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From burqas to cop uniform

In the heart of the violent birthplace of the Taliban movement, defying Afghan convention and family advice, mothers Magola and Faranaze decided to take up arms.

world Updated: Jun 13, 2010 00:56 IST

In the heart of the violent birthplace of the Taliban movement, defying Afghan convention and family advice, mothers Magola and Faranaze decided to take up arms. From the southern province of Kandahar, they are among a handful women who have swapped the full Islamic veils known as burqas for life in uniform as members of Afghanistan's under-strength police force.

Taliban and Women

From the age of eight, women were not allowed to be in direct contact with men, other than a close blood relative, husband, or in-law. Other restrictions were:

Women should not appear in the streets without a blood relative and without wearing a Burqa.

They should not wear high-heeled shoes as no man should hear a woman's footsteps lest it excite him.

They must not speak loudly in public as no stranger should hear a woman's voice.

All ground and first floor residential windows should be painted over or screened to prevent women being visible from the street.

The photographing or filming of women was banned as was displaying pictures of females in newspapers, books, shops or the home.

The modification of any place names that included the word "women." For example, "women’s garden" was renamed "spring garden".

Women were forbidden to appear on the balconies of their apartments or houses.

Ban on women’s presence on radio, television or at public gatherings of any kind.

"My parents don't like me to work for the police but I am happy to serve my country," said Magola, proudly wearing her blue uniform at the camp where she has been trained by US-led NATO forces.

Magola and Faranaze are not their real names. Afghanistan is a country where strict Islamic beliefs and conservative convention prohibit most women from working. Out of a thousand recruits, police in Kandahar have only 20 women.

Widowed during the 1996-2001 Taliban regime, Magola confided that she needed her police salary to feed her family. She has 12 children and six are still dependent on her.

Like most Kandahari women, female officers wear burqas off duty. But at work, wearing scarves or hoods with their uniforms, women perform essential roles in areas that remain off limits to men.

Female officers are responsible for knocking on doors, and ushering women away from homes before police swoop in for operations against suspects.

"When the police are searching a compound, they can't go first. We have to knock on doors, explain why we are here, take the women aside so they can go inside," said Faranaze.

"Once I went to a compound, we were looking for a pistol. The man had asked the woman to hide it. I went to her and said: 'I am going to slap you if you don't tell me where it is'. She had put it in a cooking pot."

But they also encounter considerable risks in the war-torn country, where police are regularly targeted by insurgents.

In Kandahar, "the Taliban assassinate people, there are one or two murders every day", said Magola.

NATO forces are focused on training more police as part of one of their ambitious counter-insurgency operations in the nine-year Afghan war.

Operations to beat back the Taliban in Kandahar, heartland of a bitter insurgency against the Western-backed Afghan government, are due to escalate in coming months as thousands more troops deploy. Afghan police and security forces are frequently on the front line. Three bombers attacked a police training centre in Kandahar this week, damaging the outer wall of the compound before they were killed.

Besides the risks to their lives, Magola and Faranaze face disapproval from families who object that they work or simply fear for their safety.

"One of my brothers works at the Saraposa prison. He told me to stop working for the police. I shook his hand and told him I would work with him hand in hand until I die," Faranaze said.

First Published: Jun 13, 2010 00:50 IST