February issue 2017
What if She’s Wearing a Suicide Vest?
Between my home and my workplace, there are two checkpoints. Both of them are at the entry and exit points of the cantonment and manned by army personnel. But since this is a democracy, a couple of policemen are also always present. At the very least, I go through these checkpoints twice a day. And without fail, each time, I am stopped: “ID card, please. Open the trunk, please.” While the army chap tries his level best to decipher whether my ID card is real or forged, his police buddy searches the boot for guns, swords and bombs. He only always finds a golf bag. I’m flagged through. Only to be stopped the next time. Regardless of how I’m dressed, in a three-piece suit or a shalwar kameez, whether I’m clean-shaved or sporting a six-day shade, I am stopped.
The scene changes. I’m travelling with my mother. Or my wife. Or my child. Same checkpoint. Same army guy, and same police gringo. I’m flagged through, every time. And as I pass through, I can’t help but wonder: what if this woman sitting besides me is a terrorist? What if she’s wearing a suicide vest? These days you don’t know anything.
But a clear pattern emerges: If a man commutes alone, he will be stopped. If he is accompanied by a lady, or a child or both, he won’t. And while, female terrorists have not yet showed up on the Pakistani terrorist landscape, they are a reality in some countries abroad. On December 10, in Madagali, Nigeria, two female bombers killed at least 31 people in a busy market place. The militant group, Boko Haram, is known to use female operatives for its operations. As is the Islamic State (IS). And with recent reports of the former trying to make inroads into Pakistan, perhaps some scrutiny of what are the current cultural limitations of policing in Pakistan are necessary.
“The police culture cannot be viewed in isolation; it is heavily influenced by society’s values and norms,” says senior police official Hussain Habib. “And clearly, there is room for people to manipulate these limitations.” According to Habib, there are other considerations as well. Take age for example. Going by the same argument, why aren’t the elderly stopped and searched at checkpoints? Under the given argument, they too should be included. “Who is likely to commit a crime is something understood after looking at multiple factors, not just culture,” says Mr. Habib. However, regardless of whatever limitations there are, in this police official’s view, spot-checking and checkpoints serve no purpose at all and are, in fact, detrimental. “Randomly stopping and searching somebody without any reason is not legal,” he says. “Only those against whom there is specific information should be stopped.”
According to Akbar Nasir Khan, another senior police official currently serving as the Chief Operating Officer of the Punjab Safe Cities Authority (PSCA), there are at least two other serious limitations. The first is legal. “Men in uniform cannot search women as it violates her privacy,” he says. “This can only be done by women, and with less than one per cent women in the total police force, it becomes next to impossible.”
Another issue, according to Mr. Khan, is how the rule of law plays second fiddle to norms set by tribal and cultural traditions. These issues come into play in areas like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Balochistan. “So long as things like biradri and tribes trump rule of law, the state will always be second priority,” he says.
Today, a lot of information technology (IT)-based interventions are being brought into state institutions to not only make them more efficient, but also to help them overcome these cultural limitations. At the heart of the work is the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB), which is busy in creating both software and hardware to help the police become more efficient. One of its recent developments is the hand-held biometric device, which operates on three different levels. It can validate citizens using their Computerised National Identity Card numbers (CNIC), Afghan refugees through their Proof of Registration (PoR) number and fingerprint, and also identify a suspect as a habitual criminal. People are validated by checking their records across multiple databases, including the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), Afghan refugees, Criminal Record Management System (CRMS), the habitual criminals database, the black and red books and the fourth schedule list as well. All this can be done by only punching in the CNIC number and scanning fingerprints, thereby causing no violation of any social protocols.
These solutions, however, did not come easily. The police has traditionally been wary of technology and was slow to warm-up to any previous interventions. Secondly, any outside interference and influence is not welcome. According to Burhan Rasool, the general manager of PITB, the first task was to “break the ice and convince them (the police) that all these things were for their benefit.” What began then, were a series of discussions to understand where interventions were not only necessary, but also possible. “At the end of the day, we just create the solution, it’s up to the police to use it,” he says. What was needed then, was somebody inside the force who could push these interventions down the team. “For each project/service, we found somebody in the force willing to take charge,” says Rasool. “And that way, it has managed to be accepted by the force.”
But all this is happening only in the Punjab. Other provincial police forces continue to lag far behind, when perhaps, it can be argued that they need these interventions more urgently. While technological advancements can easily be shared between provinces, the matter of rule of law and representation of women in the force is heavily dependent on the province itself. One incident can perhaps explain this.
Mianwali 2009. Coming from Lakki Marwat, there is a checkpost known as Kundal. There, two police constables, perhaps on suspicion, or mere chance, decided to take the law into their own hands and check a woman in a burqa. It turned out to be a suicide bomber with a loaded vest on him. Many lives were saved. But what if it really was a woman? She would have felt violated, gone back to her tribe, who then would have probably returned with firearms and gunned down the two cops.
The writer is a journalist based in Lahore. He is the current managing editor of MIT Technology Review Pakistan, a bi-monthly science and technology magazine.