Women who dare speak up — about anything — almost instantly find themselves a target. In 2015, a 27-year-old woman named Farkhunda Malikzada confronted a group of men who were reportedly trafficking amulets and Viagra at a shrine in central Kabul. The men responded by falsely accusing her of burning a Quran, which incited a mob to furiously beat her in broad daylight and light her bloodied body on fire, shouting that the Americans had sent her. Police officers nearby — including a female officer named Shamila, who risked her own life by screaming at the men to back off — weren’t able to save her. She died of her injuries.
Even joining the security forces is today considered a dangerous act, one that challenges the very fabric of Afghan culture and notions of how women should live their lives. In this male-dominated environment, Afghan women in uniform are often met with disdain. The community views them as “whores,” according to an Afghan woman in the special forces who serves alongside men and is tasked with searching women and children during raids. She is the sole provider for her family of seven. Many women who sign up to join the security forces, particularly the police, do so for financial reasons. Many are widows or women without a male guardian to support them and, as a result, already face ostracization in their communities. It’s not just a job; it’s a last resort for survival.
For women like Shamila, a 39-year-old police sergeant and single mother, joining the police force was an act of defiance after escaping from her violent Taliban husband, who forcefully married and raped her as a child. “I’m going to kill you,” he would say at night, dangling a noose. She would hold up the Quran and beg for her life. In 2008, her son helped her flee from Pakistan to Kabul, after she spoke up against the suicide vest hanging in their house and her husband nearly beat her to death. Italian doctors pieced together her broken limbs. After she healed, Shamila worked as a part-time cook and cleaner. But she wanted more: job security and a higher wage. Mostly, she said, grinning widely and flashing a silver tooth, she “wanted to be someone.” Now she works at a police station in Kabul, where she earns a steady wage managing the station’s finances, but also, at times, she handles criminal cases: a woman who lit herself on fire to commit suicide; a woman who killed her husband after he demanded that she sell sex for money; a woman killed by her brother, who slashed her open with a knife. It’s a dangerous job, she said, one that barely pays enough to support her and her teenage son and daughter and to afford their one-bedroom apartment, and one in which she has “only made more enemies.” Even so, she wakes up excited for work every day.
Previously, the effort to recruit women was seen as a numbers game, with the Afghan Ministry of Defense pushing for bigger recruitment numbers in the face of intense international pressure. Resolute Support, the NATO-led “train, advise and assist” mission in Afghanistan, calculates that there are currently 3,231 women in the Afghan National Police, 1,312 women in the Afghan National Army, which includes the air force, and 122 women in the Afghan Special Security Forces, making up, in aggregate, roughly 1.4 percent of Afghan security forces. All but 75 of them are based in Kabul. Those numbers are estimates, said Resolute Support, because NATO and Afghan records detailing force strength often do not match.
Resolute Support has shifted its focus away from lofty recruitment goals. In 2010, the goal was to have 10 percent of security forces be women by 2020. In 2015, that goal was scrapped for a more attainable one: 5,000 women in the army and 10,000 women in the police force by 2025. Now, the goal is to have at least 10 percent of the Afghan National Police and 3 percent of the Afghan National Army filled by women by 2021, with an eventual goal of 10 percent in the army. With those goals come new focus on supporting and carving out opportunities for the women who have already come forward to serve — for whom there is little room for advancement — through language and professional development courses, overseas training opportunities, mentorship and improved access to adequate facilities and equipment. NATO gender advisers say they are instructing Afghan counterparts to slow down recruitment of women “until we know where to put them,” according to Gerber.