Afghan Policewomen Struggle Against Culture

Police training in Kabul. The hiring of policewomen has been a priority for Western funding organizations.

JALALABAD, Afghanistan — Parveena almost got away.

She was on her way home from a visit to her parents in a remote corner of eastern Afghanistan with her children by her side and a small group of women. Two men, their faces covered by kaffiyehs, pulled up on a motor scooter.

“Who is Parveena, daughter of Sardar?” said one, looking at the group of women, their faces hidden behind blue burqas.

No one answered. One of the men took his Kalashnikov and used the muzzle to lift the burqa of the nearest woman — in conservative Afghan society, a gesture akin to undressing her in public. It was Parveena, who like many Afghans used only one name. She grabbed the muzzle, according to her father and her brother, and said, “Who is asking?”

But the gunmen had seen her face, and they fired 11 bullets into her.

Parveena’s story — she was one of six policewomen killed in 2013 — is an extreme case, but it reflects the dangers and difficulties of Afghan policewomen and the broader Western effort to engineer gender equality in Afghanistan. The plight of women under the Taliban captured the Western imagination, and their liberation became a rallying cry. A flood of money and programs poured into Afghanistan, for girls’ schools and women’s shelters and television shows, all aimed at elevating women’s status.

But these good intentions often foundered against the strength of Afghan sexual conservatism. As the tale of Afghan policewomen shows, repressive views of women were not just a Taliban curse, but also a deeply embedded part of society.

Now, as Western troops and money flow out of Afghanistan, the question is just how much the encounter with the West and its values has really changed the country, and whether any of the foreign ideas about the status of women took hold.

In 2001, when the Taliban regime fell, women in Afghanistan were among the very worst off on earth: They had no access to education, women’s health care was scant, and government-sanctioned public beatings were widely accepted. Women rarely ventured out at all, and when they did, they had to be accompanied by a man and covered head to toe with a burqa.

Fourteen years later, there is a palpable sense of possibility for women, especially in urban areas. Girls are going to school in large numbers, at least up to age 11, and there is more access to women’s health care even in some remote parts of the country. However, in rural areas and in the Pashtun-dominated east and south, most women still live confined lives. They are subjected often to forced marriage, child marriage and beatings, and sometimes to honor killings. And conditions for Afghan women over all still rank close to the bottom among developing countries.

Hiring and training policewomen have been key priorities of Western governments and funders. They reasoned that Afghan women and girls, who face high levels of violence, sometimes on a daily basis, would be more likely to report abuse or seek help if they could turn to other women, and that meant ensuring there were women on the police force.

But those hopes ran up against the sexual taboos that haunt every interaction between men and women in Afghanistan. Policewomen have been branded as little more than prostitutes, dishonoring their families. That stigma means that mostly desperate women, usually illiterate and poor, have joined the force. In a society where coercive sex is a frequent tool, many endure sexual harassment for fear of losing their jobs.

Afghan policewomen, struggling to maintain good reputations, face a legion of logistical problems poorly understood by Western donors — a need for separate changing rooms in police stations, for example, since women are afraid to wear their uniforms on their way to work. After a decade and millions of dollars, even the modest goal of recruiting 5,000 policewomen remains a mirage. In fact, only 2,700 are on the force, less than 2 percent of the 169,000 members, according to the United Nations’ office in Kabul based on numbers from the Afghan Interior Ministry.

“The situation in Afghanistan is not prepared for women to work with men, and our community is not ready for female police to work here,” said Col. Ali Aziz Ahmad Mirakai, who heads recruitment for conservative Nangarhar Province, where Parveena worked.

Colonel Mirakai, who supports having more policewomen, sighed. “The police commanders I work with say: ‘We don’t need them to work with us until noon and go home; instead of female police, send us male police.’” he said, alluding to the reality that many women have to leave work early to care for their families.

To assemble a portrait of policewomen’s experiences, The New York Times interviewed more than 60 policewomen, male police commanders, Interior Ministry officials, Western military officials and staff members of nongovernmental organizations.

A United Nations report given to the ministry in 2013 but never publicly released — in part because of fears of possible reprisals against policewomen — found that 70 percent of the 130 policewomen interviewed had experienced sexual harassment, with smaller numbers reporting rape or more explicit pressures to have sex.

“The Interior Ministry’s and Afghan society’s generally negative view of policewomen, the lack of a confidential complaints mechanism, corruption, lack of facilities, discrimination and sexual harassment remain primary barriers,” said Georgette Gagnon, the head of the United Nations’ human rights division in Afghanistan.

The clash between Western ideals and Afghan realities means a program established to promote women has all too often backfired, subjecting the recruits themselves to abuse and retribution.

The small but real achievements have been in some of the family-response units, which give female victims a chance to talk to a policewoman and gain access to female lawyers.

“It’s the absurdity of imposing our liberal Western beliefs,” said a Western diplomat who has spent many years in Afghanistan and asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject for governments that have invested heavily in training Afghan women for the security forces. “It’s easy for us to put these women out there and tout their accomplishments, but then we leave, cut them loose, and what happens to them?”

Slide 1 of 8

Afghan policewomen at a shooting range in Kabul. Hiring and training policewomen have been priorities of Western funders.

Credit...Lynsey Addario for The New York Times
  • Slide 1 of 8

    Afghan policewomen at a shooting range in Kabul. Hiring and training policewomen have been priorities of Western funders.

    Credit...Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Like all the women who work with her in Kabul Police District No.10, Sharifa Aziza is too frightened to wear her uniform outside the office. She does not want her neighbors to know she is a policewoman.

Unlike most of her colleagues who stay inside a rickety trailer working as searchers and patting down women who enter the police compound, Ms. Aziza works in the family-response unit and occasionally helps with criminal cases. She counts herself lucky that she is subjected less to the harassment of younger male police officers, who bother the female searchers almost constantly.

One spring day, the windows of the female searchers’ small trailer were open and a policeman kept poking his head in, saying “Kiss me” to a young female colleague of Ms. Aziza.

“I have told him ‘no,’” the young woman said forcefully.

“I will not leave until I bite your face,” he said in a tone that was meant to be playful but that had an edge to it.

The woman looked at the floor. There is no effective confidential complaint system when policewomen are harassed. Senior police officials could not remember any complaints from women that had been formally prosecuted, and they minimized the problem.

Some women are pressured into giving in. “Good women are pushed into doing bad things,” said Madina, 21, a policewoman in eastern Afghanistan who would allow only her first name to be used to protect her safety.

Ms. Aziza’s boss, Nooria Sediqi, a second lieutenant who is about 50, displayed considerable knowledge of prostitution arrangements within the police. “The salaries are low,” she said of police pay. For a session of sex, a woman could earn $100 or even $200, she said. That is half a month’s salary for a junior policewoman, and a great deal even for a more senior one.

Occasionally older policewomen have acted as madams, procuring younger ones either for men within the police force or outside it, according to two of the policewomen interviewed for this article as well as Western officials who work with the police.

Interviews suggest that many policewomen, aware they have few useful skills and untrained in how to behave professionally, are vulnerable to sexual pressure. They are easy targets for more senior males who can withhold their pay or assign them to jobs far from home, and so policewomen are fearful of complaining.

Ten years ago, Ms. Aziza followed two of her brothers who had joined the security forces and enlisted with the police, hoping to earn enough to help sustain her family. In those early years of President Hamid Karzai’s administration, Afghanistan was full of promise. Women in cities had begun to take off their burqas and there was a widespread sense of a new start.

“It seemed to me then a very good and clean job,” she said.

Then her husband died of cancer and she had to take in the wife and children of her brother, who is a drug addict. Even though she earns twice as much as cleaners for the education ministry, her $240 monthly salary is nowhere near enough. After paying $100 for rent and as much as $80 for electricity, there is rarely more than $60 left for food, medicine and clothing.

“This is the room of a widow woman,” Ms. Aziza said, gesturing to the dark two-room hovel where she lives on an abandoned construction site. Outside, a broken bedspring sat between torn bags of cement, a promise of construction that was never realized. The sharp smells of urine and sour milk pervaded the house.

It was a Friday, her day off, and she flung open her sole cupboard to show her prized possessions. Her crisply pressed police uniform was draped in plastic to keep out the relentless dust. She showed certificates for attending police seminars, describing which dignitaries presided over each ceremony. Then she rummaged until she found a picture of a pretty 8-year-old girl smiling into the camera. “My daughter,” she said.

“Here, when a woman is widowed, she has to marry her husband’s brother and I refused,” she said. It was a moment of independence, but it quickly turned tragic.

Her mother-in-law, concluding that Ms. Aziza must be morally lacking when she turned down a chance to be respectable, took the child from her. While Afghan law allows a widow to have custody of her children, as a practical matter the lack of money often results in the children staying with relatives. Ms. Aziza sees her daughter now only once a year, on her birthday.

“She took my daughter by force,” said Ms. Aziza, staring into the photo as if the girl might walk out of it and into her arms. Tears came to her eyes.

Embarrassed, she looked away. Soon it would be time to make dinner and there was not much other than some bread left from the morning and a bag of okra.

Ms. Aziza’s family obligations are common among women in the police force, and often limit what they can accomplish on the job.

“They have to look after their children, cook, make dinner, clean; they have to leave early to take care of family matters,” said Col. Ali Akbar Mahmoudi, the former police chief in Ms. Aziza’s district, who is a supporter of policewomen. “None of the women police are coming during the night — just in some exceptional cases when we send them a police vehicle to pick them up for a raid.”

The men, by contrast, he said, “are flexible, they work all jobs, 24 hours; they pull guard at night.”

In fact, many of the women said they had been left to make their own way home after raids and only recently had been given separate toilets and changing rooms.

Ms. Aziza’s day starts in the dark hours before dawn when she rises to make tea before setting out at 6:30 a.m. for work, which begins at 8. Usually she takes a series of minibuses, squeezing into vehicles so packed with people that they are in danger of tipping over.

The need for transportation for women in a society where respectable women do not go out of their homes alone was one of the many details that escaped Western organizations that gave money for women’s empowerment, said Anastasiya Hozyainova, who worked as a consultant to the United Nations and the European Union. “The policewomen don’t receive transportation help, for instance, so how can a woman even get to work?” she said.

Under pressure by Western funders to meet gender targets, police officials hired any woman who would sign up. But there were few recruits in the countryside.

Col. Saboor Khan, who until 2014 was the longtime deputy for gender, children’s rights and human rights at the Interior Ministry, said that in traditional Afghan culture, “It’s a shame for a woman to work, and that also reflects on the family.”

Ms. Aziza works in the Gender and Family Response Unit of District 10, a section that exists at least nominally in every police department in Afghanistan to deal with domestic violence.

But many women are not allowed to leave the house except with a male relative, and often that relative is either the person who was beating her or someone in the family allied with him. And even if a battered woman is able to get away, there is a profound shame associated with talking about such matters to someone outside the family — even other women.

The result is that 12 years later, there are still relatively few cases for the units.

Of the 13 policewomen in the 318-member force in District 10, most are searchers. One, Feriba, stood in the trailer’s small entry, looking out at the scrawny shrubs in the yard. Her salary supports a disabled husband and six children. “Do you think we want to do this?” she asked.

“I would do anything else,” she said, answering her own question.

Ms. Aziza nonetheless believes that District 10 is better than most. Both the former Interior minister, Umar Daudzai, and the new one, Nur al-Haq Ulumi, have tried to push commanders to find jobs more suitable for women.

“They listen to women more here,” Ms. Aziza said. “In the past year, at least they gave us a separate toilet. Maybe they received much pressure from the world community and that has created pressure to take care of the women,” she said early in 2014, when there were still substantial numbers of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

“But I am worried,” she said. “After 2014, what should we do?”

Zarif Shaan Naibi is that rare figure among Afghan policewomen: a success story. The first female warden of Kabul’s women’s prison, she stands out among the overwhelmingly male command structure of the Interior Ministry.

Her realm is a barren patch of ground on the northeast side of Kabul with the three-story prison at its center. Six days a week Ms. Naibi goes to her office in a building next to the prison, and after attending meetings and signing paperwork, she wades into the prison itself.

Once painted white, the prison building is now badly scuffed, and the female prisoners seem to pour out of it. The prison has been overcrowded for years; at the end of 2014, it housed 33 percent more women than the 120 it was supposed to hold, according to prison officials. The women jostle to lean out of the windows and crowd at the front door, but there is nowhere to go other than the small bare yard, where even weeds seem to have a hard time growing.

Before she even reaches the stairwell, Ms. Naibi is besieged by women asking her for medical care, to arrange lawyers’ visits, or for help settling disputes.

A woman of medium height with hair either swept under a police cap or under a neat hijab, Ms. Naibi neither puts on airs nor appears particularly dominating, but her sense of purpose is unmistakable. She steadily navigates the prison’s maelstrom of emotion, keeping herself at arm’s length.

She relies on her rare ability to create privacy for conversations. She pats one inmate on the arm and then does the same to another, a gesture that is at once maternal and admonishing. She asks them to hug each other and makes them promise to stop fighting.

Her success appears to be rooted partly in her training in the late 1970s and the 1980s, when Afghanistan’s government was imbued with Communist ideology. The period offered exceptional opportunity for women, especially in urban areas.

As ethnic Hazaras, a group that was persecuted by the Taliban and has now embraced education and the modern world, Ms. Naibi’s mother and brothers allowed her to join the police, and when she married, her husband allowed her to continue. He is now in the Defense Ministry.

Ms. Naibi recalls that in her day all her teachers at the police training center were women. Now they are almost all men.

Under the Communists, women’s education was valued and candidates for the police were vetted, she said. “If she wasn’t educated, they wouldn’t take her. If she had graduated from high school, they would send her to the police academy.”

But these Communist ideals encountered resistance from much of Afghan society. Then under the Taliban, most policewomen were banished, and Ms. Naibi’s family, as Hazaras, had to flee. When the police were reconstituted after the Taliban’s ouster in 2001, the Afghan leadership was desperate for women to serve, calling former policewomen back to work as well as recruiting new ones.

For Ms. Naibi, it was a second birth. When the ministry put out the word, she went immediately — still wearing her burqa, required garb under Taliban rule, because she could not quite believe it was safe to take it off. Many other women came, too.

“We were standing in this room and then we began to recognize each other’s voices coming from under our burqas and we were saying: ‘Is it really you? Are you still alive?’”

More than half of her charges in prison today are there for moral crimes, a vast category that includes running away from home and intending to commit adultery. Either crime can taint a woman for the rest of her life.

Also among the inmates are policewomen, most of them in prison for running afoul of morality laws. Of the six there during a visit last winter, only one was accused of a violent crime (she tried to kill her husband).

Two appeared to have been victims of an unsuccessful effort to blackmail them into paying a bribe to avoid jail, but since they had no money, they ended up in prison. Forlorn and confused, they were embarrassed that they had accepted an invitation to have dinner with the son of a police commander, setting them up to be arrested for being alone with a man to whom they were not married.

Watching Ms. Naibi is a lesson in what could be possible for women in Afghanistan.

One morning, she was arguing with the male security guards about their schedules. “Just keep on one guy who knows everything,” she said.

The guards sat in silence, leaving it unclear whether they understood her instructions. One then complained that the ministry did not act quickly on personnel matters.

She sighed audibly. “Yes, O.K. we’ll fix everything, I’ll sort it out.”

The male guards saluted her when they left as they would a male commander.

“Yes, there will be negative discrimination against women, but it’s up to you to command authority,” Ms. Naibi said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman — it’s your duty that defines you.”

With five children and a disabled husband, Parveena, 28, was both desperate for work and overwhelmed by the task of caring for her family. There were few choices and none that would pay as well as being a policewoman, she said in an interview barely a month before she was killed in July 2013.

Parveena was attending a seminar for junior policewomen in Jalalabad, the largest city in conservative eastern Afghanistan, where tribal law often trumps government authority.

In contrast with a number of fully veiled women in the room, Parveena wore a white shawl over her head and had a warm open smile.

Of the 3,850-member force in Nangarhar Province in 2013, there were just 32 women, which meant most women worked alone in a sea of men, struggling to preserve their reputations.

“I am the only female where I work,” Parveena said then. “I don’t talk to anyone, I don’t give anyone my phone number or take anybody’s phone number. I just come at 8 and leave at 12 and then take the leftover food that people don’t eat for my kids,” she said, referring to the leftovers from policemen’s lunches.

Even then, she knew the risks. “My in-laws don’t support me,” she said, but then suggested that she had never told them about her job. “They don’t know; only my brothers know.”

Still, Parveena was enthusiastic about her work. Her father, a frail man of 70, said she liked it so much, she persuaded her younger brother to join the police as well.

Her commanders said they respected her hard work, so much so that they entrusted her with the dangerous mission of recruiting more women for the police force when she was visiting her home district of Lal Pur, near the Pakistani border.

Recruiting women for the security services can be dangerous even in a large city, but in a region where the government had no presence, it turned deadly.

All the more so because as much as a year before she was killed, the Taliban learned of her job, said Wali Khan, 21, her younger brother.

“She was doing the job secretly,” he said, telling only her immediate family and not wearing a uniform. “Then a year ago one of our relatives who was in the Taliban found out and he told people.”

That put her life at risk. Agnesa Shinwari, a member of the local provincial council, said, “In Afghanistan, if your husband allows you to work or your father allows you, it doesn’t matter.” The woman is still not safe, she said, if another family member does not approve.

She said she had heard that cousins of Parveena were involved in her death. The provincial police accused the Taliban, but local Taliban commanders denied involvement. After the killing, the family quickly called relatives who were in the Taliban and they heard there had been a spy, a person they knew in the community who had tipped off the Taliban to her visit to her home district.

Her brother’s casual reference to Taliban relatives is a chilling reminder of how hard it is to know which side people are on — or if they are on both.

Her father summed it up bitterly as he sat on a lumpy cot in the bare room in Jalalabad where he was visiting his son. “Who killed her? God knows, God knows better than I. Everyone is pulling a shawl on their face and calling themselves Taliban,” he said.

As word spread that Parveena had been killed, some whispered that she had had an affair or had been bold with men.

Madina, 21, a policewoman who attended seminars with Parveena, said the talk of immoral acts was a lie.

“She was a good and clean and honest woman,” she said.

Yet the stigma of being a policewoman remains so powerful that even after Parveena’s father and brothers picked up her body, they could find no mullahs in their village who would bury her or say the funeral prayers.

“There were six mullahs in our village, and after she was killed they disappeared intentionally,” her brother Wali said. “The Taliban had told the mullahs, ‘Don’t do a funeral ceremony for those people,’ and not one would say the prayers for my sister.”

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