What will happen to the women of Afghanistan?

An Afghan female police officer holds up a wooden mock gun during a training session at the Police Academy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013. Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Interior Ministry, admitted that there were problems involving women in the police force but said the government plans to double the number of female officers from 2,200 to more than 4,000 in time for next April's presidential and provincial elections. (AP Photo/Ahmad Jamshid)

With British forces leaving the last UK base in Afghanistan, a new fight for control between the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the Taliban is about to begin. On one side, women’s freedom is essential in winning the battle; for the other side, however, it is their complete subjugation.

I recently met several of Afghanistan’s bravest; a handful of women who have been forced to live in constant fear simply for bringing girls and women out of the home. An underground gynaecologist, a girls’ school headmistress and a young women’s rights activist; they are scattered across different parts of the country, yet their stories are similar.

They each frequently receive letters from the Taliban warning them that if they do not stop they will be killed. Yet, they choose to do it anyway, betraying the Taliban’s unofficial motto, that “there are only two places for a woman: the house and the grave.” Yet, the further their work progresses, the higher their heads move above the parapet—catching the attention of their enemies.

Take head mistress Parwin Wafa, who runs a secondary school for 1800 students aged seven to seventeen in the rural Laghman province near Kabul. As punishment for her work educating girls, her seventeen-year-old son Homayoon was kidnapped by the Taliban. They would call her and threaten her that, unless she closed her school, her son would be murdered. Over a year later, after months of searching graveyards, Parwin was sent Homayoon’s body, marked with signs of torture. They had “strangled him and riddled his body with bullets, leaving him in a deserted land”, she told me.

As word got out about gynaecologist Dr. D and her work helping girls in need, many victims of rape and violent abuse, she began receiving threats. Shortly afterwards, her ten-year-old son was mutilated by an exploding grenade that had been planted outside her house. “He is now disabled with one leg and he suffers a lot,” she says, wiping a tear away with her headscarf.

As long as they continue in their work, they are warned that the attacks will keep coming. “The threats still continue against me”, says Parwin, while Dr. D admits that, as she talks to me, all she can think of is what might have happened to her children back home. Yet, they battle on: “we are there on the front line, ready to make any sacrifices in order to bring prosperity into our society”, says Parwin.

Parwin and the others assure me of two things: that their work is impossible without security and that security is impossible without women. First, for these women on the ground, decades of fighting on the front line with no guns meant that foreign military assistance came as much needed support rather than interference. “We expect the people of Britain and those in developed countries to assist the Afghan people with, first and foremost, security. They should contribute towards the strengthening of our country,” says Parwin.

In fighting an uphill battle against the Taliban—the most immediate threat to women’s rights in Afghanistan—Western troops made significant advances in providing security for women. Take Parwin’s school which, under the Taliban regime, was barely able to stay open (Parwin had to teach classes from the secrecy of her own home.) Things improved significantly following the troops’ arrival in 2001, “in terms of teaching [and] in terms of delivery of education from within.” This progress is reflected in wider national statistics: while under the Taliban only 50,000 girls were enrolled in school, a decade later, Nato has said this had increased to 3.2 million (40 per cent of all students).

While it is true that a culture of opposing women’s independence is still deeply engrained in Afghanistan, the idea of making progress is irrelevant without the provision of security. According to Manizha Naderi, executive director of Women for Afghan Women, “the figures remain low on the primary and especially on the secondary school level, but not because Afghans oppose education for their daughters. The majority of the people live in tiny rural villages where there are no schools or where the schools are too far away for girls to walk to in safety. Or there are not enough trained teachers in the country—or teachers who want to move into primitive rural areas where they may be risking their lives.”

The impending final military withdrawal is therefore a source of major concern for many women’s rights advocates. “We don’t know what’s going to happen to us after the transition. Maybe we will all be dead,” says Dr. D, “right now we are feeling like we are sitting in a room without a roof.” Samira is more confident: “our security forces have come a long way. They have proved themselves now, that they can really take the lead in terms of security.” A senior British commander who served in Afghanistan agrees. He tells me Afghans do not need to be taught how to fight, and that the British training of Afghan forces at the Afghan National Army Officers Academy, otherwise known as “Sandhurst in the Sand,” which will remain under the responsibility of the British following the withdrawal, is adding to the toughness of the Afghan National Forces.

Second, without women playing an integral role in providing security, Afghanistan will remain unstable. Male police officers, for example, won’t give a car a standard security check if there is a woman sitting inside, and women are unable to report crimes to male police officers. “Culturally, it’s not correct,” explains women’s rights activist Samira Hamidi, who was the first ever female staff member in the United Nations Development Programme in Afghanistan’s Ministry of Interior.

The Taliban has exploited this segregated system through a string of attacks in which men have dressed as women to get through checkpoints, conceal weapons and gain entry to their desired targets. On 22 June 2012, for example, Taliban militants hid suicide vests and carried machine guns under blue burkas before killing 18 people at a popular tourist resort near Kabul. More recently, Taliban fighters disguised themselves as women under burkas as they stormed the headquarters of election organisers in March 2014.

The fact that women are playing a growing role in the Afghan National Police Force (ANP) is therefore good news for the security transition, as they not only play an essential part in improving Afghan women’s access to justice but in decreasing the risk of terrorist activity and weapons, drugs and ammunition smuggling.

By February 2014, nearly 1,690 female police officers had joined various ranks of the national police force. In recent years the Afghan police and security forces have recruited thousands of female officers and, while they still only make up 1 per cent of the ANP, this figure actually marks real progress from when the recruitment programme began in 2007. The new military academy aims to train 100 female police officers per year until they reach 10 per cent of the total number. The programme has also established 33 “family-response units” designed to offer a separate space where women from the community can come and seek help and staffed by female police officers trained in crime-scene investigation, handling evidence, taking statements and interviewing witnesses and victims.

While this marks a big step forward, Afghan police women still have to work against Afghanistan’s centuries-old, embedded cultural norms that completely reject the notion of women’s independence. Parwin and Dr D. both tell me that misogyny is deeply ingrained within the minds of many Afghan men. Parwin is frequently told that, because she is a woman, “you had better sit down somewhere quiet and not take part in these activities.” She and Dr. D tell me that women are treated as slaves often by their husband and his extended family—and domestic violence is “very normal.” In fact, according to Sima Samar, the head of Afghanistan’s human rights commission, violent crime against women hit record levels in 2013: “The brutality of the cases is really bad. Cutting the nose, lips and ears. Committing public rape.” Despite the fact that marrying off child brides for money has now been made illegal, girls are still, according to Parwin, “sold like animals” between farming families in order to pay off loans and drug debts. Despite the lack of accurate figures showing numbers of girls – and sometimes boys – involved, women’s rights activists claim that the practice of selling off girls as young as six remains widespread in Afghanistan.

During her time at the UNDP, Samira had the difficult task of encouraging families to allow their daughters to join the police. “Policing is not considered a job for women in Afghanistan,” she says. “They carry very bad names” such as “whore” and “prostitute” due to their working side by side with men. According to a 2013 Oxfam report, sexual harassment and assault against female police officers is widespread—treatment that also takes place within the police force. Human Rights Watch details abuses by male officers against their female colleagues as well as lack of adequate, private facilities provided for women in the ANP. For example, it reported men “making peepholes” and harassing women in police bathrooms. According to a senior British commander who served in Afghanistan, policewomen try and hide their uniforms from their family as they’re leaving for work. Take one anonymous young police officer, who hides her uniform in her bag as she sets off for what her parents believe is her teaching job at a girls’ school.

Soon after the recruitment process started, a murderous campaign against policewomen began. In 2008, gunmen in Kandahar killed Lieutenant-Colonel Malalai Kakar, the country’s most prominent policewoman and head of Kandahar’s department of crimes against women. More recently, in 2013, four female officers were killed on the streets by unidentified gunmen. One of those murdered was the highest ranking female police officer in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. Yet, despite past losses and present dangers, new female recruits keep signing up.

Women are taking the same fearless approach towards joining men the battlefield. 23-year-old Lena Abdali was one of the women who from 2011, was recruited into Afghanistan’s special forces, and went on to join more than 1,000 women reported to have joined the security forces in 2013. She puts her life in danger “for the women and culture in Afghanistan,” she says and asks “if men can carry out this duty, why not women?” Her male counterparts share the same view: “In a military operation, we need our sisters as much as we need our brothers,” says Afghan special forces soldier, Agha Sharin Noori. Col. And, according to Jalaluddin Yaftaly, commander of the Afghan National Army’s joint Special Unit “we were faced with so many problems when we didn’t have female special forces in our units.”

Afghan women—from those manning police checkpoints to those helping empower the country’s next generation of girls—are refusing to accept brutality as part of their daughters’ and granddaughters’ futures. Afghanistan’s fight for women’s rights has been and will continue to be a grinding struggle and, despite the great strides that have been made, progress remains fragile. “Women’s rights in Afghanistan” is not a subject of the past, or a side issue for another day. The needs of women must be listened to, both on the ground and at the table of those establishing a post-transition settlement for Afghanistan. The daily risks taken and sacrifices made by the women of Afghanistan deserve nothing less.

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by Emily Dyer / November 21, 2014 /