Focus:'Just a woman who can be killed'

Sunday Focus: In the land of the Taliban, a senior police officer is shot dead because she fought crimes against females.

At the scene of an alleged kidnapping of a young girl, Malalai calls in the details to her captain at the station. Courtesy Lala Slezic

The first time I saw Malalai Kakar was in Kandahar city, at a women's conference organised by a group of spirited young Afghan-Americans determined to give the Taliban a symbolic bloody nose in their spiritual homeland. It was the autumn of 2003 and, as the country's only policewoman, Kakar was already a celebrity. She walked into the room wearing a blue burqa and, as she began unloading her things, a pistol emerged from underneath the traditional garment, held in a hand graced by immaculate, red fingernails. It was an arresting, symbolic image. Kakar was one of 31 extraordinary women from all over Afghanistan who had gathered behind the safety of three-metre-high walls to discuss how best to harness the international sympathy, media attention and billions of dollars pouring into Afghanistan after September 11. She spoke at length about her work and there was not a dry eye in the house as she recounted stories of girls as young as three being gang-raped, or of women who had been traded for cows by their husbands. Last Sunday morning, exactly five years later, Kakar, head of Kandahar's department for crimes against women, was shot dead outside her home by Taliban gunmen. Her teenage son, who had been about to drive her to work, was badly injured in the attack. "We killed Malalai Kakar," a spokesman for the Taliban told Agence France-Presse. "She was our target and we successfully eliminated our target." Masuda Sultan, 30, one of the organisers of the 2003 conference and now a government adviser in Kabul, says the killing "sent a message that no woman is safe if she takes a public role. No matter how much international coverage she gets, she is still just a woman who can be killed." Another formidable woman at that meeting, who had welcomed the delegates on the tarmac at the airport, is also dead. Safia Ama Jan, 65, the head of the Kandahar branch of the ministry of women's affairs and a campaigner for women's educational rights, was murdered in September 2006. She, too, was shot outside her home. Neither of these women held powerful positions of authority; Kakar investigated cases of domestic violence. But women like her are potent symbols of what Afghan women can achieve, despite living in a society rife with poverty and illiteracy rates in rural areas as high as 80 per cent, and are a constant provocation to the Taliban, ousted from power in 2001 but a continuing influence overshadowing daily life. "A lot of women did return to work and school since 2001 but they are fearful that one day they may be attacked, in particular those who have stepped out in a very public way," says Ms Sultan. She adds: "We've lost two of our Kandahar leaders." As intended by her killers, Kakar's murder has sent a chilling message to women who work outside the home or are considering doing so, either because they want to participate in nation-building or simply because they want to support their families. Her death appears to be part of a wider campaign on the part of the Taliban-led insurgency, both to discourage women from leaving the home and to prevent Afghans participating in the reconstruction of their country. In the past few years, hundreds of girls' schools have been burnt down, clinics have been closed and village women executed for charges including "spying". In July, two women in Ghazni were kidnapped and shot for "immoral" behaviour. Many prominent women have found themselves on hit-lists and have been urged to take extra precautions in public. "It's very discouraging," says Fawzia Kofi, an MP. "We had Ama Jan killed, journalists killed in Kabul, there is widespread sexual abuse of young girls. These are setting back the women's movement." Ms Kofi was among a group of female parliamentarians and civil leaders in Kabul who devised the national programme to encourage more women to join the police force, which was launched last year. "I hardly know what to feel knowing that our dear sister Malalai is dead," she says. "She was part of our campaign." The ministry has hired and trained hundreds of women, including 10 in Kandahar province, to work in the state security system. "They are involved mainly in the 'soft' part of the job, like in the family department, or conducting security searches of women," says Ms Kofi. "In my province of Badakhshan there are 30 and they are working to follow organised crimes like kidnapping and abduction of women and children." She says the response to the programme from ordinary Afghans has been mixed. "In some parts, like the south, they believe it is a man's job. But in other parts, like Kabul, people appreciate it. We had women police officers and generals when I was a kid. Even General Aziza (Nazari), the head of the passport office, she has been there for a long time." In another sign of official progress towards equality, under a constitutional provision 27 per cent of 249 seats in the lower house of parliament are reserved for women. However, in the last election, in 2005, 19 women across the country, including Ms Kofi, won their seats in their own right and without the benefit of the quota. Meanwhile, millions of parents have enrolled their daughters in schools. But such achievements, while encouraging, take place in the face of an increasingly sophisticated propaganda campaign by the Taliban, evidence of a movement gaining confidence and momentum. Using magazines, audio cassettes, a website, DVDs and letters to the public in five languages, the Taliban is broadcasting its single-minded message: that girls' schools spread immorality and women who co-operate with the government have loose morals. According to a report published in July by the International Crisis Group, it is a message that is not being countered by an articulate reply. The Afghan government, said the think-tank, had failed to "publicly articulate a vision of women's rights, participation and protection that is both home-grown and consistent with traditional Afghan Islamic society. Thus, the debate has been ceded to those who erroneously argue that such efforts are an alien concept imposed on Afghanistan by foreigners and their Afghan 'puppets'." Put another way, says one woman, who does not wish to be named for fear of being targeted, the Taliban are not strong but the Kabul government is weak. Instead of taking measures to combat the propaganda, tackle the corruption inside the government and address the problem of America and Nato's indiscriminate bombing of innocent civilians, all of which are alienating the public, there is increasing talk of negotiating a deal with the Taliban. It is not clear precisely what this would mean but, on a recent trip to the United Nations in New York, President Hamid Karzai was urged by Muslim leaders to take part in such negotiations. This week, he said he had repeatedly asked Saudi Arabia's royal family for help in negotiating a peace settlement with elements of the former regime. The kingdom played a key role in the Taliban's rise to power and the movement's vice and virtue squads, which, among other things, whipped women for showing their ankles in public, were modelled directly on Saudi Arabia's religious police. All this scares the women who are risking their lives to promote a progressive society. "It is a complicated question," says Ms Sultan, choosing her words carefully. "If bringing them into the government will stop attacks and increase safety that's positive, but if it's not, you will have two problems: continuing security risks and having the Taliban in a government that will bring their ideas of women in a formal way." But the threats to women are not coming solely from the insurgents. Security is continuing to deteriorate across the country, she says. "As a woman working in Afghanistan my fear is not a suicide bomber but if someone in my neighbourhood kidnaps me or rapes me," says Ms Sultan. "These types of crimes have increased. There is less security." Ms Kofi agrees. "We feel for women in any situation because whether they are working or they are housewives they are the first victims of [a lack of] security," she says. "They are getting the most attacks by the Taliban. In places of battle they are targeted by insurgents. In places not hit by insurgency they are victims of domestic violence." Wazhma Frogh, country director of Global Rights, says the pressure on women is also coming from the very system which is supposed to help them. "I believe the government is trying to bring back the Taliban," she says. "Just today we hear they want to pass legislation on social behaviour that if men and women who are not related meet and talk they will be put in jail." Most civil groups which are pushing for reform and progressive ideas are financially backed by western organisations that have done little to train and develop Afghan female leaders. This in turn gives the impression that these organisations lack legitimacy. In the past few days condolences have been pouring in for Kakar from politicians, leaders and organisations around the world, including Interpol, which condemned her killing and called for more recognition of the role of law enforcement in the provision of security. "The global terrorist threat confronting us can never be won on the battlefield alone," said Ronald Noble, secretary general of Interpol. Already Kakar has been given one posthumous award. But years of the same empty messages of support from the international community, which has promised so much and delivered so little, are no longer enough, says Shukria Barakzai, an MP. "We are tired of the messages and the deep condolences," she says. "We don't need anyone to show us sympathy. We Afghan women have realised that we are alone and we have to do it alone. We can only help ourselves."