Trailblazing detective pays with her life

TORONTO STAR PHOTO

OPINION
Trailblazing detective pays with her life

Sep 29, 2008 04:30 AM
Rosie DiManno, Star Columnist

Malalai Kakar was one of the bravest women I’ve ever known.

No, make that one of the bravest people, regardless of gender. But she couldn’t escape her sex, not in misogynist Kandahar.

Nor could she escape her enemies.

Yesterday, they killed her.

Two gunmen on a motorbike shot Kakar as she travelled to work. Her 18-year-old son was critically wounded.

The Taliban immediately took “credit” for the murder, part of a wider recent campaign targeting projects, schools and businesses run by women.

It’s impossible to say whether Kakar riled the insurgents more as a Taliban-loathing cop or a disobedient dame.

They have long wanted her – and her kind – dead. The threats were constant and in recent months “night letters” were repeatedly received: Go home, whore, back into your burqa, or you will pay, your family will pay.

For her valour and obstinacy, she paid with her life.

Lt.-Col. Kakar – daughter of a cop, sister to five cops – was the first female police detective and highest-ranking policewoman in southern Afghanistan. Against all odds, she had risen to the top of the law enforcement hierarchy in Kandahar city, unsoiled by the corruption that had caused eight of her police chiefs to be fired.

She aspired to that top job, continued to believe it a possibility. “Yes, why not?” Kakar told the Star in May. “The men I work with respect me now as an equal.”

Only as of two years ago had those men even seen her face. That’s when Kakar defiantly removed her burqa on the job, wearing only a headscarf, though what she really wanted was a brimmed police cap, like the males. Pined for her own police vehicle, too, but the powers-that-be wouldn’t allow that. In ultra-conservative Pashtun Kandahar, females are not allowed to drive, even the deputy commander of the city police department.

But the chain-smoking mother of six, married to a broad-minded husband, packed heat, a shoulder-holstered pistol all the time and an AK-47 when she went out on raids.

She was gutsy, showing more balls than many of her male colleagues during dangerous situations, including one incident where they’d bottled it in a firefight with insurgents. Kakar held her ground until reinforcements arrived. Back at the station later, she tore a strip off the cops who had fled, abandoning her, hissing: “You have long moustaches but you have no bravery.”

On her arm, Kakar carried the scar of a felon who’d bit her deeply while she was arresting him. On duty, she’d killed at least three would-be assassins, according to reports.

Barely 5-feet-tall and clinging to her femininity, even in ill-fitting grey police uniform – vivid eye makeup, polish on her nails – Kakar had already achieved near-mythic status in Afghanistan. She dared where others cowered. And while involved as any other officer in repelling the insurgent Taliban, Kakar took professional command for crimes committed against women, heading a unit specializing in domestic violence. As a female, she could interview women, examine the bruises beneath their burqas. By the same token, she could investigate women suspected of crimes, searching under voluminous folds for weapons and drugs.

In Afghanistan, where women are commonly subjected to abuse by husbands, fathers and husbands, Kakar was a cultural trailblazer, holding men to account and pressing charges. Females fleeing cruelty frequently took refuge in the women’s wardroom at the Kandahar police station and Kakar – along with her squad of 10 lady officers – protected them. “Our constitution is supposed to protect women’s rights too,” she argued.

The despised burqa, however, Kakar continued to wear when leaving her home in a purportedly secure compound to do domestic business such as shopping at the bazaar, unarmed. This was to hide her identity because Kakar knew the Taliban, as well as so many ordinary Pashtuns unaligned with the insurgency, reviled her for breaking with tradition.

President Hamid Karzai deplored the assassination, as did the European Union.

She told the Star she was 38. Reports yesterday claimed she was a few years older than that. I think she should be allowed this small vanity, fudging her age.

When last I saw Kakar – a kiss on both cheeks – she was lighting up a smoke, waving farewell from the courtyard of the police station, urging me to be careful.

“People have small, narrow minds,” she said. “It will take a long time for many people to accept (females) in this position. But I want to show other women that it can be done, even here in Kandahar.”

May God embrace you, my fearless friend.

Columnist Rosie DiManno was on assignment for six weeks in Afghanistan earlier this year.

http://www.thestar.com/News/World/article/507984

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