Women in the Police Force

Afghani Policewomen on Tour in Germany

The German Society for Technological Cooperation (GTZ) supports police forces and justice officials in Afghanistan. As a part of this cooperation, seven policewomen and two legal experts had been invited to Germany for an informational tour. Monika Hoegen reports

Captain Shafika Quaraishi is wrapped in a warm, long skirt today. Her hair is hidden behind a thick, black scarf – but not for cultural or religious reasons. It is the mercilessly cold weather that calls for her attire on this December morning. This is Berlin, where Shafika is among a group of unlikely tourists who are paying a visit.

photo: GTZ
All dressed up; the Afghani police officers in Berlin

​​Like her colleagues, Shafika is a policewoman from Afghanistan; more precisely, she is the director for the office of the national police commander in the Interior Ministry. She finished her education in 1982, but then fell victim to the ban on women’s employment enacted by the Taliban. But about a year after the ban was put into effect, it became apparent to the ruler at the time that they could not do without women in the police force because men were forbidden to interact with women in public, let alone to search them. Thus Shafika was hired again. But she doesn’t like to think back to this period.

Policing with a burka

“We had to wear a burka back then,” she explains. “And we only had a small, dark office. Our only male colleague was an older policeman. But he was forbidden to speak with us, he simply handed us documents. We were under a great deal of pressure. But we tried to work as well as we could nonetheless.”

After another year and a half, the Taliban sent Shafika home again – they had reinstated the ban on women’s employment. Together with other female colleagues, she fled to Pakistan, while others crossed the border into Iran. After the Taliban were ousted, Shafika took up her work again in Afghanistan under the new transitional government.

“In comparison to before, things are very different now. We are happy about this,” she says. “But not everything has gotten better, by far. And for women a lot must still be changed.”

Men are still governed by old habits

Shafika’s colleague Lieutenant Colonel Wagma Saafi is the leading clerk at the traffic police office of the Interior Ministry. A woman as a police officer – this is an idea that must be introduced slowly to the Afghan public, according to Wagma Saafi. And not all men are ready for the reforms.

“At our workplace in the Interior Ministry, things are fine with the men,” Wagma Saafi reports. “There is a friendly atmosphere there. We work together like siblings. But in society at large it is a different story.” Saafi adds that many Afghanis simply cannot understand that an era has come to an end.

“Particularly the illiterate Afghanis are adverse to the changes. We cannot simply go out on the street in our uniforms. That would provoke too many men. So we put on an overcoat when we patrol the streets.”

Skepticism even in one’s own family

photo: GTZ
Group portrait with ladies

​​Even some families of the women officers have a hard time accepting their title of Lieutenant Colonel. Wagma Saafi says, “One day journalists from the newspaper Malalal came and wanted interviews and a few photos of us policewomen. I thought the photos would appear rather small in size in the paper, but the next day I saw a large picture of myself on the cover page – in uniform and with a Kalashnikov over the shoulder. The image circulated around the bazaars, everyone saw it.”

Wagma Saafi’s family also saw the photos, and a few family members chastised her. They said she should not have presented herself that way. Wagma Saafi’s brother and her husband, who were otherwise not against her work, tried in all seriousness to buy up as many copies of the newspaper as they could. She took this with good humor, saying, “Now we have a giant pile of newspapers at home.” She seems resolute and doesn’t let such incidences lead her astray.

Women must take up positions in public life

“The situation is difficult, but we are working toward getting more women into the police academy.” The women say it is important for progress in Afghani society that policewomen are seen in public life and that they take up positions. Women police officers can better understand other women who are in difficult situations, and they can help them with their problems more than a man could. And the women point out that the Koran and Afghanistan’s constitution both favor greater equality for women. But gaining this is not always easy in practice.

There is another problem that women police officers face in Afghanistan: the dire lack of security in the country. In Kabul the situation is already bad enough, but it is even worse inland, where no international troops are stationed. The security situation must improve, the policewomen maintain. Shafika wonders how they will be able to carry out their work: “If we can’t even protect ourselves as police officers, how are we supposed to protect society?”

© Deutsche Welle / DW-WORLD.DE 2003

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