Senior policewoman shot dead in Kandahar

Malalai Kakar, Afghanistan's highest ranking female police officer and a leading advocate of women's rights, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen as she left home for work on Sunday in the southern city of Kandahar.


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Sitting in her sparsely furnished office in Kandahar, Capt. Malalai Kakar rattled off a list of colleagues in the Kandahar police force killed during ambushes and raids in and around the city.

That was back in October 2003, when the security situation in the southern Afghan city was just starting to deteriorate following the start of the Iraq War and the diversion of US and international attention from the crisis in Afghanistan to the one in the Middle East.

Two years after the fall of the Taliban, Kakar was the only female police officer in the Kandahar police force. A handsome woman with a pistol packed snugly in a hip holster and the proud owner of a Kalashnikov, Kakar was surely aware of the dangers of her job.  

Not only were her male colleagues at risk, but as a female cop in a city that was once the heartland of the Taliban, she represented everything the conservative Islamist movement abhorred.

But the pistol-packing mother of six dismissed the threats with characteristic nonchalance. “Of course it's very dangerous — we always have to watch our backs," she said in her native Pashtu language. "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."  

Five years later, Kakar was killed for serving her country. The attack came not at work, but while she was leaving her Kandahar home to get to work Sunday morning.  Her 18-year-old son was also wounded in the attack. There is little doubt though, that her assailants targeted her for the brazen way she dared to defy the extremists by merely doing her job.

Shortly after the attack, the Taliban took responsibility for the killing.

“We killed Malalai Kakar,” a Taliban spokesman told the AFP news agency. “She was our target and we successfully eliminated our target.”

An ‘example’ for Afghan women

International reaction to her killing was swift.  

Condemning the killing, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he was “appalled by the brutal targeting" of Afghanistan’s most prominent policewoman.

And in a statement released Sunday, the EU declared: "Any murder of a police officer is to be condemned, but the killing of a female officer whose service was not only to her country, but to Afghan women, to whom Ms. Kakar served as an example, is particularly abhorrent."  

As a policewoman hailing from the Pashtun community, Kakar’s role as an example for Afghan women cannot be underestimated. In a patriarchal society still governed by pashtunwali, an ancient tribal code that uses women as reparation for crimes, her role in the city’s nascent justice system was critical.

Under pashtunwali, unmarried female family members are offered as compensation for crimes committed by one family against another. Women’s prisons in major Afghan cities such as Kabul and Kandahar are still full of inmates jailed for the “crime” of fleeing home without male permission. Many of the inmates are victims of domestic abuse fleeing systemic gender-related violence and forced marriages.

According to Masuda Sultan, a Kandahar-born international human rights advocate and author of the book, My War at Home, Kakar often acted as an unofficial defense attorney for female inmates. In an absence of a working justice system, Kakar, according to Sultan, was “like a women's advocate in the police system”.

Working ‘like a man’

But as Kakar never failed to note, she did her work “like a man”.  

The daughter of a police officer, Kakar joined the police force in 1982. But her career was cut short after her family fled their war-torn country for Pakistan. After the 2001 fall of the Taliban, she returned home with her family and re-joined the police force.  

As a female police officer in a strictly segregated society, she was often the first person to venture into homes during a raid if the women in household insisted there were no men on the premises.  

And in a famous episode, the 40-something female cop killed three would-be assassins in a shoot-out.  

Fortune, alas, was not on her side as she got into her car Sunday morning.

Back in 2003, when she was the city’s only policewoman, she wistfully declared that she would love to have a fellow female cop in the force. But, she said, “I don't see it happening in the near future,” before going on to add: “This is Afghanistan.”

She was wrong. Kakar died leaving a team of about 10 female police officers in the Kandahar police force – not a considerable number, but one that was unheard of when she started off on the job.

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