Policewomen Bemoan Uniform Restictions

Female law enforcers may soon be back on the streets of Kabul but lingering conservative attitudes mean they won’t be in uniform.

Policewomen Bemoan Uniform Restictions

Female law enforcers may soon be back on the streets of Kabul but lingering conservative attitudes mean they won’t be in uniform.

Afghanistan has begun training women policemen for the first time in more than a decade - though it could be some time before they feel able to walk around in their uniforms in public.

Some 60 women recruits have begun training at the Kabul Police Academy, rebuilt with the help of the German government after it was badly damaged during savage fighting between rival Islamic guerrillas, which began in 1992 after the withdrawal of Soviet occupation troops.

The first policewomen appeared in Afghanistan in 1974, the last year of the reign of King Mohammad Zahir Shah. The numbers increased under his successor Mohammad Daud Khan, and boomed during the communist era that followed.

Policewomen disappeared from the streets of Kabul under the rule of the mujahedin, who held ultra-conservative religious views. In 1995 they were replaced by the even more hard line Taleban, who banned all but a handful of women from any sort of work, allowing only some to continue in the health sector and policewomen to frisk visitors to the interior ministry.

Since the collapse of the Taleban in 2001 the door has been opened for women to return to the workplace, but attitudes in this deeply conservative and male-dominated society have failed to keep pace with the change of regime from authoritarian clerical to democratic rule.

Huma, a 32-year-old policewoman who worked under the student militia - when she was forced to wear a veil at all times, confined to the ministry building at all times and forbidden to talk to men - said her work and life were incomparably better now.

"But my only wish now is to be able to walk through Kabul market in full uniform," she told IWPR, saying that at present she donned her uniform of khaki jacket and trousers, black belt and peaked cap when she arrived at work and put on her ordinary clothes for the journey back home.

Her colleague Nafeesa said, "There is a lot of opposition out there to policewomen wearing uniforms, so they don't want to wear them in public."

A 35-year-old former interior ministry policewoman now requalifying under the new scheme, who did not want to give her name, indicated that such attitudes are deeply ingrained in Afghanistan. Many women still wear the traditional full veil burqa - even though it is no longer compulsory as it was under Taleban rule - and all women cover their heads with scarves or shawls.

"When I went to work in uniform for the first time 15 years ago, my relatives practically disowned me, it was as if I had committed a major sin,” she said. “I didn't care too much at the time and continued to go to work in uniform, but the result was that nobody proposed marriage to me. Still, I consider my sacrifice was worth it, for the sake of my career."

The 60 new recruits have embarked on a three-year training course, after which they will join 300 other policewomen in Kabul who were trained during the communist-backed Najibullah regime that collapsed in 1992. For the time being Afghanistan's provinces, some of them ruled by powerful warlords whose word is law, are to train their own police.

According to a police academy spokesman, they have received far more applications from women for the training course than they have places.

Most of the policewomen will work in specific roles such as inspecting documents at Kabul International Airport, frisking women visitors to government departments, and staffing police checkpoints at the main routes in and out of Kabul to try to ensure that remnants of Taleban and al-Qaeda and their weapons do not slip back into the capital.

Roya, 20, who is starting the training programme, said that in a society such as Afghanistan, it was sometimes difficult for male police to go about their business. "Sometimes crimes take place in locations and situations where policemen can't operate due to Afghan and Islamic rules and customs," she told IWPR. "That's why I decided to become a policeman, to fill this gap in our society."

Despite resistance from die-hard conservatives in Kabul, most people appear to welcome any additions to the city's police force - there are some 8,000 policemen in the capital - at a time when crime and security are major concerns for ordinary people.

Even some hard line former mujahedin appear to accept the need for female law enforcers. "We need women doctors and nurses, so there is just as much need for women police," Dad Mohammad, a commander of the Hisb-e-Islami movement, led by Maulawi Khales, that was closely linked to the Taleban, told IWPR.

However he drew the line at policewoman wearing uniforms. "Women should wear shawls, not caps or hats. In a community such as Afghanistan, a female can operate much better with a shawl over her head."

Parween Tulwasa is a freelance journalist in Kabul.

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