When Farida Akbari, a lieutenant colonel in the special forces of the Afghan National Police (ANP), puts on her uniform, she is filled with pride. But her role comes at a serious cost.
“The Afghan society does not accept women in these kinds of uniforms,” Akbari tells VICE World News. “People call us whores and they think that because we are working alongside men, we are not respectable women.”
The issue is so widespread, Akbari doesn’t want any of her neighbours to know what she does for a living. As a result, Akbari, who earns 22,000 Afghanis (£210) a month, avoids wearing her uniform outside of work.
She even suffers abuse from her husband, Akbari says, because her job makes him feel inadequate. “My husband has beaten me because of my job,” she tells VICE World News.
Still, she sees being able to serve her country and other Afghan women as a sacrifice worth making; her daughter currently undergoing officer training is a testament to that, she adds.
“Recruiting more women into the police force will improve the country,” Akbari says. “Women who are victims of domestic violence are not comfortable talking to male officers.”
Akbari’s story is not unique.
Two decades after the 2001 US-led invasion ended the heavily oppressive Taliban rule in which Afghan women were pulled out of school, the country continues to enjoy a rise in the number of educated, professional women.
In 2001, no girls in Afghanistan were officially enrolled in a school. But by April 2017, the Ministry of Education said there were 9.3 million children in school, with girls accounting for 39 percent. And although women’s labour force participation rate remains low, it has increased from 15 percent to nearly 22 percent within the same time frame.
In July, the government announced it would appoint female deputy governors across each of its 34 provinces. So far, 21 have taken up their positions, a government spokesperson said.
Yet female engagement in high-level political decisions remains almost non-existent, and professional women across the sectors frequently suffer sexual harassment – 87 percent of women said they were harassed at work in a 2015 Women and Children Legal Research Foundation report.
The security sector has been notorious for its lack of gender equality. In addition to an already challenging work environment, women who choose to work in this sector specifically also battle huge stigma. There is an assumption that women working alongside men, especially in the evenings, must be engaging in shameful behaviour. Additionally, being a member of the police force is considered a man’s role due to the dangerous nature of the job.
During her two years in the job, the former deputy interior minister, Hosna Jalil, made it a key pillar of her work to push forward initiatives that challenge entrenched perceptions, recruit more women officers and create a safer working environment for women in general.
“Progress is slow and we haven’t been able to establish a positive view of policewomen,” Jalil told VICE World News earlier this year while still in her post at the Ministry of Interior (MoI).
Women account for less than 4 percent of the 124,000 officers in Afghanistan’s police force – the highest it has ever been – but the Afghan government appears to be taking steps to change that. A Ministry of Interior spokesperson told VICE World News that the government plans to increase women police officer enrolment from the current levels of 4,500 to 10,000 by 2024. Reform of the country’s security forces is supported through funding from the Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan, established by the United Nations Development Programme in 2002.
Offering eight financial incentives available only to women is part of the latest recruitment strategy, including an additional 45,000 Afs (£415) per year if they work in rural areas, where the job is even tougher for women.
The application process has been streamlined and promotion opportunities are now much more accessible. A dedicated hotline for reporting sexual harassment has also been established.
According to Jalil, 1,200 cases involving members of the security forces were sent to the prosecution office last year, a majority were complaints of harassment. By raising their voices through official complaints, women also risk being targeted for a second time.
Female officers are rarely viewed as equals by their male peers, Jalil points out. Many are placed in desk jobs or they end up serving tea to their police commanders. She was trying to change this, but after two years in the role – a considerable stint by Afghanistan’s standards, which sees a high turnover of government officials – and having ruffled a few feathers, she says, she was replaced earlier this year.
Captain Rahima Ataee, 28, has served in the Afghan police special forces for 13 years, having also spent time on the front lines fighting against the Taliban.
When asked about her experience as an officer, she says that in addition to enduring relentless criticism from her family she faces gross discrimination at work, and a constant fight to be treated equally.
Previously serving as Jalil’s uniformed secretary, Ataee has high praise for her former boss's efforts. “The biggest change [during Jalil’s tenure was] the opening up of ranks and positions that were previously unattainable for women,” Ataee says.
Stationed in the west of Kabul, second lieutenant Zamira Zahemi, 19, qualified as a police officer last year and is currently studying law.
She has the support of most of her family, including her father. And although she says her experience in the workplace has so far been positive, Zahemi is “absolutely certain [her male colleagues] are talking about us behind our backs, questioning why women are in the police force.”
Appointed deputy minister at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in February, Jalil faced her own battles as a woman while working in the security sector. Shortly before her departure from the ministry, she says a low-ranking colleague called her a prostitute during an email exchange. Jalil says that when she informed the now-replaced minister, Masoud Andrabi, he appointed the man his chief of staff – a move she considered to be a promotion rather than a punishment.
MoI spokesman Tareq Arian says the ministry has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to harassment. Responding directly to Jalil’s claim, he said her account was “wrong” but would not specify whether he meant the accusation or the course of action taken by Andrabi.
Between July 2015 and December 2017, the U.S. Department of Defense allocated $44.6 million to construct 29 facilities dedicated to women across the security forces: from barracks to childcare facilities, as well as administration buildings and fitness centres. But an investigation by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found that out of the 17 projects it visited – costing almost $41 million – 14 were unused, underused or not used as intended.
Heather Barr, interim co-director of the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, is sceptical of tangible change when it comes to the greater involvement of women in Afghanistan’s security sector.
“The idea of women in the police was definitely a donor driven idea,” says Barr. “I don’t think there’s been real commitment to integrate women into the police force in a meaningful way, in a way that they get promoted, get training, get decent working conditions and are able to function as equals.”
She is concerned that President Joe Biden’s decision to pull out all US troops by the 11th of September will mean a reduction in pressure when it comes to focussing on women’s rights in Afghanistan. “As the [U.S.] troops leave, the interest leaves as well,” Barr adds.
Now an advisor to the Interior Minister, General Abdul Khalid says he recognised the importance of bolstering women’s enrolment in the security sector during his tenure as deputy minister of the MoI between 2006 and 2008.
“There were just a couple of hundred women,” Khalid tells VICE World News. “I pushed for women to get good pay, female-only transportation to and from work, kindergartens, female changing rooms, flexibility for them to see their children. We worked with families and visited mosques to spread the message that this country needs women in the forces.”
He says a major issue is a lack of training centres available for women; often they are sent over to Sivas in Turkey, instead. This is an obstacle for many women, whose families often won’t allow them permission to travel outside of the country.
But he is a big supporter of Jalil’s efforts while she was in the Ministry of Interior.
“She is very talented,” Khalid says. “I encouraged her because... having her as deputy minister set an example for the security sector. The best sign of democracy is the presence of women in sciences, politics and economics. It is how we progress.”