In her crisp khaki uniform with navy-blue epaulettes, with a pistol tucked snugly in her hip holster and a polished leather cartridge-belt casually slung over her shoulder, Capt. Malalai Kakar cuts an imposing figure of a female supercop on the job — indoors.
But out on the sometimes mean, dusty streets of Kandahar, an unflattering, all-encompassing chaudari, or traditional robe, gets tossed over her dashing ensemble as Kakar tears through town on her next policing assignment.
Deep in Taliban terrain, in the birthplace of a regime that sent shivers down the spines of gender rights activists, in a city where women rarely emerge from their homes, Kakar is the only female cop on one of the world's most dangerous policing beats.
She does her work like a man, she says. And in a patriarchal, tribal society where the gun is often the ultimate arbiter of power, the wiry 35-year-old mother of six is conscious of her unique status as the city's only pistol-packing mama.
"I am the only woman in this city with a pistol," she tells ABCNEWS.com during a phone interview from Kandahar. "I also have a Kalashnikov. I have it not so much to attack other people, but to protect myself."
Taking on the Terrorists
Almost two years since the fall of the Taliban, the security situation in and around the southern Afghan city of Kandahar has been steadily deteriorating.
Girls' schools and moderate mullahs considered loyal to the government in Kabul have increasingly come under attack in recent months, and aid agencies in the area have been periodically forced to shut down their operations due to mounting assaults.
As the war in Iraq dominates international attention, experts say the war on terror in Central Asia is being exacerbated by Taliban regroupings in southern Afghanistan and across the Pakistan border.
Since late August, five American soldiers have been killed in heavy fighting in the southern provinces. And of the 300 people killed during this period — including civilians, aid workers and militants — the Afghan military and police force have borne the brunt of the recent assaults with ambushes and raids racking up a steady, deadly toll.
From her sparsely furnished office in Kandahar, Kakar can rattle off a list of colleagues killed in recent ambushes and police raids, and she's keenly aware of the hazards of her job.
"The Taliban and the terrorists have sworn to attack us, so of course it's very dangerous — we always have to watch our backs," she says in her native Pashtu. "But until now, I have not been threatened — thank God. And I'm careful, but not afraid. I'm a strong woman and I want to serve my country."
The Hard Road to Democracy
These are make-or-break times for Afghans who have suffered decades of war and instability ever since the 1979 Soviet invasion sparked a CIA-funded resistance movement that gradually unraveled the state and turned it into a drug and terrorist haven.
After 11 months of work and much deliberation by a 33-member Constitutional Commission, a draft constitution is scheduled to be released later this week. The new constitution will then be debated and ratified by a 500-strong loya jirga, or general assembly, in December. If all goes well, general elections will be held in June 2004.
It's been an arduous drafting process hampered by the public wrangling between forces who want the constitution to enshrine Islamic Sharia law and secularists who want it to embrace liberal traditions. Within the framework of an Islamic state, there are also deliberations on the likely interpretations of Islamic law.
The tussle, experts say, has far-reaching consequences for Afghan women, who suffered some of the worst gender discriminations in modern history during nearly six years of Taliban rule.
‘Bad Blood Price’ and Abuse as a Crime
In an unusual attempt to have a voice in a document that will have broad implications for their daughters and granddaughters, a group of 45 Afghan women gathered in Kandahar last month to draw up a bill of women's rights for the new constitution.
Organized by the New York-based WAW (Women for Afghan Women) and Afghans for a Civil Society, the conference brought together ordinary Afghan women from across the nation, many of whom left their villages and towns un-chaperoned for the first time in their lives.
In their proposed bill, the participants called for mandatory education for girls, freedom of speech, freedom to vote and run for elections and access to health care among a host of demands that Westerners would recognize as the most basic of human rights.
High on the 16-point bill of rights, however, is a particularly detailed demand for protection and security for women that includes calls for the prevention of "criminalization of sexual harassment" and abolition of "bad blood price" — terms that make little sense to most Westerners.
But for the women of Afghanistan — who had widely been declared "free" after the 2001 fall of the Taliban — they are very real, oppressive concerns.
"Bad blood price" refers to the custom of offering unmarried female family members as compensation for crimes committed by one family against another.
The criminalization of sexual harassment is arguably one of the most pernicious issue facing Afghan women in post-Taliban times. According to human rights monitoring groups, a number of female inmates in Afghan jails are women fleeing domestic and sexual harassment, who end up in prisons due to the lack of shelters as well as police reluctance to "interfere" in "household matters."
‘Like the Wild West’
Taliban-style morality policing — where women are arrested for talking to men who are not their relatives or venturing outdoors without a male relative escort, or marham, — are also common outside the capital of Kabul.
In some areas, such as the western Afghan city of Herat, rights workers and medical officials say women arrested for talking to "strange men" in public are forced to undergo "chastity tests" to certify their virginity.
The biggest problem, according to Masuda Sultan, WAW program director, is the arbitrary nature of the unofficial morality codes.
"It's like the Wild West," says Sultan, an Afghan-American who fled her native Kandahar during the Soviet occupation. "You never know what you're going to be accused of. It's not clear, for instance, that traveling without a marham is a crime. Right now, it just depends on the region, on who's the local leader or warlord."
Rights workers say the situation in Pashtun-dominated Kandahar is especially hard to gauge as it is one of the most conservative cities, even by Afghan standards. In a region where everyday life is still governed by pashtunwali, an ancient, austere code of conduct that calls for strict public separation of the sexes, women are rarely seen — let alone heard — in public.
The Veil as a Crime-Fighting Asset
It's the sort of socio-cultural situation in which Kakar, as the only policewoman in the city, performs a crucial role.
"Malalai is a dynamo," says Sultan. "The way I see her is as a mediator of sorts. She's able to talk to the women, who are often in a very bad emotional state. She takes statements from women, questions witnesses and at times acts as an unofficial defense attorney — she's like a women's advocate in the police system."
As a female law enforcement official in an ultraconservative city, Kakar is a priceless asset to the police force, not just in matters concerning women's issues. Often, during the most dangerous raids on insurgents' homes, Kakar is the first person to venture into buildings since the women in households insist there are no men on the premises and policemen cannot enter their homes. Many a time, she has singularly searched homes for hidden arms as well as anti-government elements hiding in buildings.
And while her flowing chaudari may hamper her speed on the potholed roads around Kandahar, she insists her veil is an asset.
"I'm not forced to wear the chaudari," she explains. "My husband or the police force does not require it. I want to wear it because it gives me advantages. In Kandahar, it is culturally frowned on women to go out without the chaudari — people will bad-mouth my husband. I wear it to protect my family and myself."
To Pakistan and Back
The daughter of a police officer, Malalai says she began training to be a police officer at the age of 15 after school. Her career was cut short during the Taliban era, when the family was forced to flee to Pakistan overnight when she heard reports that Taliban officials were heading to her home to arrest her for the crime of being a former policewoman.
Those were the "difficult years" as a refugee, she says, when the struggle to make ends meet physically and mentally drained her. But when the Taliban was ousted in 2001, she immediately returned home and submitted her resumé to get back to the job she loved.
But life isn't easy for Kandahar's only female supercop. One policewoman is woefully inadequate for a city the size of Kandahar, and Kakar says she is on call 24/7, often after putting in a 15-hour workday. Resources such as vehicles to maneuver the potholed streets, equipment such as cell phones, finger-printing technology, even writing paper, are scarce.
To Pakistan and Back
And for her long hours and the dangerous nature of the job, the pay isn't all that great — when and if she receives it.
Like many Afghan government employees, Kakar's monthly salary arrives in fits and starts and right now, she says she has not been paid for the past four months.
More than a year after the international community pledged $4.5 billion in reconstruction assistance, the Afghan economy has been crippled by lack of funds, mismanaged projects and an inefficient economic infrastructure.
Earlier this year, Afghan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai told reporters the pledged $4.5 billion was not enough to pay for the huge cost of rebuilding the war-torn country.
The economic situation outside Kabul — where four-wheel-drives bearing the names of various aid agencies ply the streets secured by International Security Assistance Force troops and trendy restaurants cater to the "internationals" — is abysmal by all accounts.
"There are nice conferences and offices in Kabul," says Kakar. "But what we need now is money for the government so we can improve our country."
Given the circumstances, Kakar believes the title of Kandahar's only policewoman — unfortunately — will be hers for some time now.
"I would love to have more women in the police force," she says. "But I don't see it happening in the near future. First of all, because there's no money in this and then, this is Afghanistan — women and men in most cases work in separate places and of course I work with men all the time. Other women wouldn't feel comfortable in such a situation."