"Be lucky, know the right people"
Afghan police and their perception among womenIn August 2010, Time Magazine’s cover showed the severely mutilated face of an Afghan woman. “What happens when we leave Afghanistan?” Read the title of this issue. What was a not-so-subtle attempt to use women’s rights as a justification for the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan ignored one important detail: The mutilation had taken place while troops from over forty nations were there. If the military can contribute to stabilization, of course that is an achievement which also has a positive effect on women’s rights. Yet, in the long run it should be the country’s own civilian institutions that guarantee public security and safeguard women’s rights. While general surveys the Afghan National Police show a mixed but not overall negative image of the police, women often experience that police does not take them seriously or even harass them. HBS talked to one of them.
Aziza*, the police is there to protect citizens’ rights and guarantee public security. Do you have the feeling they are doing their job?
I cannot judge about the quality of the police’s work. I assume as in any other profession you will find those who are very committed and good at their job. A very obvious problem, however, is their behaviour. I often see them beating street vendors and destroying their goods. It is also common when you drive through the city that the traffic police ask for money. And relations between police and citizens are not always working well. When a friend of ours was murdered in his house and the family and neighbours went to the police, police first asked about the exact location, studied the map and declared that the crime happened in another police district and they were not responsible. The neighbours in their anger started throwing stones at the police’s office. But particularly women in public have a difficult time with the police.
What do they say or do that intimidates women?
When a woman passes by, police are commenting on her – her looks, her appearance, what she wears … and they are really using inappropriate words. When you are walking on the street and a police car passes by, even if you are accompanied by a man they are not ashamed to lower the windows and ask whether you want a ride. A good thing now is that the tainted windows have been banned even for police cars. Before, nobody knew what was happening in the back of the car. There were rumours about police offering girls a ride and then violating them in the back of the car. Also some policemen let their sons use their cars at night because with a police car nobody will control you. But of course people think that who is driving a police car is a policeman, so maybe the police’s image got further tarnished through this illicit use of official cars.
Once I was on a bus with many women. When we passed a checkpoint, the policeman tried to wink to all of us. Worse than that is it when you are passing a checkpoint walking. I myself never feel safe passing any police checkpoints, expecting to hear any comments from them.
How should women react to that?
This is very difficult. Normally you don’t have a chance against them. Here it is very important what society thinks of you so if you are trying to cause trouble, you face problems in that situation and might later on have discussions also with your family. Often people will not listen anyway to what a woman says to the police. There is a kind of hotline where you can complain about the behaviour of officials that do not act according to their duties, but within my personal networks I have not yet heard of anybody who made use of that. In general, the only way to tackle problems with the police is to know high ranking officials personally who can help in solving problems.
That sounds humiliating. Does that never make you angry?
Well, mostly I try not to listen. But sometimes I just cannot stand it any longer. One day after a particularly rude comment of a policeman, I stopped and went back to where he was sitting. I grabbed him by his collar, pulled him up to face me and asked him: ‘What would you think if your colleagues talked like that to your sister or your daughter? Do you ever think of that? And what does that uniform you are wearing mean to you? Are you aware that with that you are an official representative of the state and should behave accordingly?’ His colleagues came to help him and they tried to calm me down ‘Please, let go, we will talk with him,’ they said. I took the number of the checkpoint and called some personal contacts who are well connected. They changed the personnel at this police post and now things are calm. But this is does not happen in every case.
A few meters further at the next checkpoint, the guys were yelling at me: ‘Hey, auntie, where are you going?’, even though they were more or less my age. I turned around and shouted at them ‘Your AUNTIE is going to study!’ Since then, they are very polite and kindly ask ‘Sister, may I check your bag?’ So there is a chance, you can achieve something when you directly address their misbehaviour. Women should be careful, however, because risking conflict with the police is dangerous.
Dangerous in what sense? What do you think might happen?
Some friends were asked for favours by policemen and when they declined, the policemen threatened to set up a case which they could hardly get out again. But in any case the inappropriate behaviour of the police is a hazard for public security. They often do not concentrate on their job because they are busy harassing women. In Shar-e Naw Square we had it the other day – a huge traffic jam was clogging the streets. When my sister and I were walking in between the cars, the traffic police shouted “Careful, lady or you’ll break your ribs.” I turned around to tell him to mind his own business and rather take care of solving the traffic jam but my sister was afraid that I would get us in trouble when starting a discussion with him.
As you said, all policemen have some female relatives of which they certainly would not like to hear such stories. What do you think is the reason for the police to behave like that? Is that the old conservative minds that cannot get used to women on the street?
Oh, no, this phenomenon is not limited to the old ones. On the contrary, you’ll find many young ones being rude. They feel powerful with their uniforms and their possibilities to bring people into trouble. They think social norms and laws are made for others and they do not have to adhere to them. Democratization and this overall opening have come too quickly for their minds to follow. They have not learned that freedom means that still you have to respect the other.
Would you despite all these issues have confidence in the police and denounce a crime or address them for help?
As mentioned earlier, you can be lucky and know the right people. If you don’t, you might face all kinds of problems. Most police officers have a low education only. They are insecure about how to behave with women, and some are simply not familiar with the law. I heard that at least in some aspects, awareness has increased significantly. When young women run away that is not a crime by Afghan law but in the past, police officers often imprisoned these women or sent them back to their families. Both sometimes had terrible effects. A woman in prison in our society is considered guilty, no matter whether the case is under investigation or she has been sentenced. This also means that men will think she is an immoral person and thus, female prisoners face any kind of harassment by the prison guards. Now, more women are instead referred to women shelters, but these exist only in the big cities like Kabul or Mazar. Also with children, awareness has grown that an adults’ prison is not a good place for them to be so they are now being sent to specific shelters.
Recent statistics say that there are about 900 female police officers now working in the Afghan National Police. Is this a way to solve the problems you have described?
More female police officers are a good step. You will not see them on the street, however, because they mainly get positions in the administration or in not so public spots. It would be interesting to hear of a female police officer how it is to work among these colleagues. As long as police behaves the way they do, I cannot see why women would join the police and why families should be confident enough to let their female members take a job in this institution.
*Aziza, 31, asked not to be identified with her real name. She is from Mazar. Currently, Aziza is working in an organization in Kabul and at the same time studying. On her daily ways through the city she has to pass various checkpoints.
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