Gender and Police Reform in Afghanistan

Tonita Murray, former director of the Canadian Police College, has spent the last three years in Afghanistan working as a gender and policing advisor within the Afghan Ministry of the Interior. She draws on 30 years of experience in research, policy development and reform in Canadian policing.

After working 30 years in the Canadian policing sector, how did you wind up in Afghanistan?

Good question. I've always had the idea that I would like to finish up my career doing some international work. Not only to make life more interesting for myself but also to let others benefit from some of the things I had learned and experienced along the way. So the opportunity actually arose before I retired from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and I went on a couple of short-term missions to Afghanistan in 2003. That led to the present work that I'm doing.

Before we talk about that work in Afghanistan, I'd like to hear how much the policing field changed, from a gender perspective, over the span of your career. What kind of major changes did you witness?

I was never a sworn police officer, but worked in various civilian roles at a fairly senior level in research and policy and planning and, you know sort of quasi-operational. It could all be summed up by an observation I made once: at the beginning of my career I could go to a women's washroom and be the only person there. By the end of my career, I sometimes had to line up to go to the washroom.

I lived the balancing of gender roles in policing. We can't say that Canada has achieved complete success yet. There's very much a glass ceiling still in place in some areas but nevertheless, we've come a long way. I can use my experiences in knowing how gender equality was achieved, to apply where it's appropriate in Afghanistan.

What are your responsibilities in your current role in Afghanistan?

I'm the Police and Gender Advisor to the Minister of Interior. I'm actually attached to the ministry. When I first arrived, due to various circumstances, the person who had arranged my position there was let go, so I ended up making my own role and it has worked very well. It's given me enormous flexibility to be able to meet with anyone from the Minister down to the police officers and being able to really touch base with the whole organization without any limitations. That has really helped me get myself known and trusted.

My role is an advisory one and I've focused on things like recruiting women into policing to build up a critical mass and more importantly, to make sure that the roles and responsibilities of these women are expanded. Everyone here knows it's important to recruit women but then they don't think further than that with respect to empowering and enabling them and giving them a real job.

Doesn't the Afghan government include a Ministry of Women Affairs?

Yes it does. The Ministry of Interior where I work is a policy ministry. It's often asked to oversee or run programs. Of course the women in the ministry themselves are learning how to be autonomous and how to play the power game in government.

Is there a history of gender equality in Afghanistan?

Well, it all depends how you define gender equality. Certainly culturally, I would not say women are suppressed. It's just that men and women in Afghan society, as in a lot of Islamic societies, lead parallel lives and they have different functions in society.

Men are sort of the public sphere and women are more dominant in the domestic sphere. It's not that they're not given a voice anywhere. As far as equality in policing goes, back in the 60's, when the National Police was formed under King Shah Zahir, women were recruited in small numbers and they were trained with men. And some of those women are still in the police force.

So there was equality as far as recruitment and training. But then again, it was the deployment that was difficult. They were not really given what you might call a proper police role.

They were not able to act autonomously and they were always in an assistance role to men.

The Afghan constitution officially recognizes equal rights for men and women. How does that play out in reality?

Obviously it does at a government level, at a structural level. We're trying to build capacity in putting in place an infrastructure in policies, which is a big thing.

The Ministry of Interior is there to promote gender mainstreaming. But there's not yet true recognition of gender equality; rather, there is gender equality embedded in the constitution. But you take the Canadian constitution, the human rights aspect of it started to be asserted only after a number of years as cases started going through the courts. Similarly, it's the same thing here in Afghanistan: there is recognition in theory but making it happen in practice and getting that to trickle down through all levels of society will take some time.

What would be the most common types of crimes or offenses that affect Afghan women?

There is said to be a lot of domestic violence against women and I've certainly seen a lot of examples. Many policewomen themselves have been victims of spousal violence or violence from fathers or sons. But what leaves me feeling a bit uncomfortable about this is there are no reliable statistics – it's all anecdotal. It's not to say that there isn't a problem. In most countries, there is violence against women. It's a question of what degree. I see a lot of instances of very trusting, loving relationships between men and women within the family. So I think we tend to focus on the violence against women at the expense of seeing that in actual fact, families aren't always dysfunctional and there are a lot of good things going on in Afghanistan.

Are there offenses that would be considered crimes in Canada but not in Afghanistan? For example, forced marriages?

Yes, there's that and underage marriages. Also, if a woman is sexually assaulted, or if she runs away from home, that is regarded as a crime. This is certainly not the statutory law but rather traditional law. Women are quite frequently imprisoned for that type of thing. I can think of quite horrendous cases where women have been sexually abused and then have ended up being seen as the criminal rather than the victim.

There must be an understandable reluctance to report offenses or abuses in part because their own safety is at risk and in most cases, they would be reporting to men?

Yes, that's true, but also because they know that they will be to blame because they will be seen as endangering the family honour. Honour is a key element in Afghan society and the women are the holders of that honour. So if they run away, they're treated as offenders because they have endangered the family honour by leaving the home.

One of the things we have been working on, mainly with American police advisors, is setting up family response units which are staffed by policewomen who are trained to respond to female victims of violence.

I helped them to get the first unit set up in Kabul as an experiment and it was done without budget and without permission. It actually worked extremely well. Over time, the Americans set up 40 more units across Afghanistan. This last year we were able to get the units made official and incorporated into the organizational structure. We really did better than we expected because it was decided to put one of these units in every provincial police headquarters and then every large district police station in Afghanistan. So now, there are provisions and budgets to staff 83 of these units. The only thing is we don't have enough policewomen.

What do you think would be the biggest challenges faced by these policewomen?

I guess the biggest challenge is being taken seriously. The women do talk about being made fun of, or devalued by their male colleagues. They get on reasonably well with them on a personal level, but the challenge is to be recognized as being capable to do something autonomously. It's not often a woman has the opportunity to take charge.

What about being taken seriously within the communities they're serving? Is there also resistance at that level?

Police in general have a very bad reputation and a low status, and that applies to the women too. In addition, some members of the public will think of policewomen as people of loose morals. So they don't really have much status and this is a barrier to recruitment because good families don't want to send their daughters to be policewomen.

What kind of women are you managing to recruit? Who are they?

They've managed to recruit some really quite capable young women. But one of the problems is the ministry itself sets its sights too low.

How do you mean?

They have lowered the educational standards to allow women in without realizing that unless they have programs to bring women's educational standards up, that they are actually perpetuating the inequality. So that's not the best approach, but I haven't totally gotten that point across yet. But despite that, there have been some excellent young women coming into policing. In the provinces, for example, some of the women are really very good and we've been recruiting policewomen into the middle level of police force with some degree of success there. They're very capable, intelligent young women. In some of the provinces they have more leeway and more opportunity to do more real policing than the women in Kabul. So it's not quite true to say that the provinces are conservative and therefore women have less opportunities. In fact, there are illiterate policewomen in some of the provinces who are probably doing more actual police work than in Kabul.

Is that right?

Yes. Now we're dealing with very small numbers in both cases but in the provinces, it seems to depend a lot on the character of the woman herself. If she is a little bit more assertive and she's known and is respected, she'll be able to do a lot more than the policewomen at headquarters in Kabul, who are treated rather like children.

Would these women be mothers and wives?

Oh, yes. Not all of them, but a good number of them are wives, mothers and grandmothers. They get married very young here and then their daughters or sons marry young. Having said that, there are also ones who aren't married. So it's sort of the same mixture that you would probably see in a female police population in another country.

I would assume that if a mother or grandmother was to become a police officer, that she would have to have the support from her husband?

I did look into this a little bit in 2003 and then 2005, and I found that about 60% of them come from police families – usually a male member of the family who is the police officer – and that makes it easier.

What makes these women want to become police officers? It has to be more than just getting a job?

When you ask them, most of them will say it is to serve their country. And if you probe a bit more, they'll say they want to help people. But there are many other jobs that would enable them to help people: nursing, teaching, and so on. Particularly since the pay at the ministry is so low. If they're educated, they've got better opportunities to make money elsewhere. I really think it probably comes back to who are your role models. If they come from a police family or a military family, then the thought of joining the police force is an option for them. One of our good recruit's father is a colonel in the military and very supportive of her choice.

In your assessment, would women police officers be at a higher risk than their male counterparts?

Actually, it's the other way around because they are so protected. When the police organization talks about women in policing, the next statement is almost always something to do about the security of women. Often they're talking about the sexual security of women, coming back to this idea of women being the guardians of the family honour. They're also very protective of the women; women don't go off on the street in general. Certainly, they don't go off in their uniforms on the street. They have roles behind the scenes. The most public they might be is searching women at airports and maybe doing a patrol through an air terminal, or something like that.

Are there other Islamic countries that you and your counterparts can draw upon for experiences and role models?

Yes and actually, this was the premise of an International Islamic Policewomen's Conference we put on recently: Islamic policewomen from other countries would be better role models than Western policewomen. I had met and visited women in the police in other countries and I wanted to bring them to Kabul so that they could talk about their experiences with Afghan women.

Certainly Bangladesh and Pakistan, where they have women's police station, are top of mind. The United Arab Emirates also, where women are immigration and customs officers. Again, I've not come across policewomen in a Muslim country who have done the same range of duties as policewomen in the West. But they do a much wider range than Afghan policewomen currently do.

The conference was a great success from that point of view and what was very noticeable was that the visitors possessed a high degree of confidence and a high degree of education. Every one of them had a university degree. I guess at the same time, they were saying, yes, we know what you Afghan women are experiencing because we have also experienced that to some extent. So there's really a common bond there.

What about yourself Tonita: have you experienced resistance or obstruction in Afghanistan because you're a woman?

In Afghanistan, they say there are three genders or three sexes. There are men, women and international women. So exceptions are made for international women. Now, you can't see me but I have just had my 69th birthday. I have white hair, I'm wrinkled and that actually is in my favour. They think of me as very old and wise; they respect their elders here.

I realize that lot of what I say is discounted but the Deputy Minister I deal with now calls me the "mother of policing," which is just outright flattery. I would say in general I've met very little overt hostility or resistance. I think a lot of it comes down again to the innate politeness and hospitality of Afghans, and the fact that they keep their own council.