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Afghan women's gains in jeopardy as US troops leave
January 7, 2015, 12:39 pm
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As a woman in the high ranks of the country's national security forces, Bayaz remains a rarity in Afghanistan. Women still represent fewer than 1% of Afghanistan's army of more than 165,000 soldiers, despite pressure from the United States and its allies to boost the number of women in the police and army.

Similarly, women make up a little more than 1% of the nation's police force — 2,178 in a force of about 157,000. Another 214 are in training, according to Afghanistan government statistics. It's been slow progress, but a significant change from the Taliban rule when women were banned from school and work.


Women rights activists in Afghanistan worry those small gains could be jeopardized as the United States withdraws most of its forces from the country.

"People are worried that the United States would leave, and the Taliban would take over," said Afghan Army Brig. Gen. Abdul Hakim, who leads efforts to recruit women.

Any political reconciliation with the Taliban could threaten the gains made by women since the group was driven from power 13 years ago. The Taliban placed harsh restrictions on women, requiring them to wear head-to-toe burqas and forbidding them from appearing in public alone. Punishments could be severe.

Even without the Taliban, Afghan officials say they face formidable cultural obstacles to attract more women to the security forces.

"In our society the police force is male-dominated," said police Brig. Gen. Hekmat Shahi, an Interior Ministry official responsible for recruiting women into the force.

Women are not allowed to select their own professions, and many families remain reluctant to allow their daughters to join the police or army.

"We cannot force any family to send their daughters into the army," Hakim said.

The Pentagon, however, says Afghan officials still lack a strong commitment to integrate women into security forces, pointing out that women constituted a large percentage of the civilian workforce in the 1960s and 1970s.

"The primary obstacle for slow progress in this area remains the lack of will of Afghan leadership to implement approved policies," according to the Pentagon report released in October.

Washington has pushed Afghanistan's government to open opportunities for women. Congress set aside $25 million last year to fund Afghan efforts to recruit women into the security forces and build facilities to accommodate them.

Parents may be reluctant to allow women to join the police or army, but Bayaz said she frequently visits schools where she finds girls interested in the law enforcement profession. "The solution is to change the mentality," she said.

That may come as more women like Bayaz enter the military and police forces. Her arrest of the elusive murder suspect attracted widespread attention and earned praise from top Interior Ministry officials.

Bayaz, 51, a mother of five, graduated from the police academy about 34 years ago when women in the workforce were more common.

On a recent day, she sat in an unadorned office, monitoring two handheld radios and a cellphone. A stream of officers came in carrying papers for her to sign or seeking guidance. Dressed in a head scarf and wearing a badge, she seemed comfortable in command.

"I have not faced any challenges as a woman in this position," she said.

The police headquarters sits behind rows of blast walls erected with U.S. assistance. Inside, buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes. Men with assault rifles stand guard on rooftops, peering out from behind sandbags. Outside the walls is one of Kabul's busiest markets.

When Bayaz was first assigned as District 1 police chief, she was told of the murder suspect who had eluded police. The suspect appeared to be tipped off every time police were about to close in, probably the result of leaks inside the department, she said.

Soon after assuming command, she received that call from the informant. He was frightened but agreed to talk to Bayaz because he believed the new chief wouldn't tip off the criminal.

"I will help you, but don't tell anyone in the department," Bayaz said he told her.

She didn't take any chances with the information. She immediately told her personal security detail to surround the apartment where the suspect was believed to be hiding. Only then did she dispatch her officers to arrest the man, even though he was in another police district.

For now, women like Bayaz stand out, and the Afghan government has set a goal of increasing the percentage of women in the military and police to 10%. Croatian Brig. Gen. Gordana Garasic, the coalition's gender adviser, cautioned that boosting women's numbers in security forces will take time.

"It's a traditional society, but it can be done," Garasic said.

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