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Afghan Women Joining Armed Forces In Greater Numbers, Challenging Convention

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Khatool Muhammadzai loves martial arts, underwent commando training in pre-Taliban Afghanistan, and has logged 500 official jumps as the only female paratrooper in the country's post-Taliban military.

But the middle-aged general, Afghanistan's highest-ranking woman officer, wants to be known as a peacemaker.

Muhammadzai, who first served in Afghanistan's Moscow-backed military in the 1980s, rejoined the armed forces after the Taliban was overthrown in 2001. Today, through her work at the Defense Ministry on military education and training issues, Muhammadzai has emerged as a model of Afghanistan's ambitious plan to attract women into its military ranks and to raise the profile of women soldiers.

Women can play a key role in the government's efforts to build a modern military and defense force. But recruiting is no easy task in Afghanistan's deeply conservative society, where many don't even approve of women leaving their homes, let alone joining ranks in traditionally male-dominated organizations like the military.

For Muhammadzai, the question is elementary. "It's everybody's duty to serve their country, to protect it," the general says. "Why shouldn't Afghan women get involved? So many women from foreign countries are in Afghanistan as a part of international coalition troops and to protect our nation. For us, Afghanistan is our own home. Why shouldn't we serve our own country?"

Muhammadzai concedes, however, that despite her rank she still encounters people who are not ready to accept a woman in uniform. But with their numbers on the rise -- some 1,000 women are currently serving in the Afghan armed forces, up from a starting point of basically zero -- women soldiers are positioned to be not only peacemakers but groundbreakers.

Still In Harm's Way

Last month, 30 fresh recruits graduated to the Afghan military after completing six months of training at a Kabul-based academy set up exclusively for women.

There they mastered the types of weapons and military vehicles they would depend upon on the front line, although there is little chance of them being deployed into combat.

Female officers in the Afghan National Army attend graduation ceremonies in Kabul in September.

Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi explains that the academy is intended to train women for a variety of jobs within the army and defense structures. Many will end up behind desks in administrative posts, facilitating communications or logistical support, or working in army canteens and hospitals.

But just because most women soldiers are not destined for combat does not mean they will be kept out of harm's way. "There are a number of problems that cannot be resolved without women officers," says Jamila Mujahid, a Kabul-based journalist who covers women's issues. "For instance, searching private houses, security checks alongside roads, streets. These all are currently being performed by men, but we need women working alongside them because Afghanistan's traditions and culture simply do not allow men to check women's bodies or women's bags. Only women can do this because it preserves women's dignity. That's why it has had a good effect so far."

Regarding invasive security checks at private homes, Mujahid notes that many Afghans are more relaxed when such searches are conducted by women. And when it comes to more personal inspections, Mujahid says simply: "How can a male soldier search a woman wearing a burqa? It's out of the question here."

Eventually, Defense Ministry spokesman Azimi says, the plan is to open training academies for women in provincial areas. But that plan depends on attracting sufficient numbers of women willing to enroll, a difficult task that gets more difficult the farther you venture into conservative, rural Afghanistan.

'So Many Problems'

Hanifa is from Kabul, like most of her fellow recent graduates of the Defense Ministry's academy. She says that even if some girls dream their whole lives of joining the army, their decision is not likely to be met with family approval.

Wearing a green military uniform, her head covered with a black scarf, Hanifa recalls that everyone in her family was initially against her enrolling in the military course. "There were so many problems with my family over my choice," she says. "But I insisted, and they came to support me in the end."

Women in the armed forces can earn at least $350 per month, significantly higher than jobs elsewhere in government service.

Some, like Hanifa, were inspired by the thought of wearing their country's uniform. Some were encouraged by relatives already serving in the army. And others simply chose the military as a way of making a living.

Whereas women working for other government agencies can expect to earn around $100 a month, those working in the armed forces can earn at least $350 per month, according to General Abdulhadi Aimak, a former security chief of northern Konduz Province. "Economic incentives are very important to attract women to [the armed] forces," he says, noting that women soldiers enjoy other perks, too, such as transport.

Young academy graduate Hanifa says she had to weigh all the risks and benefits that go along with being a woman in uniform in Afghanistan.

Soldiers and police workers are frequently targeted by the Taliban. Without giving an exact figure, Azimi says the number of Afghan soldiers killed by the enemy was considerably higher in 2010 than the previous year.

For women, the risks can be even greater. Taliban militants frequently target female students, teachers, journalists -- basically anyone who studies outside their homes. In 2008, the most high-profile police woman in Afghanistan, police Colonel Malalai Kakar, was assassinated while heading to work in the southern town of Kandahar.

The Defense Ministry says it tries as much as it can to protect women in uniform. "We try to place them in jobs where they can go home after work. They are not put on duty overnight," Azimi says.

But General Muhammadzai, who says she gets frequent death threats from "forces who don't want Afghan women to have their rightful place in society," says the reward is greater than the risk. "We cannot and should not wait until these threats, risks, and problems disappear," she says. "We have to fight to overcome them, to build a better country."
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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