This post is a day late, because I was busy having a super leisurely birthday yesterday.
It is also part article/analysis, like most of my posts, and part obituary for two women I have never met, but whose story is very significant for Afghanistan and U.S. interests there.
On Thursday, the highest-ranking female police officer in Helmand Province, Afghanistan was ambushed and shot while on her way to work. She later died in the hospital.
Her name was Islam Bibi, and she was a nine-year veteran of the police force, a mother of three, and a lieutenant.
Women make up less than half of a percent of the entire police force in Helmand province, only 32 officers out of about 7,000. Even so, their work as officers was seen as a major step forward for the region, touted by Western forces as evidence of the progress the country has made since the ousting of the Taliban.
But Bibi and the other women in the Afghan police still faced a lot of opposition, including from their own families. Of the many threats made against Bibi, some came from her own brother, who brandished a loaded gun in her face to try and dissuade her from joining the police.
Bibi had lived part of her life as a refugee in Iran, but in 2001 returned to Afghanistan.
While the need for a steady income was one of the reasons she joined up, Bibi also said, “I feel proud wearing the uniform, and I want to try to make Afghanistan a better and stronger country.”
Her job was further complicated by the fact that, like many people in the region, some of her relatives have fought for the Taliban. Those relatives stopped speaking to her, but she believed that they passed information about her to the Taliban. Whether or not that played into the attack that led to her death remains to be seen.
The headlines about Bibi are an unsettlingly accurate echo of the headlines from September 2008, when another high-ranking female police officer, Lieutenant Colonel Malalai Kakar, was shot dead getting into her car to go to work in neighboring Kandahar province.
Kakar had joined the police in 1982, inspired by her father and brothers, who were also police officers. When the Taliban took over the country, their edicts prevented her from working, alongside many other women from all walks of life. But she returned to the job when the Taliban fell, and rose to become head of the department of crimes against women. She was famous across the country for killing three would-be assassins in a shoot-out.
The Taliban claimed credit for her death.
While the American-led intervention in Afghanistan has certainly been a mixed bag, and Western forces have done more than their fair share of fucked up things in the country, it is still true that deposing the Taliban did open up new opportunities for women, or in the case of Kakar, allow them to return to jobs and lives that had been taken from them. And as the U.S. prepares to withdraw fully from the country, there are real fears that Afghanistan will revert to many of the most restrictive laws from its Taliban days. It wouldn’t even necessarily have to entail the Taliban becoming the main political power again; many of Afghanistan’s current politicians are hardly more liberal in their views on the role of women in society than their Taliban counterparts. The worry is that women’s rights may be seen as collateral damage, their loss part of the cost of a smooth withdrawal and somewhat enhanced stability in the region.
That’s not necessarily to say that the U.S. should remain longer in Afghanistan, or at least not militarily. It is only to say that, although an end to the war has been a goal for a long time, there is still a real human cost to it.
Bibi and Kakar would not have been saved by a longer U.S. military commitment to Afghanistan. And I honestly don’t know what policy prescription I would give to try to prevent assassinations against women who take on such public roles in the face of such danger.
But I do think that their story tells us something important. Sometimes, when people criticize the war in Afghanistan, they argue that we are imposing Western ideals on a country that has no place for them. In some cases, I think that is true: the Western idea of democracy is one that focuses on building a checklist of centralized institutions rather than a process of returning sovereignty to the people, and it is a model that doesn’t work everywhere (for more detailed thoughts on that, check out this article.) And of course, a lot of U.S. foreign policy, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, is predicated on expediency, or on ideas about how best to serve our national security, or our corporate interests, sometimes so much so that it can seem that the interests of ordinary Afghans don’t enter into our considerations at all.
But Bibi and Kakar do prove that ideas of gender equality, of women having a role to play in the public sphere, not just in the privacy of the home, and not just in subservient roles, does have universal appeal (an also that they idea is struggling in the U.S., not just places like Afghanistan).
For Kakar, the urge to stand alongside her brothers led her to a career with the police before the Taliban, and long before the American intervention. For Bibi, her main complaint about her job was not that it was hard, or that it earned her enmity: it was that she still wasn’t allowed to perform all the same duties as her male counterparts.
So today, I wanted to remember two women who should serve as icons not just for others in Afghanistan, but women anywhere and everywhere fighting for the equality, the respect, and the security that they deserve.