Saturday, July 24, 2010

Afghan women defying limitations

For more than 100 years, women have been blazing new trails in society, science, medicine, business, sports, literature and military fields. In America, women have fought to be treated equally, for the right to vote, to hold office and receive equal pay. Women have demolished societal and cultural barriers, set world records and established new standards; in the process they have paved the way for countless other women behind them.

For most of the developed world, it is commonplace to have women working alongside men, and as their list of accomplishments grows longer and longer, the limitations placed on women grows smaller. Afghanistan, stunted by three decades of war, a repressive Taliban regime and conservative Islamic views about women, is far behind the rest of the world in terms of women’s rights. All the things we, as American women, assume as our given rights – the freedom to go to college, wear clothes that express our individuality, drive a car, have a job, join the military, vote, date, marry for love or not at all, leave an abusive relationship - are not granted here, or easily earned.
As the people of Afghanistan work, with the help of the international community, to rebuild their government and military forces, the country is seeing traditional beliefs clash with progressive attitudes. More and more women are entering the work force, holding government positions and serving in their military. I recently had a chance to speak with several women who had graduated from the Afghan National Police Academy in Kabul.

Petite and trim in her grey police uniform with a black scarf tucked neatly around her hair, 3rd Lt. Marzia Fazai recognized her country’s need for female police officers. In a religious culture that has strict rules about male and female interaction, women are needed to search females during police operations. Fazai enrolled in a six-month accelerated police officer’s course and has spent the past four years working in the Afghan Uniform Police and as an academy instructor.

With just under 1,000 women police in all of Afghanistan, Fazai is in the minority, but she hasn’t let that stop her from pushing through countless cultural boundaries. When she joined the academy, Fazai said that her fellow male students weren’t respectful and often gave her a hard time. Fazai’s family was supportive of her decision and when she wanted to drop out to attend a civilian university they encouraged her to keep pursuing her goals.

Now four years later Fazai said that despite initial interference with her work from male colleagues, she is able to teach both male and female students. She has also had her share of real-world police work; Fazai was part of an operation that rescued a female journalist who was kidnapped.

Joining the Fazai among the ranks of policewomen in the field, 2nd Lt. Zar Mina, a recent graduate of the three-year officer’s course, works academy legal department. Like Fazai, Mina sees the societal necessity of having women in the police.

Initially her family was not in favor of her joining the academy; she said they heard rumors of an unsafe, bad environment for female trainees and people said bad things about women in the police. After her family visited the campus, they changed their mind and supported her decision. The only woman in her graduating class, Mina had to prove herself to her male students and teachers; she was first in her class for academics, marksmanship and physical fitness.

“The first semester was the hardest; the males were saying bad things and I had a lot of bad days, but I never thought about quitting,” she said. “The second semester was easier and the third even more; my classmates and I had competitions to see who the best was.”

Overseeing the female training, living conditions and treatment at the academy is Col. Naiz Bibi, head of the Women’s Training Department. A 29-year police veteran, Bibi spends much of her time recruiting, often traveling to other provinces to speak with women and their families. Her support and recruiting work is more important than ever; President Karzai announced that an additional 5,000 women need to be added to the police force over the next five years. Although Bibi takes a bodyguard on her trips out, she told me she isn’t afraid of the danger; she has lived through the grip of the Taliban and has seen what she described as dark days. When I asked Bibi about life under the Taliban, she wouldn’t say much other than life was difficult and women didn’t dare leave their homes. Her husband was also a police officer, and he encouraged her to pursue her career – she said she loves being an officer and being in the military is part of a female’s duty, just like being a doctor, teacher or an engineer.

The fact that her husband was also in the police and one of her biggest supporters is something Bibi is quick to mention when speaking to young women and their families. With the police force having a reputation as a dangerous place for women to serve and rife with corruption, families are often reluctant to allow their daughters, wives, sisters or mothers to join.
“My message for those females who don’t dare to come here is that they should revolt against their roles and join the police; we are here beside them to help them,” she said. “My great ambition is to make a lot of females like myself. I encourage females and their families to come and join because this job is a holy job in Islam.”

While their experiences, backgrounds and education levels differ; Fazai, Mina and Bibi are united in their goal to serve their country and the future women of Afghanistan. Fazai, who hopes to have a family of her own one day, said she will only marry someone who will not interfere with her chosen occupation. And Mina, who is just starting out in her career, said that she knows the women of Afghanistan still face many challenges, but there are signs of improvement.

Overall, Mina is right –things are slowly getting better for women here, but more are needed to stand up and push through boundaries. I think I heard the plight of Afghan women described best by Col. Shafiqa Quarashi, the Police Chief of Gender and Human Rights Division. Recognized by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in March as one of 10 international women of courage, Shafiqa gave a speech to a group of police women where she made a powerful statement. “Who is saying women can’t do anything? We can do everything, anything you want,” she said. ““No one will give your rights to you as a gift, you have to take them.”

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