Golzadeh Hosseini strikes an odd figure, sitting on one of the Afghan Military Training Academy’s plush couches in her US-issued military uniform. Blonde highlights, pink lipstick, plucked eyebrows and a black veil top off her desert camouflage uniform.
As a 35-year-old female commando with the Ministry of Interior’s anti-drug unit, Hosseini is used to hopping on and off army helicopters during interdiction missions in Afghanistan’s southeastern poppy-growing regions. Bunking down for a night in the Afghan countryside alongside male colleagues is part of her job combating narcotics trafficking in a country that is the world’s major source of heroin. But such activities also cut against the grain of Afghanistan’s conservative Islamic social value system.
“My husband’s family refused to speak to me for three years after I told them I was joining the force,” Hosseini said. “They were shocked that in my line of work I might have to spend a night out of the house.”
Growing up in Iran, one of an estimated 6 million Afghan refugees who fled to the Islamic Republic during the past three decades of conflict in Afghanistan, Hosseini maintained only a tenuous connection to her homeland. Her taste for law enforcement was sparked by Iranian action films. Then, during the frigid winter of 2004, her family moved back to Kabul.
Hosseini remembers spending three months crying as she tried to readapt to her native land. “I couldn’t believe that, after the comforts of Iran, we were going to try to live in a place with no water or electricity,” she said.
Life changed one day, when Hosseini saw an Afghan woman in military uniform walking in the street. Hurrying up, she quizzed her at length about being a female soldier. The encounter so inspired her that she signed up shortly thereafter.
Five years later, Hosseini swelled with pride as her 19-year-old daughter, Masumeh, became one of 29 women to graduate from Afghanistan’s first female officer class in late September. Glitter sprinkled on male officers’ heads gave the somber wood and marble paneled auditorium a festive air.
In an often-stilted ceremony, the one spontaneous round of applause came when a four-star general, Sher Ahmad Karimi, told the graduates that, “instead of just one daughter, today I have 30 daughters.”
While it was all smiles on graduation day, some members of Afghanistan’s first class of female officers recounted that the road to the ceremony was filled with hardships. Virtually every step of the way they had to fight a two-front struggle, contending with social and familial pressure while at the same time having to overcome skepticism and harassment from male officers. Under the circumstances, the fact that two-thirds of the initial group of female officer candidates graduated has to be considered a major accomplishment.
Many of the new officers are filled with a sense of duty not only to defend Afghan statehood, but to promote civil rights. “I decided to join the military and change the thoughts of society about women in the army,” said Hanife, another recruit who only gave her first name. Like Hosseini, she grew up in Iran.
The graduating officers – none of whom saw combat training – will be funneled into administrative and logistical jobs, often working alongside male colleagues.
Afghan women served in the Soviet-backed Afghan military in the 1980s. Following the collapse of the Communist-backed regime in 1992, however, the Afghan military reverted to being a male-only preserve. Female officers who now go through the training program commit to two decades of military service.
Unfortunately, some new female officers quickly discovered that a commission cannot shield them from harassment. “Which one of you is married?” a male air force officer barked after the graduation ceremony, attempting to single out attractive, unmarried women for assignment to his units. The intervention of an indignant American trainer put a stop to the episode.
One American advisor who helped train the female Afghan officers praised their motivation and capabilities. “It was an honor to coach these motivated, intelligent women,” said Staff Sgt. Jennifer Marcos. “Most of them really wanted to be here as opposed to this being their only option.”
The trainers were so please with the progress of the first female graduating class that they have now scheduled a second female class to graduate before the end of the year.
“Right now they’re sticking with administrative staff and we’ll see where they go,” said Marcos. “After all, the US Army didn’t integrate [the sexes] till 1981.”
Iason Athanasiadis is an Istanbul-based freelance journalist.