The Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. Photo via Shutterstock.

Editor’s Note: While our all-volunteer staff is on vacation, we’re returning to some of our favorite work. High on that list is this reportage, from our Female Fighters series, for its defiance of the expectations, in Western narratives, about women in the Muslim world. Though Nazish’s story takes place in Pakistan, her work is an important corrective in this moment, when global media attention is once more flattening out the complexities, the agency, and the resistance of Muslim women in Afghanistan. -Jina Moore

Four policewomen look on in silence as the senior superintendent of police (SSP), who arranged the meeting, finishes telling me about his responsibilities, workload, and efforts to get more women recruited into the force. I’m not sure how to ask him to leave his own office to give us some privacy. As refreshments are served, he asks if we need help pouring tea from the thermos since its lever tends to get stuck. Rita, one of the women police officers I have just been introduced to, smiles a little. “I can defuse a time bomb, sir.” He grins, nods, and leaves.

The women are in a special police corps, the elite commandos formed in response to the terrorism that swept across Pakistan following US-led attacks of the allied forces in Afghanistan after 9/11. They are part of the police force of Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa (KP), a province that shares a porous mountainous border with Afghanistan and bore the brunt of subsequent, deadly terror attacks.

The policewomen want to know if the interview will be published in Dawn, a Pakistani national newspaper for which I occasionally write. I tell them it is for Guernica, a US-based online magazine. “The Americans? Well, in that case you’ll want to know how many Taliban we have killed, won’t you?” asks Bibi Nazia. I shake my head, brushing the question off, though now I’m curious and want to ask. Instead I pose an equally cringe-inducing query: “All these women in the police, what do they think of the Taliban?”

They refuse the stock responses. “What’s there to think? They attack the state. We are the state. We attack back,” says Nazia. “We will prevail; it’s a matter of how soon. They cannot outlive the state.” Rita muses for a few seconds and adds, “Although maybe we should thank them first. We women were inducted into the police force because of these militants. When they slipped on the burqa, we strapped on the holster.”

The three other policewomen grin and nod in agreement. In 2007, law-enforcement agencies caught an extremist militant leader, a man, trying to escape a mosque raid wearing a burqa, and presented him to television crews in that attire. The Laal Masjid (Red Mosque) incident has become a defining moment in Pakistan’s recent history, triggering events that necessitated the induction of women into the police.

The mosque was known for historic links with militants, played a key role during the Afghan jihad of the 1980s, and, until the time of the raid, maintained direct ties with Al Qaeda. In 2007, its clerics and students of its seminary protested against the demolition of illegal mosques on state-owned land. The situation escalated when women of the attached seminary formed a vigilante group as a vice squad in the neighborhood, attacked a beauty parlor and accused its owners of prostitution, forcibly took over a public library, and demanded imposition of Sharia law. The protestors engaged in violent demonstrations that included the forcible closure of video shops, arson, and destruction of state property; they set the nearby Ministry of Environment on fire and attacked paramilitary troopers.

After repeated attempts at negotiations with mosque leaders through politicians and religious authorities, the government ordered a crackdown. Over forty militants were killed in the clashes, though all women and children were given safe passage. This led to declarations of revenge and the consolidation of disparate militant groups under the banner of TTP (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan), resulting in a cataclysm of terrorist attacks across the country. Militants declared the representatives, institutions, and premises of the state legitimate targets, and over the following three years, Pakistan reeled from attacks of unparalleled intensity: 240 suicide bombings, 3,000 casualties, over 8,000 injured.

There were few women police officers at the time, and the Laal Masjid incident and its aftermath underscored a need for increasing their numbers. The image of the seminary’s women in black burqas, wielding rods and sticks and swearing to take revenge, had been broadcast on television and plastered on the front pages of newspapers; people were anxious that they could become suicide bombers or transfer arms undetected under the covering of their veils. Conservative cultural imperatives dictate that male officers cannot inspect women clad in burqas or chadors. (Three years after the mosque incident, Pakistan’s first female suicide bomber killed forty people queuing for food aid in the Bajaur tribal area.)

The waves of terror and violence led to scores of security operations targeting TTP militants across KP. In Pushtun culture, men generally do not enter people’s homes; for guests, there is a separate space outside, the hujra. Saima, another female police officer, explains, “In any raid, the first footstep in the marked house is ours. People would rebel against the police otherwise. Policemen cannot function without us. Even the Army borrows us for raids.” As per protocols, policewomen enter homes and ask the women to step aside or go to another room before signaling to the male officers to come inside. The police are drawn from within the province and identify with these cultural sensibilities.

For decades, there have been women’s quotas for government jobs, gone mostly unfilled. Women’s recruitment into the KP police was not driven by gender staffing allocations or a desire for equality or diversity in the workplace, but by the need to conduct raids and arrest militants without alienating local communities. Their induction was instrumental, not ideological.

This may partly explain how receptive and accommodating policemen apparently are toward women on the force. “Unlike in other provinces, we face no sexual harassment or intimidation or hostility. In fact, they are protective of us,” says Saima. The other women concur, echoing what the SSP said before the start of the interview: men in the police don’t resent the presence of women or feel their role is being usurped possibly because women are needed as women.

I consider the distinction between women as persons inducted into the police and women recruited as women. A week before this meeting with women police commandos, I interviewed their seniors, high-ranking women police officers in KP, and they spoke to this idea. Rozia Altaf was among the first batch of women to be appointed a DSP (deputy superintendent) in Peshawar. Rozia, who now heads the traffic department, met me in her uniform, gold jewelry, and vibrant makeup. “It’s body armor,” she told me. “I didn’t do it before. When I’d pull over heavy-duty transporters for traffic violations, they’d see a figure of authority and start yelling and fighting. Later, I started to dress up this way and request them to cooperate with me because they are my elders and brothers and I am a woman trying to do a decent job with integrity in a man’s world. They stop arguing and get all protective.” She smirked a little. “They melt like wax in the glare of their own masculinity.”

Rizwana Hameed is the first woman to head an all-male police station as SHO (station house officer). In one of the earlier raids on the Taliban by the KP police, Rizwana led the women’s contingent that was part of the response force. The men told the women to stay back as they surged ahead. There was a massive shootout after militants opened fire, and a nearby woman villager opened her front door and called the policemen in to take cover. They rushed in only to discover it was a militant stronghold. All the policewomen were taken hostage. Ultimately, the policemen abandoned the raid and gave the Taliban safe passage in exchange for the policewomen’s lives. Rizwana later fought with her seniors. Her gullibility was to blame for the hostage situation, she argued, but the police should have not backed off; if the women died, it was a risk they had chosen to take. The senior male officers told her that they would never be able to show their faces in public again if they got policewomen killed and came out alive themselves, that it was against Pashtun ghairat (honor), that they would have been shamed out of their homes and villages.

For months afterward, Rizwana was too embarrassed to make eye contact with male police officers and wondered if she’d spend her career being defensive about her place on the force. But the following year she was made SHO of the Gulberg precinct in Peshawar. “I played on the Pushtun male honor code. I sent word to every drug smuggler, gambling den, brothel, and militant enabler in my district. I told them I would come and arrest them with an all-woman police force. Getting arrested is one thing, but getting arrested by women? That was a shame they couldn’t live with. Within a month, they all relocated. My district was cleared.”

Rozia and Rizwana had discussed all of this before and arrived at a consensus. “We can do what men can, but we do it differently,” said Rozia. Rizwana added, “No point banging your head on a wall to erase difference. Instead, we weaponized difference. It works.”

Photo courtesy of Nazish Brohi.

The younger female commandos who were inducted after Lal Masjid as part of anti-terrorism efforts talk about breaking stereotypes and staking a claim to power as part of their impetus to join the force. Rozia and Rizwana, on the other hand, spoke of wanting to contribute to the betterment of society by strengthening the state. And while the commandos are mostly Pashtun, the dominant ethnic group in KP, the two senior policewomen belong to ethnic minorities (they are Kashmiri and Hindko). I wondered if that had any bearing on their becoming officers. “Maybe it did at some level,” said Rizwana. “Those in numerical minority need safeguards and rule of law the most.”

The younger commandos cite either of two female role models as inspiration: the world’s first female Muslim prime minister, Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto, and a television actress, Rubina Ashraf, who played the role of a tough and brilliant cop in a TV series to highlight women’s police stations when they were first introduced by Bhutto.

“KP is a traditionalist, conservative society. And then there was Benazir, who blew up every mold imposed on us,” Bibi Nazia says. “She fought a martial law, went to prison, kicked her oppressors in the face by becoming prime minister, worked with men, and ruled over them.” Officer Gul Naz chimes in: “Imagine, she delivered her first child on a campaign trail and went back to work two days later. Now no man can tell us it cannot be done. They can still say, “We will not let you do it,” but they cannot say it cannot be done.”

Meanwhile, all the KP policewomen I’ve spoken with have mentioned Deputy Inspector General (DIG) Malik Saad. A cop of legendary bravery and honesty, he was killed in a suicide bombing by the Taliban in 2007. “I was with him. We were ensuring security arrangements for the Shia Ashura procession,” recalled Rizwana. “His blood splattered on me. Every time I hear of a police officer being killed by terrorists now, I look down and can see Malik Saad’s blood splattered on me. These militants targeted and killed the best people we had. They want only anarchy and destruction.”

Cops who die in the line of duty are venerated in most countries, but in Pakistan an additional reverence is shown to those who have been deemed Shaheeds (martyrs). In this case, the line of duty is also a line of faith; the term implies that they have died fighting for the just and moral cause of Islam.

“There is no greater honor than martyrdom. That’s how I want to go. When I die, I want to die fighting for my country and belief,” says Rita, her eyes blazing with an intensity absent in our conversation so far. “I want to be a Shaheed,” she declares.

Rita is a Christian.

I bring that up—and am told off by Nazia. She accuses me of belittling Rita’s dedication because of her religion, tells me that Pakistan was made for minorities, and that all the women commandos will walk into heaven together. I want to hug her. In Pakistan, women of different ethnicities, religions, and communities do not typically have much of an opportunity to interact with each other, let alone experience this kind of solidarity and defend one another. Witnessing this is worth the accusation of bigotry.

But their eagerness for martyrdom disconcerts me a little. Saima calls achieving martyrdom the apex of the human endeavor. She was inducted into the police force after her brother, also a police official, was killed in a terrorist attack and she was offered a job in his stead. She tells me about her family’s elevated position and her special status in the police force, consequences of the fact that her brother was a Shaheed.

Martyrdom (Shahadat) has become the leitmotif of Pakistan’s war against terrorism.

All the police and Army officers who die fighting militants or are targeted in terrorist attacks are declared Shaheeds by the state. The Army holds an official Day of the Martyrs (Youm-e-Shuhada) in April, and police martyrs have a separate day in August. Each has their own complex matrix of compensation policies and payouts. But bystanders who do not choose to fight for or stand with either side and are killed by militants are also called Shaheeds, such as the 144 people who died in the terrorist attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, most of whom were children.

On the other side, the leader of the Lal Masjid was “martyred” by law-enforcement agencies, according to militants, and his name went on to become a rallying cry for terrorist outfits for the next decade. A year prior to the mosque raid, clerics issued a fatwa (a religious decree) stating that Army officers who died fighting against the Taliban and their supporters could not be declared Shaheeds and were not entitled to religious funeral rites.

Journalists across Pakistan say they risk threats and assaults by militants if they don’t use the word “Shaheed” when reporting on the casualties of terrorist organizations. Owais Tohid, my husband, was heading a national news channel when the TTP directly threatened him—“six bullets in your forehead when you step outside your house”—because his editorial policy (like that of others) didn’t allow for the use of “Shaheed” in association with militants. In Swat, I met women whose sons had been part of the TTP and were killed by the Army, and their only solace was that the men were martyred and would be happy in heaven.

I turned to Maria Rashid, a scholar writing a dissertation entitled Gender, Militarism, and Notions of Sacrifice in Pakistan, for greater understanding. We spoke about the idea of martyrdom in the Army. “When you chip away through the rhetoric, it comes down to complete identification with others in the institution, a sense of family, of looking out for each other and dying for each other,” she said. “The same dynamic of camaraderie works in all armies, creating a mindset to endanger your own life for others. Here they invoke a religious idiom for framing it in a way that further deifies them in wider society. It is not as much about Islam per se.” Rashid talked about how the valorization of the Shaheed is constructed: the funerals, gun salutes, plaques, memorials, tributes, rituals, remembrances, songs, movies. I told her that one of the women commandos who said she’d joined the force out of financial necessity pointed out the generous compensation package for families of police martyrs. “The Army gives compensation, but…for reverence to work, the message must be that we are all indebted, nothing can reimburse Shahadat.”

I wonder whether the impulse to identify with something larger than oneself and the romance of martyrdom animate women associated with the TTP and Al Qaeda in Pakistan. I ask the commandos about them. “Their women fighters always attack first, giving men cover to flee. We’ve had shootouts with them in Matani, Reigi, and Badaber,” says Gul Naz. She remembers the time she arrested a woman who’d strapped a suicide bomber’s vest onto her ten-year-old daughter. Women who get arrested are taken away by the intelligence agencies for interrogation, they tell me. I ask what happens to those women. They go quiet and look at each other.

Nazia lifts her chin. “You know about the Gen5 G17 or the M4 Carbine?” she asks. I shake my head. “And you are okay with not knowing. We know about those guns, but there are other things we don’t know about. And we are also okay with not knowing.” She is riled up and I try to distract her by asking about her favorite weapon. She sneers. “They are tools. I am the weapon.”

In considering what draws women toward militarism, I think back to my interactions in Swat in 2005 and 2006. In Swat women donated money and jewelry to religious extremists who went on to form the TTP. Initially, when the women supported the demand for the imposition of Shariah law, they weren’t familiar with Shariah’s contents or the implications of the legal system. They believed the radio sermons, through which the local clerics promised that only Shariah could bring about justice, progress, and peace.

But years later, in 2009 and 2010, when they revisited their reasons, they processed them differently. They concluded that they’d given their support because the clerics had spoken directly to them, positioning women as important decision-makers and conduits to Swat’s redemption. Being acknowledged as actors in their community’s development was significant. The clerics also increased women’s status. They would announce via radio how much women had collected and acknowledge individual gifts, whether of gold or money. Women said that previously their opinions were either not solicited or ignored by men in their families and communities. Religious endorsement gave them the strength to overcome social limitations; it created space and social legitimacy.

After witnessing the horrors inflicted by the TTP in Swat, including beheadings and public hangings, the women concluded that the ends could not justify the means. But four years after military operations drove out the Taliban, they were as weary of peace as of conflict. In their experience, peace was a politicized process of negotiating power, with its own victims and collateral damage. As part of the “peace process,” the Army had detained numerous men over suspicion of association with the TTP; those who had sided with the Army and been appointed to Village Defense Committees (VDCs) were being killed by militants, and religious political parties were jostling among themselves for recognition as mediators. In 2013, the women told me, “Hamey aman nahi, sukoon chahiye,” that they didn’t want what was being marketed as peace. They wanted tranquility instead.

Jan Sabah was the leader of a group of women in Swat whose male family members had been picked up by the Army for being a part of the Taliban. The women had organized protests and petitioned the courts to produce their relatives. “You have the luxury to debate ethics of violence and worry about moral positions and take sides,” she said to me. “I have to worry about paying bills, finding a means to earn when I cannot even read or write, sending my grandchildren to school, finding out who the authorities are, where their offices are, and queuing outside for hours. They have to free our men, or give us options for our survival.”

I tell these stories to KP’s policewomen. They are remotely sympathetic but also dismissive. “This wasn’t a usual tribal feud where men indulge in endless violence and that has a utility within their system of logic. They took on the state itself. It’s either-or. Violent militias cannot set up their own administrations. Either they exist or the state does,” says Rita. I mention the ongoing protests in Pakistan, where tribal youth have challenged the Army’s governance of tribal areas and demanded constitutional rights. “But look at these women,” says Saima. “They’ve lapsed back into the victim narrative. They’ve erased how they were involved in the buildup, forgotten that their sons were arrested for savagery and mass murder and not for loitering in parks, and now it’s all about their suffering.”

In Swat, how the militants related to women changed with different phases of the militancy. During their ascent to power, militant leaders Fazlullah and Shah Dauran used radio sermons to exhort women to rise, drawing on a story from Islamic history to showcase The Perfect Woman. The example invoked was Firaun’s wife, Asiya. (Firaun refers to the Pharoah who ruled Egypt at the time of Moses.) Asiya stood up to her husband, family, and society, rejecting their religion and laws to embrace monotheism. She barred her husband from her bed, suffered intense physical punishments, and gave up all her riches in her demand that monotheism be made the law of the land (which the clerics interpreted as a call for Shariah law). This narrative returned when the Taliban began demanding Shariat in Pakistan and collecting donations from women.

In the following years, when the TTP took over administrative control of Swat district in KP, and men bore the brunt of horrendous violence, women were targeted through a range of repressive regulations. As state authorities partially colluded and partially collapsed, the TTP bombed girls’ schools, prohibited women’s mobility, and established Shariah courts. The TTP issued three fatwas against women health workers associated with a government outreach program. The first declared the presence of women in public places a form of public indecency and maintained that upright Muslim men must forcibly marry women who transgress to bring them to the right path; the second prohibited Muslim women from working for wages, claiming health workers were prostitutes who roamed around with condoms; and the third that women health workers were acting like men, and should be treated as such. The women health workers I interviewed in 2009 said they fought against the first two fatwas and continued to work, but the third incapacitated them: other women would not let them into their homes because of pardah norms restricting interactions with men—which the workers were now considered to be.

The TTP was ousted from Swat by the Pakistan Army and is now scattered, with some members based across the border in Afghanistan. And the militants’ Perfect Woman has changed once again. A Taliban magazine launched in 2017 targets potential women jihadists and is called Sunnat-i-Khaula (the Way of Khaula), positioning Khaula and not Asiya as the ideal woman. Khaula was a Muslim Arab warrior in the seventh-century Muslim conquests. She was a leader on the battlefield, fighting alongside her brother, who was a commander in the Rashidun Army. She formed and led a group of women into the combat zone during the Battle of Yarmouk, which resulted in the advance of Islam into the then Christian Levant.

So where Asiya suffered what her family and authorities inflicted on her but remained steadfast in her convictions, Khaula took up arms and went to war for her belief and her side was victorious. The role that militants have carved out for women has shifted from one of endurance to one of aggression.

The women commandos are not impressed. That isn’t how it works, they assure me. No woman in KP is going to read some magazine and run off to become a militant; the few women in militancy are there because the men in their families are associated with it. In fact, they point out, more and more women want to join the police force to combat terrorism. A significant number of incoming applications from women are from Swat district, from both rural and urban areas.

“But they don’t leave their house wearing uniforms,” says Gul Naz, who has been mostly quiet. “They leave wearing chadors and change into uniform once at work, telling their communities they are schoolteachers or assist in hospitals. They conceal what they do and you need to think of why,” she says to the group.

They think about it: maybe these women don’t want to challenge social conventions and stereotypes; maybe it is so that anger at state policies isn’t channeled toward them; maybe it relates to security and wanting anonymity. The commandos consider the reasons incoming female officers might have for concealing faces, as though they themselves are distinct from them. But when I ask if they are comfortable with me taking their photographs, they agree and cover their faces.

When I spoke with senior police officers Rozia and Rizwana a week before, they had no such reservations. Previously, because they are mainstream police officers and not commandos, they might have concealed their faces to carry out undercover work. But, Rizwana told me, “We don’t need anonymity; we are too senior to do undercover work now. We’ve done our share, dressed up as beggars, census officers, health workers, and all that. Let them see us. We are trailblazers and role models; we have to draw more women to our side. And how will they take courage if they think the seniors are too scared to show our faces?”

I asked if culture is a constraint in their line of work. Rozia and Rizwana concluded that veiling, mobility restrictions, seclusion, social censure, and taunts of ineligibility for marriage can act as impediments and make police work for women complex, even as certain gender strictures necessitated female police officers in the first place. To clarify, the women told me, these restrictions are used as excuses; this is how women in Pakistan are constrained, and not why they are constrained. The why of it might be an impulse to control, or to resist change, or something else entirely. “You cannot figure out reasons by just asking people what their reasons are. They will tell you what they tell themselves. People use whatever framework they can find to justify what they do. That’s just the dressing. Culture, religion, gender codes—they don’t work as motivations but as justifications. They apply these lenses in hindsight,” said Rozia. “Just like you analysts do.”

Nazish Brohi

Nazish Brohi is a writer and researcher in the development sector who specializes in democracy, violence, human rights, and social change in Pakistan.

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