As Afghanistan works to maintain stability in the wake of the U.S. drawdown, I have consistently written about the unique challenges faced by women and girls in the changing security landscape. One strategy that I—and other commentators on Afghanistan—have called for to ensure the safety of women and girls and the continued expansion of women’s rights is the greater inclusion of women in the Afghan police force.
Yet recent reporting in the New York Times exposes the downside of this push to expand the female police force in Afghanistan: the risks and threats to female officers’ personal safety. The article details the daily sexual harassment female officers face on the job, their fear of violence or heckling while traveling to and from work in their uniforms, and the widespread lack of facilities such as toilets or changing rooms for women.
Though these risks and worse—the article also notes the recent murder of a female police officer—are extremely serious and should be of concern to the Afghan government and its allies, the presence of danger does not mean that the goal of increasing female participation in the police force is itself flawed.
A Western diplomat quoted in the New York Times article called the project an “absurdity of imposing our liberal Western beliefs.” While the notions of equality and rights may be traced to the liberal Western period of enlightenment, achieving even the most basic trapping of equality—the right to vote—has not come without struggle anywhere, including in the West. It took two hundred years for women to gain suffrage in the United States, and American women are still fighting for full equality in the political, economic, legal, and other realms.
The push for women’s rights—like any redistribution of power and resources—often involves a long-term struggle. Things have to change across a multitude of sectors for women to truly gain equality: more participation in politics, increased access to education, greater economic empowerment, higher numbers of women in leadership roles, as well as fundamental shifts in attitude by the public. No country—neither Afghanistan nor nations in the West—could expect such changes to occur rapidly and all at once. The fact that achieving rights for women is a challenge now does not mean that it will not be successful in the future.
And in the meanwhile, there are certainly bright spots. The article highlighted the critical role of female officers in family-response units, “which give female victims a chance to talk to a policewoman and gain access to female lawyers” when they may not feel comfortable speaking with men.
In the midst of U.S. drawdown, Afghan women—and the women’s empowerment programs that the United States supports—are threatened by instability. The United States cannot cut and run. As the same Western diplomat is quoted saying, “It’s easy for us to put these women out there and tout their accomplishments, but then we leave, cut them loose, and what happens to them?”