KABUL- She laughs easily, each time shaking the black shawl that lies on the red shoulder pads of her blue-grey uniform. Colonel Shafiqa Quraishi is a good-humored woman, a rare trait these days considering the current grim atmosphere in Afghanistan.
The Afghan police colonel has a portrait of President Hamid Karzai hanging behind her desk, and the blue flag of the European Union Police Mission (EUPOL) stands in a corner of her office. Quraishi receives people in the safety of the Afghan Interior Ministry in Kabul, at the end of a street guarded by high-security checkpoints. Her male co-workers gather around her with the kind of respect that makes it immediately evident that Shafiqa Quraishi holds exceptional status here.
One of three female police colonels in all of Afghanistan, Quraishi carries particular weight: she is charged with promoting gender equality in the police forces. After a decade of post-Taliban “reconstruction,” Colonel Quraishi’s role under the authority of the international community highlights a nagging debate on the real progress of women’s rights in Afghanistan.
Shafiqa Quraishi graduated from the police academy in Kabul in 1982. Her rapid rise inside the police hierarchy began in 2002, after the fall of the Taliban. In her own way, she is the beacon for the 1,173 female officers in Afghanistan. Heartily encouraged by NATO, recruiting women to join the police forces has been on the fast track recently, with the number of female police officers doubling over the past year. Still, women represent a paltry 0.9% of the country’s total police force. Colonel Quraishi is aware of the hurdles that still exist: “Cultural resistances remain very strong. Many families don’t want their daughters to enlist in the police forces because it’s an environment dominated by men.”
Inside Taliban stronghold
Even when an Afghan woman does enter the police forces, moving ahead is unlikely. Shafiqa Quraishi’s promotion to the top colonel rank came only after Western countries pleaded with the Afghan government. “We are a society where culture remains more powerful than law,” she says. “Lady cops suffer from discrimination from inside the institution.”
Shafiqa Quraishi refers to the situation of a policewomen in the northern Baghlan province who, despite her rank, is facing a “total lack of cooperation from her male counterparts.” She regrets that some women officers end up quitting their jobs precisely because of these difficulties. A “green hotline” has even been created so they can register their grievances.
Colonel Quraishi wants to accelerate gender equality, but must push for it amidst an ongoing war with a NATO rollback on the horizon – and the possibility now openly mentioned of the return to political power of the Taliban, which is decidedly hostile to any advancement of women’s rights.
As a rigorous civil servant, Colonel Shafiqa Quraishi will not address the specifics of the political situation, though she does express her “concern.”
Indeed, she remembers very well when the Taliban used to run the country, between 1996 and 2001. She remembers what it was like in those days: “I had to stay home, because women weren’t allowed to work anymore. The Afghan people, women in particular, will never forget those dark days.”
Colonel Quraishi has received many death threats over the years. Other high-ranked female police officers have been murdered in the past. In the fall of 2008, the female lieutenant-colonel Malalai Kakar was killed in Kandahar, where the Taliban remain powerful. Is it good enough reason to be pessimistic? Colonel Quraishi has been handed optimistic reports stating that the Taliban have changed, or at least, evolved. But she remains stony-faced: “I don’t know. I am still worried.”
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