MAZAR-E SHARIF, Afghanistan – They queued quietly at first. Bathed in an unseasonably warm November sun, their anxious feet shuffling outside the police barracks, the policewomen’s chatter heightened as the unveiling drew near.
They were about to take another step toward greater respect, higher morale and increased authority.
Clad in traditional women’s garb – ankle-length dresses topped by wrist-covering blouses and conservative hijabs revealing only their eager faces – the women waited patiently before hearing the first name called.
Seconds later a beaming policewoman emerged with her new official police uniform raised over her head to the jubilant applause of her colleagues.
“When I go out, my clothes should exhibit that I’m a policewoman so people will know that I’m serious about security,” said Pary Gull-s-Salime, a 22-year-old police administrator.
The uniforms – a set of trousers, a blouse, a pair of boots and matching hijabs for each policewoman – were a gift from a female filmmaker so impressed by the Afghan policewomen she was inspired to ensure they could don uniforms equal to the women’s courage.
The recipients expressed subdued giddiness in a land where conservatism is the norm.
“This is a proud day for us,” said Lt. Col. Najiba, who, like many people in Afghanistan, goes only by one name.
Courage concealed in plain sight
Scarcity defines vast stretches of this country.
Intermittent drought has turned the Earth barren in already achingly arid districts. Drinking water and food supplies suffer.
Smoothly paved roads, power and sewer lines and conveniences taken for granted by so many are still in their infancy here. Enemies of a free Afghanistan hamper development efforts with attacks that strike at the most vulnerable here: women, children and the elderly.
Thankfully for the Afghan people, there remains an abundance of courage.
Nowhere is this valor more evident than in the brave faces of the women who’ve sworn an oath to protect their fellow citizens as police officers.
The harrowing existence of Afghan women is extensive and well documented. Against this backdrop, policewomen struggle for legitimacy, respect and, sometimes, the right to exist.
The killing of a high-ranking Afghan policewoman earlier this year underscores the threat faced by women brave enough to don the shield. Despite the pride in their new uniforms, the policewomen acknowledge they will travel to and from work in civilian clothes, changing at the station into their new uniforms and boots.
They are jeered, ridiculed and sometimes threatened by men who know of their work. Yet they press on, steadfast in their determination to play their part in building a new Afghanistan.
“The situation is not good, but it is so much better than it used to be,” said Nubila Nuzara, a 21-year-old officer between a regular flow of thorough pat downs of women entering the police compound. “We hope that we can one day have a society without a framework for what we can and cannot do.”
These policewomen arrive at work each morning with vastly different backgrounds and expectations.
Some are barely out of their teens, educated and aspiring. One spoke of a position with the police as a springboard to a career in law. Another hoped to serve as a recruiter, influencing other women to join the struggle for law and order.
Others bore weathered skin of harsh winters and dry summers that speak of experience but not education. A former baker now spends long stretches in a cramped, barren room reserved for patting down female visitors. A bed with an exposed mattress tempered only by a threadbare sheet and a desk unfit for office work are all the amenities provide to comfort the three policewomen expertly yet respectfully searching visitors.
“This job allows me to do a good service while other jobs do not,” said Rahima Ghulame, a 27-year-old policewoman on the job only six months.
Lt. Col. Corine Van Nieuwburg, the gender adviser serving Regional Command North, was instrumental as a liaison between the benefactor – filmmaker Alison MacLean in Vancouver - and the recipients here in northern Afghanistan.
She spoke about the role female Afghan security forces will play at pivotal events pending in Afghanistan.
“The protection of the female voters at the polling sites and other public placed will be your honorable duty,” said Van Nieuwburg. “This duty will have a place in the history of Afghanistan to enable the population of Afghanistan a fair and secure election.”
Inspired into action
MacLean is a benefactor whose passion for improving the plight of Afghanistan’s women is surpassed only by her creative dexterity for the same.
She made her first visit to Afghanistan more than 20 years ago, during the Soviet Union’s occupation and the rising tide of fundamentalism from which the Taliban rose and flourished.
This perspective, coupled with what she described as the tremendous support she’s received during two film making visits in the past several years, has made her among one the coalition’s strongest partisans outside the Canadian military chain of command.
“I get so frustrated when I hear all the negative news about NATO in Afghanistan from people who don’t have the perspective that I do,” she said.
“The truth is, the Americans and Canadians and British and so many others have done so much to improve the lives of the Afghan people, especially the women. It’s amazing for me to compare what I witnessed when the Russians were there with what I witnessed during my last visit. And I’m so proud Canadian troops were part of that effort.”
Bolstered by the progress she’s witnessed and her desire to play a small part in improving the lives of Afghan women, she’s raised thousands of dollars in the past several years and donated them all to supporting Afghan women. The recent batch of uniforms is her most recent contribution.
“I know what it’s like to be a woman and to want to look good and professional and to also struggle juggling a career and family and all that we have to do,” she said. “And then you add the cultural struggles these women face, the threat of violence and daily fight for respect. It’s so extraordinary and I felt I had to do something to support them.”
She’s donated proceeds from two of her documentaries about Afghanistan to the effort, and has collected small donations from Canadians.
“I’ve spoken to breakfast clubs, lunch socials, business group dinners. I never knew so many people met for meals but they’ve been very generous with $20 dollars here and $20 there and when you add it up it’s real money,” she said.
For Lt. Col. Najiba and her unit of intrepid female police officers, it’s adding up to a very real difference.
“Our job will never be easy, but this will make us more effective,” she said.