Women make up less than one percent of the Afghan police force. And needless to say, there are overwhelming social pressures discouraging them to take such an active role in public life. But this didn’t stop Maryam, a 22-year-old mother of three, from signing up to become one of Afghanistan’s few policewomen. And indeed, the growing numbers of woman police officers signal increased protection for women in a society where men and women are often separated. Hamid Karzai says that he wants 5,000 female police officers by 2014, when the United States will withdraw from Afghanistan, increasing women’s presence in the police force by five times.
The fact that Afghanistan’s president is encouraging women to join the police force, however, does not mean that there is not social pressure against such a decision. Maryam’s father refuses to speak to her because she has joined a workplace with men who are not her relatives.
Maryam, who escaped from an abusive husband to whom she was married at the age of 12, says that her job is very empowering. She has escaped the harassment and abuse that other police women complain about, and manages to earn enough money to support her mother, her children, and pay off her dowry.
Woman police officers are used to perform security checks on other women, and are taught basic combat and self-defense. They also are trained to deal with abuse both of children and other women. And while there are certainly challenges – the issue of what women should wear while serving as police officers is one of the pressing – having women on the police force opens doors to deal with violence against women.
Interestingly, some men interpret having women in the police force as a way to protect women’s honor more generally. “It is…important to give women a voice,” said Hasibullah Kobadyani, a colonel who oversees the women’s training. “To let women know that they can speak about crimes in a way they know is safe. This is better for keeping their honour.”
Although women’s “honor” is another concept that is often fraught with problems, the fact that men are willing to train and involve women in police forces is an important step forward.
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