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Female cops test traditional gender roles in Afghanistan

Policewomen are promoting better community relations, but face discrimination in their own career advancement.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 7, 2009

Lineage: Policewoman Marzia Faizi faces challenges her father, also a cop, never encountered.

Mark Sappenfield/The Christian Science monitor

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Kabul, Afghanistan

There is relish in Khatera Malikzada's voice when she talks about the time the Kabul police needed a woman.

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The policemen, armed with guns and strict orders to search a local house, had made it no farther than the front gate. Following the customs of Islam, "the women were not allowing them to enter the house unless they had a female police officer," says Ms. Malikzada.

In four years on the force, this is her highlight – coming to her befuddled colleagues' rescue. But it is one of only four searches she has ever done. She has no gun and no beat, and some neighbors won't let their daughters even talk to her – fearful that she might put strange ideas in their heads.

As Afghan women seek a balance between new opportunities and tradition, the Kabul Police Academy is a unique proving ground. In a profession dominated by men, it offers both the first glimpses of independence and a frustrating lack of opportunity.

There has been progress in recent years, with women moving into better posts – from the head of the passport department to emergency call centers, says Tonita Murray, gender adviser to the Afghan department that controls the police, the Ministry of Interior.

"Still, a lot of it is tea-making and tokenism," she adds.

In a total police force of some 80,000, there are no more than a few hundred women. Within gender-specific roles, there is some scope for advancement. Before she was assassinated in September, the head of the crimes against women department in the southern city of Kandahar, Lt. Col. Malalai Kakar, was Afghanistan's highest-profile female officer. [Editor's note: Lt. Col. Malalai Kakar was the highest-profile female police
officer in Afghanistan, not the highest-ranking.]

Yet in a country where men are still held responsible for the safety of women, the Afghan attitude toward women police officers can often be paternalistic, "treating them like children," says Ms. Murray.

Malikzada still can't believe she doesn't have a gun. "My own life is in danger, and I have nothing," she says.

When fellow officer Marzia Faizi went to the western city of Herat on a recruiting trip, her now-deceased father was so upset at her perceived immodesty that he did not speak to her for a month after she returned. Now, her uncle has prohibited her from taking trips to other provinces, despite the fact that such trips "are the sort of thing that can help my career," says Ms. Faizi.