By: Salman Rafi Sheikh

On Jan.14, for the first time in Afghanistan’s history,  a woman — 50-year-old Colonel Jamila Bayaz, a mother of five children — was appointed the chief of a local police station.  

This is a country where the separation of men and women — purdah — is so complete that some officers rushed to the men’s room to avoid having to salute her. Nonetheless her appointment marks a milestone that may be at risk.

Col. Bayaz started her career as a security officer at an airport some 30 years ago. Her story is emblematic of the changes, for good or bad, that women have faced in her country. When the Taliban took over, driving out the warlords in September 1996 following the end of the Soviet occupation, she was forced to go home and take care of her household.

“When I walked home, I changed from a police officer to an ordinary woman,” Bayaz told the New York-based website Vocativ. “Those were depressing times. The Taliban stopped everything. It was as if they had stopped life itself.”

Then came liberation at the hands of the western coalition. Bayaz returned to active duty and for the past five years has been employed as an investigator in Kabul. Now she has been entrusted with a police station in the heart of the Afghan capital, in the business section of the old town where most government offices are situated.

The question is whether the Taliban will return following the scheduled departure of NATO coalition forces  to tell Bayaz  and other women to repeat that trudge home. As Asia Sentinel has reported previously, the country’s women emphatically do not want the Taliban back. Some 66 percent of them said they feel safer now than they did before the war and 72 percent said their lives are better. A full 90 percent are worried about the return of a Taliban-style government that would reverse their rights.

As Bayaz’s story illustrates, fundamental social changes have been set in motion involving the upward mobility of Afghan women. Today, even a cursory look at the facts demonstrates this, which poses socio-political challenges hitherto unknown to this society.

The fall of the Taliban has been followed by the increased participation of women in a number of areas of life, including the police. During the days of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, some women served in the Afghan police, but as with Bayaz, when the Taliban took over this ended.

But things have now started to change.  As of 2005, of 72.000 people serving in the local police forces only 160 were women. But by 2011, of 122,000 employed by Afghan law enforcement agencies, 1,073 were women. By July 2013, this number increased to 1,551, accounting for 1 percent of policemen.

The current organizational structure of the Afghan National Police has 3,249 positions reserved exclusively for women civil servants and police officers, including 821 police officers, 787 non-commissioned officers, 1,370 patrol officers, 101 administrative personnel, and 170 contractors. As of mid-2013, women occupied only 1,506 of these positions, that is, less than half of their reserved seats.

The process of recruiting more women nto law enforcement is extremely complicated. Despite the fact that significant resources were allocated to make the project successful, the response from the wider society remains hesitant. As a matter of fact, according to certain reports, numerous policemen acknowledged that they do not feel comfortable serving with the opposite sex.

However, this hesitation does not seem to have left any negative impact on the serving women, nor has it prevented them from taking up assault rifles to defend their country, particularly against those who are known to have put restrictions on their activity.

According to a statement given by the Afghan Chief Interior Minister, in coming years law enforcement agencies are planning to recruit up to 1,000 women annually not only to enhance security, but also to meet certain standards of women empowerment.

As such, within the next decade, the number of women serving in Afghan law enforcement agencies is expected to hit 10,000 officers. Opinions may differ, but one thing is certain – this project has a lot of potential.

For example, seen as a part of a counter-terrorism strategy, recruitment of women in the police can be very effective. The advantages are obvious especially in Afghanistan, where the Taliban frequently hire women terrorists to execute suicide attacks, or use their own (male) militants disguised as women to pass police checkpoints without arousing suspicion.

This has been possible because Afghan traditions forbid men to touch women, to say nothing about searching them, yet nothing prevents women-officers from searching other women.

Similarly, recruitment and empowerment of women will also help, directly and indirectly, to tackle issues like abuse of women, which otherwise remains under reported and the victims fail to receive justice.

It is a mark of changing Afghan society that registered cases of violence against women reported to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission have risen sharply, not because more violence is being committed, although it may be, but that women are becoming less intimidated about reporting it. The Human Rights Commission reported 6,000 registered cases of violence against women in 2012: a 25 per cent increase from 2011.

Nonetheless, when women do report abuses, their cases are often not properly registered and offenders are rarely prosecuted. A 2012 UN report on the implementation of Afghanistan’s Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law concluded that the lack of empowered female police to investigate cases, as well as a lack of awareness of the law among the police, were key factors in the ANP’s failure to tackle the problem effectively.

Increased recruitment of policewomen is thus a direct and easy solution to a great number of social problems related to women.

The training of the newly hired women policemen is executed by Afghan training officers along with NATO advisers at NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan centers – NTM-A. Women are getting proficient in various aspects of police duty, including handling offenders, ensuring public safety at specific sites and patrolling. They study ways to combat organized crime and terrorism, learn modern warfare tactics and the handling of certain weapons.

But numbers alone do not highlight the actual significance of this trend. In a country that s home to one of the most conservative sects of Islam, this trend of recruiting women in the police gains paramount significance.

Indeed, this trend has found some public acceptance. For example, a UN-backed survey published in 2012 found growing public acceptance of female police, arguing that this contributed to improvements in public perceptions of the Afghan National Police as a whole. Policewomen were said to be more trusted to resolve a crime or any other issue fairly than their male counterparts.

However, given the traditional outlook of Afghan society and the role of religion and tradition, it appears to be an extremely daunting task to pave the way for easy recruitment of women in the police or in other departments. It is for this very reason that a common issue of discussion in Afghanistan today is whether after the withdrawal of the international troops from the country, the presence of women in the police force should end.

Senior policy makers of the Afghan government, which now have taken Jamila Bayyaz in their ranks, refute such predictions and believe that, despite the problems, the employment of women in the security forces could be beneficial to the Afghan people and for the women themselves. Such statements are supported by a limited number of facts, in particular by the slowly growing number of women who want to serve in the national police and cannot be stopped by traditions or terrorist threats.

If this and other trends continue to proliferate, the Taliban will be confronting a society that would have no room for them or their ideology. In other words, such trends are a direct challenge to the Taliban. Indeed, introducing changes like these, and if executed properly, can be a means of blocking the sway of the “radicals.”

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistani academic who often writes on Afghan and Pakistani social issues.