‘We had 4,000 policewomen in Afghanistan. Let them get back to work’

The Guardian
21 April 2022

Gulafroz Ebtekar, a former top CID officer in Kabul, tells how she escaped the Taliban and is now working in exile to restore justice for the women of her homeland

Afghan policewoman Gulafroz Ebtekar pictured in uniform among Afghanistan flags
Gulafroz Ebtekar helped lead thousands of investigations into gender-based violence and is now a refugee in Albania. Photograph: Courtesy of Gulafroz Ebtekar

When the Taliban entered Kabul on the morning of 15 August last year, Gulafroz Ebtekar refused to leave her office in the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) at the Ministry of Interiors. “Everybody rushed home, but I had responsibilities. I couldn’t just leave, even if the Taliban were coming,” says Ebtekar of her role as the former deputy general director of the CID’s family response unit.–

She chose to stay, knowing that the Taliban would seek revenge for the many cases she had investigated against their members. With a career in the Afghan police forces spanning more than 12 years, she led the department that oversaw cases of gender-based violence, including many in Taliban-controlled areas.

“I only left when I learned that the president had fled the country,” the 34-year-old says, from her temporary accommodation in Shëngjin in Albania.

Raised in a small village in the central province of Daykundi in the 1990s, Ebtekar remembers the last era of Taliban rule. “They shut all the girls’ schools in our village, but I wanted to study and I was a difficult child. My parents finally gave in and enrolled me at the only boys’ schools in the village, despite criticism from village elders,” she says.

Eventually, she was the only girl who graduated from high school in the village, and she went on to become one of the few Afghan policewomen with a masters degree in law and order enforcement.

Gulafroz smiles as she looks out of a window
Gulafroz advocated for higher-education opportunities for Afghanistan’s policewomen. Photograph: Yama Farhad

Clearly, that spirit of determination lived on in her career. “Upon joining the forces, I realised there was a need for professionalising them,” she says. “The police in Afghanistan had a very bad reputation. Not only were they perceived as a corrupt institution, but the women who worked there were seen to have questionable morals. When I first joined, many of my relatives told my family I had picked a bad profession and I wouldn’t be able to find a good husband,” she says, laughing.

Undeterred, Ebtekar focused her energy on inspiring change within the forces. “Most policewomen were not aware of their rights, which would lead to them being abused. So I approached the senior management to focus on providing women in the forces with training and higher education. I believed it would not only empower them but also help them better protect the rights of Afghan women who approached them.”

Her advocacy, she tells the Guardian, resulted in an internal campaign to provide opportunities for higher education among the 4,000-strong policewomen.

“My department was responsible for investigating cases of gender-based violence, particularly domestic violence, that were registered by women. Between 2018 and 2021, I can recall working on nearly 12,000 cases. This is a disturbing number, considering that most Afghan women who experience domestic violence don’t register their cases with the police.”

However, nearly all of Ebtekar’s accomplishments crumbled last summer, and left her a pariah in a city now under the control of Taliban fighters. “When I went home that last day from work, the Taliban had already paid a visit to my house. They threatened my family with consequences for my work in the police,” she says.

The decision to seek asylum abroad was an incredibly difficult one. “The last time the Taliban came to power, I threw a tantrum and got my way,” she says, referring to her schooling. “If only I could once again achieve my dreams by sheer force of will…”

Gulafroz holds a family photograph, taken in Afghanistan
Gulafroz finally managed to escape from Afghanistan with a few possessions and a family album.

Later that evening, Ebtekar and her sister, also a policewoman, packed a small bag with a few belongings and an old family photo album, and went to the airport. “It was like the end of days. There was panic and chaos everywhere; the foreign soldiers were shooting at the crowd to keep them out. Someone near me was hit, so I took off my headscarf to stop his bleeding, but then I got lashed by a Taliban fighter who was calling me infidel [for not wearing a scarf].”

Ebetkar was unable to escape and remained in hiding in Afghanistan for weeks. During a particularly low point, she posted on Facebook that she was disappointed in humanity and contemplating suicide. The post went viral, leading to an outpouring of support for Ebtekar and her sister. They were eventually rescued by well-wishers in October, two months after the Taliban takeover.

Seven months on, Ebtekar and her sister are now in Albania, waiting to hear from the many countries where she has sought asylum.

Despite being forced to flee, Ebtekar hopes to raise awareness on the issues facing policewomen in Afghanistan. When the Taliban took over, there were nearly 4,000 women police officers in the country, most of whom lost their jobs. A fraction were retained to manage women’s prisons. The Ministry of Women Affairs and other women’s support services were also dissolved. The Taliban has maintained a very small number of women as security officials, who have been reportedly called on during investigations and house raids.

Gulafroz and her sister hold up an Afghanistan flag
Gulafroz (right) and her sister, who is also a policewoman, hold up an Afghanistan flag. Photograph: Yama Farhad

“There are thousands of policewomen at risk in Afghanistan, and it is our duty and the responsibility of the international community to help them. These women were trained to serve Afghans irrespective of who is in power. They are an asset to Afghan society, and the Taliban must let them back to work, because without them, there will be no justice for women of Afghanistan,” she says.

In December, the Taliban attempted to list some of the women’s rights they would guarantee, but critics argued that without any established systems or institutions that support women, it would be nearly impossible for women to seek justice.

“You can’t effectively assist women in any society but especially in a society as gender segregated as Afghanistan, and especially in cases of gender-based violence, without having women police,” said Heather Barr, associate director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch.

Even prior to 15 August, Barr states, there weren’t enough women in the Afghan police. “It was challenging for male police to investigate cases, interview female witnesses or victims without policewomen. But since 15 August, the barriers are so much higher because it may be prohibited by the Taliban, which essentially means there is no access to justice for women,” she explained

Ebtekar strongly feels that policewomen should be allowed back to work, to ensure that at least some access to justice is possible for vulnerable women. “Policewomen are crucial to any system of justice they hope to bring into Afghanistan. This is the cause I am going to give myself to from here on,” she says.

‘We had 4,000 policewomen in Afghanistan. Let them get back to work’