanistan suffers, more generally, from an image problem. As part of the executive branch, it is meant to represent the state. "But the state lacks legitimacy," says Lal Gul, a legal expert and founder of the human rights organization AMRO, "and women don't exactly reinforce acceptance of the police." Gul's words reflect the doubts of many men, despite his insistence that he supports equal rights.

In the provinces, says Gul, Islamic and traditional law are usually considered more important than formal laws. According to Gul, laws that have been passed in recent years are often not accepted in the provinces. "I support the government training female police officers," he says. "But how will village elders in Helmand or Nangahar react when they send them a female police officer? They will think that the government has gone crazy."

Despite the dangers they face working for the police, especially as women in uniform, the young policewomen have no doubts about their duty. Each of them has personal reasons for choosing such an atypical profession, and difficulties are practically par for the course.

"The Right Thing to Do"

Latifa knows that it will take a long time to enforce the new laws and, more generally, the rule of law in Afghanistan. But she is convinced that "this is exactly what security in our country depends upon."

Soraya wants to work through her own trauma. At 17, she was taken as the wife of a Taliban, against the wishes of her own family. She gave birth to a daughter a short time later, but the child died within a few months. The husband was rarely home, but whenever he returned from his business trips to Europe, he would abuse her repeatedly. When the Taliban era came to an end, her father took her home.

Even today, Soraya feels threatened by the husband and his family. She says that they have turned up in Kabul a number of times to get her back. For months, says Soraya, she was afraid to go out into the street, until her brother eventually convinced her to look for work. Although her family was opposed to her decision to enter the police training program, they ultimately approved.

Soraya is aware that she is violating Afghan traditions with her profession. "But as long as I have precisely these problems, I know that becoming a policewoman is the right thing to do."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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