A badge and a burqa

Sadiqa, 29, an officer in Kandahar, has survived a bombing and has had to move three times because of threats.
Sadiqa, 29, an officer in Kandahar, has survived a bombing and has had to move three times because of threats. (Ernesto Londono/the Washington Post)
By Ernesto LondoƱo
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 3, 2010

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN -- Each morning, the 23 female police officers in Kandahar walk into the city's bunkered police headquarters wearing burqas, the enveloping garments that shroud women from head to toe.

The outfit is not a choice; rather, it is their most valuable protection, a cloak of anonymity in a city where insurgents routinely kill police officers and where many residents hold a dogmatic view of the role of women.

"We face threats every day," said 3rd Lt. Fatima Esaqzai, 32, the highest-ranking woman on the force. "In this society, people don't see us with good eyes."

Afghan women in law enforcement make up a small but growing and critical segment of the country's fledgling security forces, Afghan and NATO officials say. But the female officers say they have felt increasingly vulnerable amid a spike in violence and an effort by the Afghan government to reach a negotiated truce with the Taliban.

"If the Taliban comes back, they will kill us all," said Sadiqa, 29, an officer who survived a bombing at police headquarters and has had to move three times because of threats from the Taliban. "If a negotiation takes place, we would have to leave the country."

Female officers are valuable to the government's security efforts because they are able to pat down women at checkpoints and during raids -- acts that would be culturally impermissible for men. They also are better suited than male officers to interrogate women who have information about terrorism and criminal activity.

NATO officials say the predominantly male Afghan security forces have a very difficult time reaching out to women who might become informants on insurgent activity or those who have been victims of crime. In an effort to fill that void temporarily, the U.S. Marines recently trained and deployed two units of female Marines tasked with assessing the needs of Afghan women.

There are roughly 700 female police officers in Afghanistan, which has approximately 100,000 officers overall, Interior Ministry spokesman Zamarai Bashari said. NATO officials say cultural and educational barriers have hindered their goal of hiring 5,000 female officers, but Afghan officials say they are continuing to work on the issue.

"One of the main priorities of the Afghan Interior Ministry is to strengthen the number of female police officers," Bashari said. "We need their presence." But he said the ministry will not put female officers in units that specialize in dangerous missions, such as raids. "We use them in jobs that will not contradict tradition and religious values," Bashari said.

Female officers in Kandahar, the country's second-largest city and the birthplace of the Taliban, scoff at that notion, pointing to the risky nature of the missions they are tasked with and the dangers they face when off duty.

Some have come under fire during raids on Taliban safe houses. And in a few instances they have discovered men armed to the teeth, draped in burqas.

"The government has given us nothing," said Sadiqa, who like many Afghans uses only one name. "I don't even have a knife at home. I feel so scared all the time."

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