While growing up, Ayesha*, now a 28-year-old police official in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, loved stories of cops and robbers. Not just any cops—the stars of a state-sponsored television show, Pas-e-Aaina (Behind the Mirror), about an all-female police station, which aired in Pakistan in the late 1990s. In the show, men—thieves, rapists, murderers—would be brought before the station head quavering and pleading, and she would mete out justice for the women these men had wronged.
“Inspector Shehla!” Ayesha crowed out the name of her role model. “When I was just 10 years old, I would watch her on the show and I’d think about the kind of job I wanted as an adult. I imagined a place where only men worked, a male profession,” she explained. “I saw myself as the brave, strong girl in their midst—a girl brave enough to work side-by-side with these men.” And, she added smiling, “That’s exactly what happened.”
Ayesha is one of 300 women who are part of the 67,000-strong police force in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a province that made international headlines last December after a brutal attack on a school in Peshawar by members of the Tehreek-e-Taliban left reportedly left 150—including at least 134 children—dead. Ayesha heads one of seven “women’s complaint desks” set up in the summer of 2013 at police stations in Peshawar, just after former cricketer Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party swept the polls in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa during the May 2013 general elections in Pakistan.
Women, it was believed at the time, would feel more comfortable coming to a female police official to register a complaint, and the establishment of the desks was widely praised as a much-needed reformation of the police system in the province. In 2014 alone, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan found that 232 women in Pakistan suffered acid attacks or were burned, the majority by someone they knew; 859 committed suicide, often due to domestic abuse, and 461 were killed by their husbands. There are currently 65 such desks across the province hoping to cut down these grave statistics. But has the experiment worked?
A day in the life of a female complaint officer
On the second day that I visited Ayesha, I found her with a distressed woman at the complaint desk. The woman had filed a complaint against her husband after he told her to go onto the streets to beg for money and then beat her when she refused. When the police went to the woman’s house to pick up her husband for questioning, they found him in possession of an unlicensed pistol and he was hauled straight to a holding cell. “She is scared that her husband will find out she ratted him out,” Ayesha explained. Together, they devised a plan: the woman would tell her husband she had visited the hospital after he beat her, and arrived home to find him gone. “You tell him that the neighbors informed you that he is at the station,” Ayesha instructed her.
In coming forward, this woman is the exception and not the rule. “The first problem women face when coming to a police station is the culture within which we live,” explained Senior Superintendent of Police Operations (SSP) Mian Mohammad Saeed. “These women often cannot come to the stations without a man accompanying them. Our culture has not developed such that a woman can just head to a police station and file a report against her husband or father or brothers without repercussions.”
Often, women return to the police station after their husbands or male family members have been brought in for questioning, and say that they have “compromised.”
“Most of [the] time the women tell me they have resolved the issue on their own and they don’t want to pursue police action,” Ayesha explained. She feels the reconciliation is often won through pressure from the woman’s family or in-laws, and sometimes motivated by financial concerns.
These women must also contend with what their neighbors or communities will think if they get wind of the dispute. “Women who have been beaten or abused will come to me and I have to first get their consent to send them to a hospital or convince them to see a doctor,” Ayesha said, explaining that the women don’t want anyone finding out about police or hospital visits. A staggering 52 percent of Pakistani women who experience violence keep it a secret, the latest Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey revealed, and 39 percent of married women aged 15 to 49 have been physically or emotionally abused by their spouse.
Often women will choose to deal with more serious issues—abuse or domestic violence—on their own or suffer through it. Thus, Ayesha spends much of her time dealing with petty issues. Over the course of two recent days, for instance, she received three complaints: one woman eloped with a man and was scared of her family’s reaction; another had lost her identity card; and the third had lost her mobile phone.
Senior police officer Mohammad Ali Babakhel feels that complaints of a less serious nature will remain the focus of the women’s complaint desks while domestic abuse and rape continue to go unreported: “In traditional societies,” he noted, “such violence is considered part of routine life,” and education is needed to change that. “We first have to impart knowledge about the rights and responsibilities women are owed. Putting up a shelter house or employing a few female officials will not deal with the issue of this violence.”
Even so, Ayesha sends all these women away with a plea—tell your neighbors and women in your community that you came to see a policewoman. “I want the word to spread that there is a police official here who will listen to them no matter what the issue is,” she explained.
The model police station
The all-female police station of Ayesha’s favorite TV show has a real world incarnation here in Peshawar, created in 1994, shortly before Pas-e-Aaina was aired. The first such station was opened in 1994 in Rawalpindi, by the prime minister at the time, Benazir Bhutto, with the intent of providing a safe haven for women reluctant to approach male-dominated police stations. But 21 years after it first opened its doors, Peshawar’s only police station run entirely by women has yet to register even one First Information Report (FIR), the very first step in initiating an investigation against an alleged perpetrator of a crime.
Today, the station is a mere holding cell for female criminals. Ensconced within the sleepy but serene confines of Police Lines in Peshawar, where the Capital City Police Station is housed in a hulking colonial era building, the women’s police station requires a visitor to jump through several hoops to reach it—five, to be precise. At each security check post male police officers ask for proof of identity and the purpose of the visit. “Due to security concerns, we cannot allow anyone to come here so freely,” explained SSP Mian Saeed, whose office is a stone’s throw from the women’s station. An alternate route to the station, with fewer check posts, has been bricked up.
A kachnar tree, its boughs heavy with violet-colored flowers, leans against the station’s metal gate. Buds or petals of the tree’s blossoms are often mixed into Pakistani or Indian food such as mincemeat. On a recent day, with nothing to do, women in the station stacked chairs one on top of the other, and clambered atop the tower to pull handfuls of petals from the tree so they could mix them into a dish one of the women promised to make. “We are just like a family to each other here,” explained Zainab*, as she walked into her office, where three women were chatting quietly. Two of the women were sleepy—they run the night shift from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. and had just woken up from a nap in the rooms upstairs. They had not put on their uniforms yet, even though it was 10 minutes before their shift would start.
The last case this station dealt with was three or four months ago, Zainab said. A woman complained that a security guard in her neighborhood was bothering her with catcalls. “We told her to go to the police station in her own neighborhood as it would have jurisdiction in the matter.” Prior to that, in September 2010, a woman came to the station saying she was beaten by her husband. Zainab noted her complaint and forwarded the case to a male Station House Officer (SHO). Zainab has spent 14 years on the police force and she has yet to file an FIR in a case that has come to her. “I know how to do it,” she said, “But we are never given the opportunity to do so.” She spends much of her day maintaining a meticulous hand-written record of the women who use the station as their base before they are deputed to various spots around the city. There is also an entry every day recording the whereabouts of a “Sports Girl,” the one woman who plays on the province’s police sports teams.
Even Ayesha, who has been in service since 2004, when she joined the force as a constable, has never filed an FIR for any of the women who have come to her with complaints. “An FIR is a very complicated document,” Ayesha explained. “There are four pages of information to fill out. Its tiring work.” Instead, the female officials fill out a complaint sheet, which is then handed over to their male colleagues, who enter the information in the FIR.
“After an FIR is filed, an investigation begins,” explained Ayesha. “If that investigation or raid on the suspect takes place at four in the morning, how can I leave my home at that time? It just makes sense to let them file the reports.” She recalled that one senior officer responded to her queries about filing FIRs by asking: “Are you willing to go out on a raid no matter what the time? Even if it is in the middle of the night and you are one woman among all the men?”
“I have never asked anyone why I am not allowed to file an FIR,” Zainab said. Her colleague, Sana*, spoke up quietly: “We have just had five women promoted to the rank of District Superintendent (DSP) this month. Perhaps they will push for us to have greater authority.”
But the current lack of authority is worrying, particularly as a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) published earlier this month found that few survivors of gender-based violence in Pakistan go to the police and when they do, many cases are not registered. “Female complainants are often dismissed or put in harm’s way by officers … and some officers have assaulted a complainant,” the ICG noted. Even if cases are registered, few perpetrators are convicted: media reports reveal, for instance, that of the 14,580 rape cases registered between 2009 and 2014 nationally, only 6.5 percent led to convictions.
There is little faith in the justice system, even among these female officers. All the women I spoke with said they had never heard of an instance in which a woman’s complaint was noted in an FIR and her case was taken to court—in which she received justice. “I have never personally heard of any woman who did that,” said 34-year-old Zainab. “Even if her case went to court, something might happen, but it likely won’t be in her favor. We have heard you won’t get full justice as a woman—your case may be on the record, but if the person you are fighting has money, you can’t win.”
For Sana, that is a familiar story. Since 2008, she has been fighting for her sister’s rights to her former husband’s property. “We won our case in court but no police official has taken action against the people illegally occupying my sister’s property,” she said. After many fruitless visits to police stations, where she was made to wait for hours, Sana gave up. “If you don’t have the money to bribe people and get them to do your work, then you have to rely on your qismet (fate),” she said. “I am a police official and this is what has happened to me—so imagine what an ordinary citizen goes through if he or she approaches the station for help.”
Women versus women
Many of the policewomen know that they leave a trail of whispers and pointed fingers behind them every day as they head off to their jobs. The criticism comes not just from the men in their communities and ancestral villages, but from the women as well. Ayesha’s sister is an official in the Federal Investigation Agency and leaves for work every day in her uniform—pants and a shirt, with an optional veil. “My aunt tells us that her daughters do not get good marriage proposals because people hear about how my sister dresses like a man for her job,” Ayesha said. Ayesha was the first in her family to join public service and said she did so largely to help her father gather together sufficient dowry for her five sisters.
Ayesha ignores the gossip: her job, with all its shortcomings, has given her a life of freedom and access. “Your police badge will get you anywhere,” she explained. “I was able to travel to places I never thought I could go to within Pakistan, because of my job.” The job has its perks too: a die-hard cricket fan, Ayesha was able to take her whole family to the Pakistan-Bangladesh cricket match in 2003 in Peshawar for free, as she had been deputed for security at the stadium on the day.
“People say that girls who stay within the four walls of their home are good, innocent girls,” she said. “But if a slightly good looking man makes a move on this girl even once, she goes crazy, thinking: ‘Wow, I must be so special that he sees something in me.’” Ayesha made an appeal to the women who criticize policewomen as loose or promiscuous. “This job teaches us so much about the kinds of people there are in this society and if some lecherous man tried to make a move on me, I wouldn’t even spit at his cheap tactics.” Women who work, she said, know that there is a world of opportunities awaiting them—you just have to be patient and persevere.
Editor’s note: * indicates that names have been changed for security reasons.
Sanam Maher is a Karachi-based journalist and can be followed on Twitter here.