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Women, police and change

If you ask anyone in Pakistan to tell you about the country’s law enforcement system, it is likely you will be told a tale that is both horrific and disheartening. You will hear about a police force that is poorly trained and ill-equipped and suffering from capacity constraints. You will listen to stories about torture, brutality, and forced confessions. Most of all, you will infer from these tales, that there are simply no women in positions of authority. You will leave the conversation with the firm belief that the police in Pakistan require urgent reform and oversight, especially regarding the blatant gender gap. However, recently I met a police officer, who through her bravery, charisma and stubbornness to break the glass ceiling regarding the role of women in police, made it clear that these tales are without a doubt, getting rewritten.

As an outsider, it takes no more than a glance at the institution’s dynamics to realise that the police is one of the most painfully evident representations of the patriarchal contours of our norms. It was partly out of curiosity and partly out of awe that I wanted to meet Amara Athar, a Superintendent, one of the few high ranked female police officers in a profession where the gap between men and women is most pronounced. I believe, as a country, women have accomplished tremendously in recent times; the first female fighter pilot, the first female firefighter and even our first female truck-driver. However, gender disparities in labor force participation, incomes, access to economic opportunities and likelihood of acquiring high-ranked positions are reflected in most institutions in the country, public and private alike.

Within my own field, working for a human rights law firm, my experiences have time again shown me realities that I find increasingly frustrating coming to terms with. Through my interaction with Amara, I realised that it is indeed women themselves that are changing this lopsided landscape.

When I walk into her office, I am instantly impressed by her multitasking: phone calls, instructions to subordinates and solacing vulnerable victims of crime. A few minutes into our conversation I inquire about her inspiration for this job, a question that had been boggling me since the moment she had agreed to an interview with me. It seems that Amara’s childhood must have no doubt, triggered her life journey towards becoming the rare sight of a woman in uniform, that she now is. Her late father was a senior ranking police officer and the pioneer of Rescue 15 services in Faisalabad range. But more than just the burden of carrying forward her father’s legacy, Amara tells us that it is the sense of actualisation achieved by helping those distressed victims of crimes that keeps her going. Growing up in a comfortable and secure environment, she has been all the more conscious of the plight of the most vulnerable sections of society who enjoy neither privilege nor comfort. As she steps down memory lane, she remembers the sense of pride she felt each time her father resolved a seemingly irresolvable conflict; that pride is now the reservoir that sustains her despite the many odds that come hand in hand with the profession.

However, what can be seen as an obvious source of pride, in Pakistan it might vehemently bring out feelings of discomfort and dishonour.

From the way that she talked about the rigid structure of the police system, Amara made it clear that the average level of societal acceptance of women in authoritative positions within the state apparatus was indeed very little. For her, such a stagnant mindset begins at home and extends to the community at large, to eventually, but surely become one of the biggest challenges for women in a male-centric professional environment. Amara’s appeal to the public is one of thinking beyond gender, where her professional competence has absolutely nothing to do with gender. Addressing the practical difficulties of her job she observes that it is essential to have a good support system at home if women are to successfully balance work and family, especially in a job where one is needed to be on call around the clock.

It is important for aspiring entrants to the police force to know that women can be good investigators. According to Amara, there are many issues in which female victims need women to openly exchange information about sensitive topics such as rape, domestic violence and sexual harassment at work. As Director of Women Police Network Punjab, she has personally spearheaded various training workshops for women in investigative and record keeping techniques to enhance their ability to achieve their ultimate goal of preventing and eradicating crime. I could see by the way she exuberantly talked about her job, that she truly wanted more women to follow her footsteps- a path I believe that very few in Pakistan dare to tread.

Amara regrettably observed that women only comprised of 1% of the police forces, despite the institution’s practical need for more educated young women. For her, challenging these orthodox lines would be the only way more women would be eager to get into this profession. ‘They should believe in empowering themselves and empowering the women of this country by being there for them’, she inspiringly added, in way of spurring the untapped potential of women in a country that desperately needs to capitalise on its youth, regardless of gender.

It seems that an emphasis on encouraging women to join the police is well placed, not just in terms of Pakistani standards but also internationally. Through my work , I got the opportunity to meet Joe Hingston, a barrister and former investigator at a London-based human rights law firm, whose insight into the police culture in his own country made it clear that the subordinate role given to women in policing was not only a venom of our culture. He strongly believed that women could be more effective at investigation solely due to their better communicative abilities and acknowledged women can feel threatened- although spoke at length that this reality was more ubiquitous than often understood. In his opinion, what is needed the most is building a relationship of trust to stop the relentless patterns of domestic violence and abuse, an all too common and acceptable practice in Pakistani society. Joe talked about the British equivalent of ‘thaana culture’ – a phenomenon called ‘canteen culture’ that involves boisterous and borderline unruly men in uniform hanging around the canteens under the age-old defence of ‘boys will be boys’. A stark parallel can be drawn here as both cultures work to the disadvantage of women who experience negative feelings of being marginalised or discriminated. ‘If you have less than 1 or 2% representation of women in security forces then you are clearly failing. These words by him, resonate all too well with the ground realities, Amara wanted me to clearly understand.

For Amara, despite the demands of her job to always be available on ground, her professional ambition is not limited to Pakistan. She feels it is important to highlight the role of women in security forces around the world. To this end, she is fortunate to have had the opportunity to be selected for the prestigious Eisenhower Fellowship Programme for women this year. As the only woman to have represented Pakistan on that platform, she is not only grateful for the honours but feels even more obliged to work for the better interests of women in Pakistan.

The writing on the wall is clear. It is hard to imagine a constructive and sustainable change in Pakistan, unless women are included in the decision-making processes at all levels- especially in law enforcement. Through the words of Amara, her accomplishments and the path that she has laid down for other women, I believe that women like her are fighting against all odds to make sure they get the same opportunities, not just for themselves, but for every other woman police officer, that bravely and proudly wears her uniform every single day

The Nation