By: Sabina Khan
The UAE’s fighter pilot Mariam al-Mansouri recently captured the world’s attention due to her role in launching air strikes on the IS. Mariam broke a barrier to become the first female fighter pilot in her home country and it made headlines throughout the major media outlets. We should take advantage of the world’s attention over this issue and highlight the progress that women continue to make by breaking through gender barriers within Pakistan.
There is no denying that women are under-represented in Pakistan’s security forces. Recent figures show that women still make up less than one per cent of the national police force. But it was only 20 years ago that former prime minister Benazir Bhutto established the first women’s police station in Rawalpindi. At least 20 such stations are in operation throughout the country today. Over the past three years, we have seen close to a 20 per cent increase in the number of reported female police. There were 3,700 reported in 2011 compared with today’s 4,400 policewomen. Female officers can now be seen patrolling Lahore on motorbikes and directing traffic in Islamabad.
Women began to play a more significant role in Pakistan’s armed forces during the era of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf and are now represented more in the armed forces than ever before. Pakistan now has 316 women in the air force, which is triple the number of women serving there just five years ago. Last year, Pakistan got its first war-ready female fighter pilot, Ayesha Farooq. She is one of the 4,000 female officers in the Pakistan military, most of whom are in the medical field. Over the last 10 years, however, some women have broken through to become sky marshals and are protecting Pakistan’s airlines against terrorist attacks. In one of the most publicly visible positions in the military, the Pakistan Rangers have recruited female officials to participate in the lowering of the flags for the closing ceremony at the Wagah border.
The nation and these pioneering women deserve much of the credit, but there are increasing outside influences as well. In June this year, the US Senate Appropriations Committee passed a foreign aid bill that prioritised assistance for efforts to increase the size of the female police force in Pakistan and to encourage their promotion to higher ranks. Foreign interest stems from, at least in part, an expectation that policewomen play an important role in counter-insurgency. A few of the ways that they increase the operational effectiveness of law enforcement are that they can more easily access women in private homes, they can provide treatment to female victims of domestic abuse, record their statements, and perform searches on female insurgents at checkpoints. Having a policewoman posted at a checkpoint could prevent a repeat of an Abdul Aziz-style escape from Lal Masjid by revealing men hiding beneath burqas.
Women currently serving in the security forces have paved the way for the rest to follow. They provide an encouraging example of some of the new possibilities that are out there for the next generation of Pakistani women. With the immense challenges facing the country, it is vital to include both halves of the population, and increase their recruitment and retention in the law-enforcement agencies. Not only is it a necessary step towards achieving stability, but also essential for transforming these agencies into effective and modern institutions.