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April 9, 2007

Kandahar's Top Cop is a Woman

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The Afghan landscape still has a desolate, dusty Mad Max quality to it. Everything is a variation on beige. Buildings carry the scars of war-gaping holes from mortar rounds or chips from automatic-weapon fire. Most of Kandahar's windows have been replaced by bricks, as if the occupants simply gave up on replacing the glass. Sitting at the intersection of Pakistan's tribal areas and Afghanistan's burgeoning opium fields, the city harbors drug lords, smugglers, and murderers. Taliban-sponsored suicide bombings are now routine; last December, there were six of them in a nine-day period.

Two decades ago, Kandahar was a teeming commercial center-the crossroads through which Pakistani traders passed on their way to Iran and Iraq. Now it is best known as the spiritual birthplace of Islamic fundamentalists who helped drive the Soviets out after a 10-year occupation, only to impose a strict interpretation of sharia (Islamic law) on those who remained. Women in particular suffered. By now, everyone knows the stories-how they were forbidden to work, attend school, or even leave the house without a male family member in tow. And, of course, there were the burkas.

Malalai had been on the police force for seven years when the Taliban came to power. Immediately, the "morality police" targeted her for such flagrant violations of sharia as holding a job. She fled to Pakistan, where she stayed for 10 years. During this time, she met her husband, a U.N. worker and a "modern man," as she calls him. They started a family. Then the Taliban fell, and Malalai returned to Kandahar and the police work she loved.The women of the Kandahar police squad know their gender makes them especially desirable targets for a Taliban suicide bomber or anyone wishing to halt the progress of women. They travel with guards and worry about the safety of their families. "I live in an army compound to try to stay safe," says Malalai. "This isn't an easy job, but it is important that women do it. We need to be a part of the new Afghanistan."

Malalai points out that women's participation in law enforcement is not just about them. It is about the thousands of women in Kandahar who have been denied police assistance time and again, because the Muslim community does not allow men to interact closely with women they aren't related to. Sometimes Malalai will be called to assist a woman who has been badly injured in an accident and needs to be physically helped to a hospital. There have also been times when she and other female officers enter a home first, gathering the women together in one room so the male officers can search for a wanted criminal. Inside the station's squad room, a portrait of Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, hangs in one corner. A pile of pale-blue burkas lies limply in another, thrown in the general direction of a coatrack. Female cops are relaxing around the room.

Kochi, 35, is a heavyset woman who was a housewife and now specializes in airport security; Sadiqua, 28, used to run a beauty parlor and is now an expert in drug investigations; Bibi Ayesha, 20, is a fresh academy graduate with stunning blue eyes; and Zarika, 35, who lives with her husband and daughter in her mother's home, considers illegal-arms seizures her specialty. The women gossip and share cigarettes and tea while they await the day's assignments. The smoking is surreptitious. When a male officer enters the room, they hide the cigarettes under a table and fan away the smoke.

While awaiting their orders, they share stories of life on the force. Sadiqua's police car was fired on two days ago, possibly in connection with two gun smugglers she'd arrested earlier that week. Bibi brought in members of the Taliban after she found dead bodies in their truck. Zarika just received a "night letter" from the Taliban. "Don't work for the government," she says, quoting the letter. "Leave this job and don't go out of the house." The women laugh uneasily.


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