Isabel Jess is author of Breaking the Glass Ceiling’s Anonymous series.
“For most of history, anonymous was a woman” – Virginia Woolf
Recognising Overlooked or Forgotten Voices in History
Malalai Kakar was shot dead by the Taliban on September 28th in 2008. I begin with her death as it is an embodiment of the way in which she lived her life: in defiance of oppressive norms and as a fearless inspiration to those around her. Kakar was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Kandahar Police Force in Afghanistan who commanded a unit fighting crimes against women. While her story lies not too far in the past (less than 10 years) her legacy is one that deserves remembrance, and the conflict that Middle Eastern women in power still face today is one that deserves recognition.
Lieutenant Colonel Malalai Kakar was “a force of a woman”. As the first female graduate of the Kandahar Police Academy, she followed in the footsteps of her father and became a policewoman in 1982. Yet, she also forged her own path by becoming the first woman to become an investigator with the Kandahar Police Force and soon received command of her own unit to fight against violence towards women. Regarded for her bravery and efficiency, she was merciless in her work against rapists, vicious husbands, kidnappers, killers and the Taliban.
Yet, as a powerful woman in a conservative area, her role often caused conflict and tension with the local Taliban collective due to the extremist group’s repressive policies towards women. In the mid-1990s, Kakar had been forced out of her position within the police force when the Taliban had gained control of the Kandahar region. While she did return after the Taliban lost power over the territory, Kakar continued to face constant death threats from the remaining extremist members still located in the area.
On September 28th in 2008, Kakar was ambushed outside of her home in the early morning and shot by AK-47s in front of one of her six children. The Taliban took responsibility for the assassination.
Malalai Kakar’s story is a reflection of the lives of hundreds of police women within conservative areas of the Middle East and the pressures they experience as women in their field. As of 2013, out of the 157,000 active police officers in Afghanistan, only 1,551 are women (less than 1%), and while those numbers have been gradually rising, there are a number of challenges that Afghan policewomen face. In dealing with threats of violence, police women must often take extra measures such as leaving their homes in a burqa or other traditional coverings, and only changing into their uniform once they have arrived at their respective police stations. Kakar also engaged with this tactic, wearing a chaudari when outside of the office or home, not as an observation of faith, but rather as a security measure. By defying the conformity of conservative Islamic values, policewomen like Kakar also face familial disapproval, sexual harassment and assault within the police force, and the designation of menial tasks such as serving tea.
In reflecting upon the challenges that Middle Eastern policewomen face, it is also vital to emphasize their value in the police force. Due to traditions within conservative Islamic culture that enforce a strict separation of genders, police women hold a unique advantage in the searching of homes and other buildings. While men may otherwise be prohibited from entering a space due to the presence of a woman, a policewoman would be able enter and search a building without such consequences. For example in December of 2009, during a raid in which insurgents had herded women into a room with hidden weapons, Colonel Shafiqa Quraisha of the Afghan police was able to enter the room and find the weapons stash. Like Malalai Kakar, police women also a play an important role in fighting against violence towards women. In a society tainted by extremist influences and suppressed by fears of retaliation, much like many cultures across the world, it becomes the responsibility of women to advocate and care for their fellow women. Lieutenant Colonel Malalai Kakar was indeed a heroine in this regard, and as we approach the 10th anniversary of her death this September, it is important we remember her bravery and ensure that she does not become an anonymous figure lost in history.
Graham-Harrison, Emma. “Far Right Hijacks Image of Afghan Heroine for Anti-Burqa Campaign.” The Observer, Guardian News and Media, 20 Sept. 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/20/malalai-kakar-burqa-afghanistan-australia-britain-first.
Burns, John F. “Taliban Claim Responsibility in Killing of Key Female Afghan Officer.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 28 Sept. 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/29/world/asia/29afghan.html.