Post by Focus on Apr 7, 2013 18:26:45 GMT
When Lt Islam Bibi decided to join the small band of female police officers in Helmand, she expected death threats from the province's ruthless heroin traffickers and the Taliban. She didn't expect them from her own relatives as well.
Lt Bibi (Rt) was a refugee in Iran when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan back in the 1990s
Far from being proud of her decision to risk her life for the service of her country, her family was apoplectic.
Not only was the work too dangerous, they argued, it was hardly fitting in their conservative corner of south western Afghanistan, where many see a woman working outside the home as scandalous.
"My brother, father and sisters were all against me. In fact my brother tried to kill me three times," Lt Bibi, who is now Helmand's most senior policewoman, told our reporter matter of factly.
"He came to see me brandishing his pistol trying to order me not to do it, though he didn't actually open fire. The government eventually had to take his pistol away."
As British and American troops withdraw rapidly from Helmand and leave the Afghan government to plot its own course, women like Lt Bibi are warily reflecting on the gains they have made in the 12 years since the Taliban regime was toppled.
Not only do they fear the return of fundamentalist militias like the Taliban, they also worry that conservative elements within their own government may back-pedal on reforms. But beyond the wider political debate, for many women there is a daily, more personal struggle, as they push against the attitudes of conservative relatives and neighbors.
Lt Bibi, a 37-year-old mother of three sons and two daughters, was a refugee in Iran when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan back in the 1990s, but her single visit home while they were in power left her with an abiding contempt for their strictures.
She still shudders when she remembers that visit to her mother in Afghanistan's Garmsir district. Women were banned from work and education and could not leave the house without a male relative acting as chaperon.
"It was terrible," she said. "We couldn't go to the bazaar because of the Taliban. They would beat us if we did. Once we were threatened, even though I was with my brother."
She returned to her native land after 2001 and raised her family at home, until the idea of joining the police struck her nine years ago.
Her motivation as much economic as idealistic, since her family was struggling to survive on the wages of her husband, a porter at the main hospital in Lashkar Gah.
"Firstly I needed the money, but secondly I love my country," she said. "I feel proud wearing the uniform and I want to try to make Afghanistan a better and stronger country."
Though outwardly a strong character who jokes that her family are scared of her, the opposition to her plan evidently troubles Lt Bibi.
Nearly a decade later, the arguments are not settled and her job remains a family flashpoint which can flare at any time. She has support from her elder daughter, but her other relatives are still implacably opposed.
"My family are still not happy. They haven't changed their minds and in the home we still have many arguments," she said.
Lt Bibi's predicament is made worse because, like many in Helmand, she has relatives who have sided with the Taliban against Hamid Karzai's government. Her decision to join the police, and throw in her lot with the government, means many of her cousins have stopped talking to her.
She is also convinced that her cousins are passing information to the Taliban about her. To her brothers and husband, the family rift and the added threat of Taliban attack only strengthen their opposition to her career.
The family woes created by Lt Bibi's career choice are hardly unique. Some of her 32 female colleagues, who make up less than half a per cent of Helmand's nearly 7,000-strong police force, have simply not told their wider families that they have joined up.
Yet despite the difficulties, she loves her job and has gained successive promotions. Her main duties now are recruiting and training other female officers, but she also works searching passengers at Lashkar Gah's airport and takes part in raids and police operations.
She would still like to do more. "The men are doing their jobs, but we are still held back," she complained. "We cannot stand with them shoulder to shoulder."
After long, bloody summers of fighting, central Helmand has in the past couple of years seen a welcome improvement in security, according to most residents. Government competence and influence have grown and the Taliban, though certainly not defeated, have lost ground.
But despair at the violence that prevailed three years ago has been replaced by speculation about what will happen when the foreigners leave – particularly among the province's women, who may have the most to lose.
Females are still a far less common sight than men in the streets of Lashkar Gah, and virtually all are shrouded in light blue or green burkas. A United Nations report earlier this year also warned that the number of women killed in Afghanistan had risen by a fifth, even as overall numbers of civilian casualties had fallen.
Few female police officers
"The majority is linked to domestic violence, tradition, culture of the country," Jan Kubis, the UN envoy to Afghanistan told the UN Security Council in March. "Women activists have been deliberately targeted."
Yet it is clear talking to women in Helmand that since 2001 their options have improved and many are proud of the small changes they have fought for.
The only education open to them under Taliban rule was secret classes in people's homes. Thirteen years later, the government says there are 18,000 girls in government primary schools in Helmand, making up a fifth of all primary pupils. The figure drops to around 2,600 in secondary school, though, or around 10 per cent of pupils.
Girls' education is strongest in the towns of Lashkar Gah and Gereshk and weakest in the rural districts, where the threat of the Taliban and the influence of conservative village elders make people more reluctant to send daughters to school.
Karima Nabi, a lawyer for Helmand's provincial council, feared any progress will falter if Western money and support is withdrawn along with Nato troops. In the 12 years since the Taliban regime fell, a combination of international support and a renewed hunger for education has enabled the reopening of schools and universities that had been closed and the construction of some new ones.
"During the Taliban government the situation was very bad. We couldn't get education, go out without an escort or find work," she said. "It's still much more difficult in the districts, but girls can get at least a couple of years' schooling.
"If the foreigners leave Afghanistan, it may be a very big problem for women."
The more pragmatic Taliban leaders have conceded that their strictures made them unpopular and have issued statements saying they are not against female education. Two of their envoys who attended a conference with other Afghan political figures outside Paris in December delivered a speech saying women had a "right to education and work".
But many women in Helmand doubt the Taliban have changed at all. They fear that women's hard-won, still contested freedoms will be the first chips to be sacrificed in any peace settlement with the movement.
Many of the strongmen and warlords in the Afghan government are scarcely more liberal towards women than the Taliban either. With so much at stake, international women's day last month aroused strong passions in Helmand.
More than 500 women, including local nurses, midwives, teachers, MPs and policewomen queued for an hour to pack the basement beneath the provincial council's hall to hear speeches and receive gifts.
As she tried to keep order, Lt Bibi told our reporter that her career path was irreversible. "I am a policewoman and I will be a policewoman in the future. I'd be proud if my daughter wanted to follow me." -- Brave lady! - Fx