September Issue 2013

By | Special Report | Published 8 years ago

A usual afternoon on August 15 in the quiet city of Islamabad, was transformed into a dramatic situation when a man armed with automatic rifles, along with his family, led a standoff on one of the city’s main roads. The situation unfolded live on TV screens throughout the country for the next five hours. After the drop scene, what followed was a barrage of criticism of the administration, especially the police, for the manner in which they had handled the situation. The unpreparedness and inability of the capital police to handle such incidents, and the constraints of resources, were pretty evident. Among other observations, the absence of women police on the frontline of the operation was also highlighted. Despite the involvement of a woman (the wife of the perpetrator) in the standoff, the role of the women police was limited to escorting the lady to the police mobile after the standoff ended. Beside other failings, this incident also served to highlight the role, status and calibre of women police officers in Pakistan, in the context of the Pakistani police force as a whole.

Image and Mindset

A total of 400,000 police officers stand guard day and night, pledging to protect the lives of Pakistani citizens. Out of these, an unimpressive figure of 3,700 are women police officers, who represent the entire female ratio in the police service.

One of the reasons cited for their low presence within the police force is the inability of the department to reinvent its image in the public eye and to encourage more women to enter this profession. Although there are allocated positions and a quota for women, few come forward to apply. This is mostly due to the overall negative image of the department and the myopic societal mindset regarding working women police inspectors. When the police department in Balochistan announced 53 vacancies for women, only 3 applicants came forward. Interestingly, women are not recruited above the minimum assigned quota, which is 5% according to senior officials.
In the case of Balochistan, there are 103 female personnel performing active duty, in comparison to the sanctioned strength of 165. There are 54 vacancies for constable, five vacancies for head constable, one for Assistant Sub-Inspector (ASI) and two for inspector.

Notably, not even the relevant departments have accurate data on the strength of women police personnel currently in service across Pakistan. There were inconsistencies between the numbers provided officially, and the ones acquired during our interactions with women police officers. According to the official data shared by the Sindh Police, there are 41 personnel deployed at the women police stations in Karachi but, according to the information we acquired during our field trips, there were 71 female personnel. There were 10 female Deputy Superintendent Police (DSPs) performing duties within the Sindh province alone, while according to the countrywide official data, there are 10 DSPs. In Sukkur there is a female ASP deputed in the area which, again, is not reflected in the official data.

Past Prime

The legacy of women police officers in the country dates back to the colonial period (1939), when there was a dire need of women police to curtail a farmer’s movement in the Punjab. Since the movement boasted both male and female members, the British administration deemed it necessary to induct women officers. Seven constables and a head constable were recruited back in 1939. They made history as the first female police officers in the subcontinent. The next significant milestone came post-independence, in 1952, when 25 constables, two head constables and one ASI were hired.

After a gap of 42 years, another initiative was taken in 1994, when women police stations were established in various parts of the country, starting from Rawalpindi and later in the cities of Abbottabad, Peshawar, Lahore, Multan, Karachi and Larkana. Today, after 19 years of the initiation of this effort, there are only 19 women police stations in the country, and women constitute less than one percent of the entire police force. The situation is not very encouraging and women in uniform today face greater challenges both within the department and in society.

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 In 1994, when women police stations were established in various parts of the country, starting from Rawalpindi and later in the cities of Abbottabad, Peshawar, Lahore, Multan, Karachi and Larkana. 19 years later,  there are only 19 women police stations in the country, and women constitute less than one percent presence of the entire police force. 

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Surprisingly, their unenviable plight has still has not been able to hold some women back from entering the profession. Presently, women personnel are represented at almost every rank in the police department, ranging from constables to Deputy Inspector General (DIG). Moreover, some police women are serving in UN missions to various conflict regions, of which some have also won distinctions. Similarly, women have been part of the elite groups, who have specialised training in countering terrorism. Women police officers have also been assigned duties as Station House Officers (SHOs) in violence-prone areas. In certain instances, especially in Karachi, wives of police personnel had been inducted on the Shaheed quotas of their deceased male family members. But despite the fact that these women had lost their loved ones in the same line of duty, their dedication to the profession was strong.

Considering the deeply patriarchal values ingrained in our country’s psyche, the question often arises as to why women join the police service in Pakistan? Why would women, despite all the odds, choose a career where they know that they are bound to face resistance from society, let alone the department? In the face of discrimination and harassment, do they join the services to become a symbol of hope for all those women who confront numerous atrocities, or simply because they have a desire to serve in the force? “The second a woman steps out of her house, the challenges begin,” says Rabia Bibi, who served in Adiala Jail for almost 17 years. The only reason she survived was due to her passion, and her father’s encouragement. Out of sheer passion, as well as her fascination with the late Benazir Bhutto, Rabia Bibi chose to join the police. Despite family pressure, she has served this country for almost 17 years in places where even men might be reluctant to be posted. The level of her dedication can be judged by her assertion: “I am a police officer first, then a wife.”

Sub-Inspector Gulshan, with her 22 years of service in Skardu, maintains that when she joined the police service, “the public had a bad perception of women personnel, but I found the environment in the department to be quite positive.”

There are no available statistics related to harassment, but many female personnel have acknowledged the issue. This mindset is not only present within the department, but is reflective of society in general. Take the example of female traffic wardens, who were earlier deputed on the roads in Lahore. The department had to delegate them to desk duties, as they started facing harassment from the commuters.

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Maria, Assistant Superintendent Police (ASP) in Gilgit-Baltistan, says, “My reason for joining the service was to make a difference through the authority given to me.” She also points out the challenges of the job: “There are many procedures and facilities which are present on paper but, in reality, they are non-existent. Women (in the police) are simply surviving, and there is no initiative to frame a policy that suits women.” Afiya Bibi was promoted to lady constable by sheer coincidence. She had done her Masters in Zoology and was in the process of becoming a teacher.

5_OAK_PakWheels(com)During the teacher’s recruitment process, she met a lady Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP), and, after seeing her in uniform, was so impressed that she inquired about how to join the police. The DSP took her straight to Karachi Police Station, where she met the superintendent of Karachi, who was impressed with her qualifications and took a brief interview. Three weeks later, Afiya received her appointment letter in the mail. While completing a lower rank course in Badin, Afiya shared a room with two other female police officers. The officers, according to Afiya, were hired on a temporary basis to show female presence at the centre, but they were also involved in “immoral activities” and petty crimes like theft. Afiya describes that stay as the “most difficult time in her life.” Later, she was transferred to a training centre in Jamshoro. Here, she was the only lady constable among all her male counterparts, and the instructor refused to train Afiya despite her insistence. After she complained to her seniors regarding the attitude of the instructor, the latter made her do somersaults in front of the male participants. The daily taunts of her peers made Afiya realise that she would never be able to fully achieve her goals. The attitude of seniors towards women personnel directly affects the morale of female subordinates. When there was an accommoding senior officer, she was posted on important assignments. However, when a less cooperative official replaced him, she faced discrimination. After two-and-a half years, she realised that the whole system was corrupt and the positions were sold.

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There are no available statistics related to harassment, but many female personnel have acknowledged the issue. So far, no implementable mechanism is in place to handle gender-based discrimination, although there is legislation in place in the form of the Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2010.

This misogynistic mindset is present not only within the department, but is reflective of society in general. Take the example of female traffic wardens, who were earlier deputed on the roads in Lahore. The department had to delegate them to desk duties, as they started facing harassment from the commuters.

One of the major problems faced by the entire police department, males and females alike, is the absence of a functional merit system for recruitment, promotions and transfers. Female police also face the dilemma of shoulder promotions or enhancement of rank without delegation of authority. This amounts to only a cosmetic change and does not promote the mainstreaming of women in the police.

A Pakistani police officer searches women entering a polling station during a by-election in Rawalpindi on February 24, 2010. More than 20 candidates contested in the by-election to fill the seat which fell vacant after the resignation of an MP from Rawalpindi, just outside the Pakistani capital Islamabad. The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of assassinated former premier Benazir Bhutto came into power after winning the general elections in February 2008. AFP PHOTO/ AAMIR QURESHI

Apart from the determined and passionate female officers among these 3,700 personnel, there are also those who have entered the police force to enjoy the perks and privileges of the career. Many try to avoid taking tough duties and night patrolling by highlighting their limitations as women. In many cases, women police only accompany their male counterparts while conducting raids or arrests. In some instances, male police officers conduct the entire investigation, and the names of female personnel are entered only on paper. It is also a fact that many females do not report on duty, yet no action is taken against them. Some women on the police payroll have been working privately at the residences of senior officials. Simultaneously, women police personnel have also been accused of transgressing their authority and have been found to be involved in corruption, torture and human trafficking.

There are policewomen who opt for a desk job rather than a field assignment, mostly due to the unconventional nature of the job. Women are also expected to maintain a balance between their jobs and family, which becomes very difficult for the ones who have adopted this profession. Bearing all this in mind, many officials prefer to appoint male staff to various important posts, while the females are assigned supporting duties.

If women are not ambitious enough and are merely becoming a part of the same male-centric system, then why should we seek to encourage more women to enter the Pakistani police service? Further, will bringing in more women into the police, transform its image from being an authoritarian force to a more friendly service? So far this has not been the case; rather the general perception about the police has overshadowed the public’s views about women personnel.

The Mainstream Conundrum

A greater debate has also recently emerged regarding the necessity of setting up separate women police stations. Should women be assigned to separate stations or should they be integrated with the rest of the department? The proponents of separate women police stations point towards the current societal constraints preventing women from having access to the criminal justice system, where women feel reluctant to approach males for complaints and redress. The opponents, however, highlight the need for women to be involved in every tier for promoting gender responsiveness in the entire department. There are a total of 19 women police stations spread all across the country, with seven of them being in Gilgit-Baltistan. The conditions in the women police stations are more distressing than their low numbers.

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The women police station in Peshawar clearly prohibits anyone from entering without prior permission, because of the fact that women police staff lie on the charpais in the courtyard all day long. What’s more, even they themselves are not allowed to venture outside without prior approval. An old man in the highly enclosed building was their only contact with the outside world.

For instance, the women police station in Peshawar clearly prohibits anyone from entering without prior permission, because of the fact that women police staff lie on the charpais in the courtyard all day long. What’s more, even they themselves are not allowed to venture outside without prior approval. An old man in the highly enclosed building was their only contact with the outside world.

Many women police stations were hardly in working condition. On paper, the women police station in Multan is functional, but in reality, no such station exists. The women police station in Karachi expressed their inability to accommodate us for a visit earlier than the planned date, as they had no furniture. Then there are women police stations which either do not have the authority to register FIRs due to a delay in notification, or are not allowed to do so by the senior officials. The women police station of Liaquatabad (West Zone), Karachi was established on September 30, 2009 but its first FIR was lodged in September 2012, due to a delay in notification. This notification problem seems to be limited to women police stations only, while other police stations start functioning the day they are opened.

The state of such stations clearly highlights the overall plight of the police service in the country. Although there is a lack of infrastructure and facilities in the entire department, women police stations bear the major brunt of it. This is also evident in Larkana, which was originally established as a model police station. This police station originally had various facilities such as audio-visual equipment, a mess hall, air conditioners, vehicles, a challan office, a wireless room and an investigation room, which were all available in 1996; but over the years, these facilities have been taken away by other departments. The infrastructure to accommodate women police stations in Sukkur, Hyderabad and Peshawar were being utilised by other sections of the department. To our surprise, it was further conveyed to us by a female officer in Sindh that as per police rules, women police stations do not operate after sunset.

Despite the apparent diversion of more powers and resources to the police service, it still is engulfed in rampant corruption and remains highly politicised. The increasing crime rate, population and the conflict engulfing Pakistan demand a greater and more proactive presence of women within the police for maintaining law and order, while also ensuring the security of citizens, especially women who constitute more than half of the population.

There is no panacea for the problems facing the entire police department. In fact, the challenges faced by the women police are mostly an extension of the predicaments plaguing the department as a whole. However, despite the unfavorable circumstances, women police are still performing their duties and, in some instances, even surpassing expectations. While women have to be encouraged to come forward and contribute within this field, the mindset of the society in general, and within the department in particular, also requires considerable reformation.