Recent statistics (March 2011) show that of the 122,000 personnel serving in the Afghan National Police, only 1,073 are women. In this male-dominated society, many of the women who choose this career also face a cultural stigma. The talent from this relatively untapped source is needed to meet the need for female officers, particularly if the Ministry of the Interior is to achieve its goal and add 1,333 women to police ranks every year.
While the opportunities and benefits are clear, many Afghan women must still overcome traditions and often pressure from their families if they decide to join the police force.
The feminine touch
"During the war [against the Soviet Union], I was a refugee living in another country where I saw males and females working together to help their country,” says one policewoman. “So when I came back, I decided to join the police force and help my people as well as financially support my family. I enjoy doing my job. I want to keep learning more, study more, receive more training and serve. I am assigned to provide security at the Indian embassy. My specific job is to search ladies coming into the embassy", she says.
Women can specialise in most areas of police work. However, the Islamic tradition of separating men and women creates the biggest demand for women police officers, as they are called upon to deal with female offenders and victims, or other sensitive issues.
"Older and younger females always give me a positive response," says the policewoman. "They say thank God that now there is a female to search them."
A new experience
At a recent Basic Afghan Uniform Police training course, new and veteran police women from across Afghanistan followed lessons on the various aspects of police work, from customer service to manning checkpoints and conducting patrols, and from common crimes to terrorism. The trainees also learned about tactics and weapons handling. This class was taught by male Afghan police instructors alongside female NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) advisors. For many of the women, it was their first experience of firing a gun or experiencing hand to hand combat.
"It was great, I like shooting and I wish we could do it for two more weeks," says Shafiqa Yousify, a mother of three who works in the supply department of her police station. "I'm so happy; I've never handled guns before. If I get a pistol, I can now handle it and protect myself."
Breaking with tradition
Yousify left school after ninth grade, but hopes to continue her studies and become an officer. She encourages other women to join the police corps.
"Don't worry about people. Don't worry about society,” she says. “If you want to make the decision to become a police officer then you have to do it. Don't worry about what people are saying. The only issue is that you wear this uniform hand in hand with your brothers and help your society and your people. Don't worry about if people tell you are good or bad. Just do your job the right way."
Traditions run deep in Afghanistan, and most of the women wear civilian clothes to and from the course, which is held at a guarded compound in Kabul. They do this mainly to avoid confrontation. However, not all the trainees are so cautious. Hanifa Nayebeaba is the only woman to openly wear her uniform outside the class. "I love my uniform and I always want to be dressed in my uniform," she says. "There are people that say bad things and there are those that say good things. Most of the people say, ‘God bless you, God keep you safe and keep doing what you are doing’. I ignore those people that say bad things and just keep going on my way."
Out of all the elements of the course, Nayebeaba’s favorite was learning tactics, including hand-to-hand combat, hand-cuffing, and using a baton. She encourages others to join the ranks. "Families let your daughters join the police force. Sisters step up to help and wear the uniform", she says.
A future for women
Nayebeaba is not alone in calling other women to the police force. "If they want to do it they should join,” says Nadia Gultar, a fellow trainee. “All the fields are good. If you think it's good, do it. If you think it's bad, then it's not for you."
Gultar found the last two weeks of the course challenging. The first time she had to handle a gun, she was scared and intimidated. One of the NTM-A advisors helped her. "She came up to me and hugged me," Gultar tells us. "After encouraging me, she helped me hold my gun and I pulled the trigger. I can do it now."
Now they have graduated, some of the policewomen will return to the posts they left. Others will take up their first posting and embark on a new career.