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Burqa and a badge: Afghan women become cops

Washington Post: Afghan women are signing up to work as police officers and wear burqas partly to hide their identity.
Image: Afghan women attend police training
Afghan police women learn search techniques at a training center in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on June 14.Miguel Villagran / Getty Images
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Each morning, the 23 female police officers in Kandahar walk into the city's bunkered police headquarters wearing burqas, the enveloping garments that shroud women from head to toe.

The outfit is not a choice; rather, it is their most valuable protection, a cloak of anonymity in a city where insurgents routinely kill police officers and where many residents hold a dogmatic view of the role of women.

"We face threats every day," said 3rd Lt. Fatima Esaqzai, 32, the highest-ranking woman on the force. "In this society, people don't see us with good eyes."

Afghan women in law enforcement make up a small but growing and critical segment of the country's fledgling security forces, Afghan and NATO officials say.

But the female officers say they have felt increasingly vulnerable amid a spike in violence and an effort by the Afghan government to reach a negotiated truce with the Taliban.

"If the Taliban comes back, they will kill us all," said Sadiqa, 29, an officer who survived a bombing at police headquarters and has had to move three times because of threats from the Taliban. "If a negotiation takes place, we would have to leave the country."

Female officers are valuable to the government's security efforts because they are able to pat down women at checkpoints and during raids — acts that would be culturally impermissible for men. They also are better suited than male officers to interrogate women who have information about terrorism and criminal activity.

NATO officials say the predominantly male Afghan security forces have a very difficult time reaching out to women who might become informants on insurgent activity or those who have been victims of crime.

In an effort to fill that void temporarily, the U.S. Marines recently trained and deployed two units of female Marines tasked with assessing the needs of Afghan women.

'We need their presence'
There are roughly 700 female police officers in Afghanistan, which has approximately 100,000 officers overall, Interior Ministry spokesman Zamarai Bashari said.

NATO officials say cultural and educational barriers have hindered their goal of hiring 5,000 female officers, but Afghan officials say they are continuing to work on the issue.

"One of the main priorities of the Afghan Interior Ministry is to strengthen the number of female police officers," Bashari said. "We need their presence."

But he said the ministry will not put female officers in units that specialize in dangerous missions, such as raids. "We use them in jobs that will not contradict tradition and religious values," Bashari said.

Female officers in Kandahar, the country's second-largest city and the birthplace of the Taliban, scoff at that notion, pointing to the risky nature of the missions they are tasked with and the dangers they face when off duty.

Some have come under fire during raids on Taliban safe houses. And in a few instances they have discovered men armed to the teeth, draped in burqas.

"The government has given us nothing," said Sadiqa, who like many Afghans uses only one name. "I don't even have a knife at home. I feel so scared all the time."

Police supervisors have issued handguns to only five of the female officers in Kandahar and have at times resisted efforts by NATO officials to enroll female officers in specialized training.

"They're very brave," said Annie Lacroix, a Canadian police officer who trains the female officers in Kandahar. "You're doing this job without equipment, no weapon, and you still want to be a police officer. That really struck me."

Esaqzai said she frequently receives threatening calls from Taliban members vowing to shoot female officers or douse them with gasoline and set them on fire. "They say, 'You shouldn't work with the government anymore. Otherwise, we will assassinate you,' " Esaqzai said.

One of her colleagues was assassinated in the fall of 2008, and most of the female officers have had to move from their neighborhoods once their jobs became publicly known.

All but five on the Kandahar force are widows, the sole breadwinners in their families. Husbands are generally reluctant to allow their wives to work in law enforcement.

The female officers in Kandahar are not eligible for detective jobs. Although they are often tasked with taking down reports of domestic abuse, all they can do is forward the reports to male colleagues. In the majority of cases, male investigators imprison runaway women until marital disputes are resolved.

Female officers deal with "abuse against women and violence against children, but they can't investigate," Lacroix said. "That's something we're trying to change."