Perils of a policewoman:
‘I know that danger is with me’
Instead of a burka or colourful long scarves, Shukufa trades her nightclothes each morning for an algae-green outfit that is boxy and masculine.
With the emblem of Afghanistan’s National Police sewn on the arm, the uniform is both a point of pride and a potential bull’s eye – an adrenalin-inducing duality for the 19-year-old.
“I am always afraid; I know that danger is with me,” Shukufa said in a recent in-depth, on-camera interview. “But still ... I do my job well. It’s destiny.”
Despite attempts to recruit much-needed female officers, there aren’t many women in Afghanistan – let alone Kandahar – who have found their calling by joining the fledgling, male-dominated police force. There are more than 250 men for every woman on the 80,000-strong squad, which has a death rate three times that of the Afghan National Army and is universally viewed as the weakest link in the country’s security forces.
The lowly status of her employer is never lost on Shukufa, who often feels the traditional roots of Kandahari culture tugging at her professional momentum. After all, it wasn’t long ago that women weren’t allowed to work outside the home, let alone in such positions of legal authority.
“It impacts me heavily sometimes,” she says, adding a qualifier: “When I look at my desire ... other people’s opinion is not important to me.”
The fact that Shukufa is still unmarried at the age of 19 and allowed to take a job in the public service outside her family’s home is likely more the result of their poverty than open-mindedness. She didn’t grow up with dreams of being a policewoman.
“The only reason was that I was poor,” she said. “I began this job ... but after a while I developed a passion for it ... I go because of my own desire now.”
As in other parts of the country, Shukufa’s job involves female-specific duties her male counterparts are culturally forbidden from performing – searching female suspects or working with female victims of rape or domestic violence. Female officers can also better execute house searches without overstepping cultural boundaries.
Doing the job, which pays her about $150 a month, made Shukufa realize how many public roles there are for women who want to work.
“Women are needed everywhere, whether it’s in the hospital or with the police,” she said.
She blames the situation in Kandahar – poor security and cultural stagnation – for keeping women from realizing the same freedom that employment has brought her.
“They don’t have the education and the experience they need ... the circumstances have not allowed for that, and [society hasn’t]let women progress,” she said, adding that each family has its own reasons for this. “Some are poor, some are conservative, some are open-minded but security is poor,” she said.
Her own family’s acceptance of her work hasn’t made her immune to pressure from them to quit.
“When the circumstances are bad, when many explosions happen, when the killings happen, this is when they oppose it,” she said.
Her family’s fear is warranted. It is well known in Kandahar that anyone working in a state-paid job is a potential target of Taliban or other militants, who are waging war against the current establishment. This is doubly true for women – they were outlawed from working altogether during the Taliban’s reign.
“Threats and intimidation against women in public life or who work outside the home have seen a dramatic increase,” according to a report written by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and released earlier this year. It noted that most jobs available to women are with the government or international organizations, the very connections that cause them to be targeted by militants who may also target their “families or communities as well as male colleagues.”
It goes on to underline the “tremendous risks faced by women in public life.”
Female police officers in Kandahar have been particularly attuned to those risks since last October, when Lieutenant-Colonel Malalai Kakar, the country’s highest-profile policewoman, was shot to death in the back seat of the car her son was using to drive her to work. He later died of his injuries.
Although she was controversial among local women – some accused her of abusing her power and authority – she had grown into an international feminist legend in her final years. A mother of six and head of a special unit of female officers in Kandahar that worked on crimes against women, Lt.-Col. Kakar was known for her fearlessness, particularly toward men. She fought vigorously against the passing off of beatings or rape as cultural traditions, and in one famed instance, rescued a woman who was kept chained by her husband.
A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the killing, which stunned Kandahar, not to mention the women in her unit, which drifted, rudderless without her leadership. Within a month of her killing, Lt.-Col. Kakar’s replacement, a woman named Parwana, said in an interview that she expected she, too, would be killed. To minimize the chances of that, she was hiding in her office as much as possible. Three of her underlings quit their jobs out of fear or bowed to pressure from their husbands to stay home.
Not Shukufa, who has developed a strategy of taking a day or two off when security worsens.
“These are the circumstances ... I’m in a very bad profession, ...” she said.
The risks are a fair exchange for being allowed to “serve my society,” Shukufa said.
So what about the future and marriage?
“I haven’t thought about marriage yet,” she said. “I’m too busy with work.”