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April 9, 2007

Kandahar's Top Cop is a Woman

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Perhaps the biggest reason the force needs women is the escalating rate of domestic violence in Afghanistan. There were 47 documented domestic murders in the country in 2005 and 20 in the first half of 2006, according to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. Moreover, they estimate that up to 80 percent of marriages are forced. Almost 60 percent of girls are married before the age of 16, some as young as 6. Incidents of self-immolation (in which a woman who has been physically or emotionally abused sets herself on fire as a means of protest) have risen dramatically since 2003, according to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women.

As a female police officer, Malalai is able to speak directly to women who are victims of violence. Recently, she started investigating a spate of suspicious murders and cases of abuse involving women in Kandahar. "These are things that I do that men just won't," she says. "I remember this one case, when I knocked on the door but the children would not let me in. From under the cover of my burka, I told them I was their long-lost aunt. They opened the door." Malalai (who says she often wears a burka to disguise her identity) searched the house and found a woman and her son chained by their hands and feet. They'd survived for 10 months on crusts of bread and cups of water. The woman, a widow, was handed over by her in-laws to her brother-in-law after her husband passed away. The brother married her and divorced her, a major taboo that guaranteed she would be a social outcast for the rest of her life. When she went to pick up her belongings, the brother-in-law forced her and her son into a cage and held them captive.

"The Taliban may threaten me," Malalai says. "But because of stories like rescuing this woman, the women and children love me."

Still, mediating marital disputes isn't easy. "The accusations always fly-the husband accuses the wife, the wife accuses the husband," she says. "I talk to the neighbors and family members and try to find a way to bring them to peace. Because divorce isn't acceptable in this country, we have to find another solution. I always try to get the husband to promise that he won't harm his wife."

When Malalai says this, everyone in the room takes a sidelong glance in the direction of a birdlike woman in the corner-Anar Gul, 47, who haunts the women's squad room, pretending to clean. Malalai also found Anar chained in a basement, enslaved by her husband's brother. (Her first husband had died and she was forcibly remarried to his brother, a heroin addict.)

When Malalai got a tip about the abuse, she burst into Anar's house with a nightstick in one hand and a pistol in the other and beat the husband (police brutality, though not uncommon here, rarely comes from female officers). Asked how she subdued a man twice her size, she gives a mock demonstration. "I stomped on him with my boots and punched him," stopping short of using the nightstick. "If I had, I'd have killed him," she says matter-of-factly.

As Malalai tells the story, Anar offers a toothless grin, all gums and cracked lips. She wipes imaginary grit from a table in the squad room and then squats down quietly in the corner. After rescuing her from certain death, Malalai found Anar the cleaning job. Women helping women-it's a small sign of hope in the new Afghanistan. "This case," Malalai says, "had a happy ending."

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