They looked quite impressive in their dark grey uniforms, those women police officers, whose appointment and career Aurat Foundation celebrated in an event on 3 July 2014. They included the first woman district police officer (DPO) in Pakistan, Naseem Ara Panhwer, who is credited with countering dacoits on her beat, and finding her way well into criminal gangs, Shehla Qureshi, assistant superintendent of police in the Frere area of Karachi, resplendent in her slightly different uniform as she came into the police force through the government’s competitive examination, Azra Memon assistant deputy inspector general of traffic in Karachi, Masuma Changezi who is superintendent of police traffic also in Karachi and Hajra Sabiha, who is the station house officer (SHO) of the Artillery Maidan women’s police station in the heart of Karachi.
Although some of the officers mentioned above are senior, the most significant appointments are those of two station house officers in charge of all-male police stations in Karachi, Ghazala Siddiqui who holds charge of the Clifton police station and Inspector Zaibun Nisa, chief of Bahadurabad police station. The station house officer is the lynchpin of the policing system and the original power lies with her or him because the police station is the very place where the community interacts with the police. In Urdu and local languages, the police station is called a “thana”, a word which evokes fear and apprehension.
Deputy Inspector General Abdul Khalique Shaikh spoke to us about the journey of the Sindh police in deciding to give these crucial responsibilities to women police officers. He said that, in terms of sheer numbers, the percentage of women in our police force is negligible. There are 450,000 plus men in the police force in Pakistan, and only 4000 or so women police, that is, roughly less then one per cent. The Sindh police were keen that not only should the number of women in the force be increased, but that they should be entrusted with significant and effective roles, and not marginal roles. As a general rule, they are posted mostly in women’s police stations and are used as escorts for women prisoners, when women are arrested or when raids are conducted, especially in houses where families are present. The police bosses felt that from their marginalised position the women police should be brought into the mainstream into roles where they could address the Code of Criminal Procedure 1898. But would their colleagues in the police force and members of the community accept their authority?
Many barriers had to be crossed. It was necessary that in decision-making circles there should exist no prejudice against women occupying positions traditionally held by men, especially in a hardened force like the police, and that there should be faith in their ability to perform as well, if not better, than men. Abdul Khalique Shaikh and his superiors had this faith, and felt that it was time to take the next big step. Initially, they thought it would be prudent to create safe beats where women could be groomed as station house officers for a few months and then moved to actual police stations. But they gave up this idea and decided to go ahead without taking preliminary precautions. Abdul Khalique Shaikh looks forward to the day when he can recruit women in large numbers not only as officers but also as ordinary constables.
Still, some encouragement and persuasion was needed. Ghazala Siddiqui, the first woman station house officer, told us how she had to be reassured that her superiors would stand by her if she made mistakes but Inspector Zaibun Nisa, who holds charge of Bahadurabad police station within whose remit my own house is located, apparently offered to become a station house officer herself. On taking charge of her office, she put an end to routine corruption, sidelined the “beaters” (beaters are persons who collect money from the community) of her station and put four of them in jail, closed down “shisha” dens and proscribed “gutka”, an addiction which is the curse of many people. Unlike the prevailing culture of the thana, she stopped all food coming in from neighbourhood restaurants and snack bars. As one of her constables told me recently, “Madam is very strict”. It is significant that all the women officers said that they continue to receive support from their superiors and none of them complained of criticism from the members of the community on account of their being women.
As we listened to how these women confronted crime, which now includes bomb blasts and other terrorist activities, and managed traffic on the vehicle-laden roads and streets of Karachi, a city of 20 million people, our focus shifted to the person who represented decision-making in the Sindh police, Abdul Khalique Shaikh, and he became the eventual hero of our event. We were overjoyed when he told us that a woman police officer would soon be appointed as “muharir” ( the one who records complaints) in a thana in Karachi. The entire team of Aurat Foundation joined hands to give him, with applause and cheers, the last shield of the day.
In my final remarks, I focused on the work and career of these women police officers in the backdrop of the women’s movement in Pakistan. Their numbers may be negligible in the total police force in Pakistan, but for the women’s movement their appointment has been a giant step forward. That the police administration made these decisions was the result of many factors ― urbanisation, social change and social motility, education and the effect of the affirmative action with respect to women’s rights taken by successive governments. Sindh, with its more open and urbanised culture, has been the leader in legislation favouring women’s rights but we must not forget that the decision makers in this case have all been men.
Aurat Foundation, which has struggled for women’s empowerment since 1986, has always worked along with men in all its programmes. Unlike some other associations operating in the field of women’s rights, it has never followed a policy of confrontation with men as a genre. We were fortunate that we had the support of enlightened and educated men in all our endeavours. The earlier presidents of our Board of Governors ― before me ― were all men. Some of our leading executives are men and our citizens’ action committees in various districts comprise both women and men. The collaboration of our men colleagues has opened for us many doors in remote and conservative areas where access was difficult and tradition prevailed.
Therefore, it was a pleasure for me to thank DIG Abdul Khalique Shaikh and the male heirarchy in the Sindh police for taking the bold decision to empower women police officers. I thanked the Sindh government and could not resist acknowledging Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah, for had he represented patriarchy in its traditional sense, these decisions could not have been made. How could it have been otherwise, though, for the Pakistan Peoples Party carries the legacy of Benazir Bhutto, in whose tenure the first women’s police stations were established in Pakistan?