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The New Arab Staff

Meet Afghanistan's female deputy chief of police

Zala Zazai, 21, was sworn in early June [Twitter]

Date of publication: 7 July, 2020

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The New Arab's Arabic-language site meets Zala Zazai, a deputy chief defying cultural norms in Afghanistan’s remote Khost province.
The appointment of a young woman as deputy chief of the criminal investigation police department in Afghanistan's Khost province caused a national stir when it was first announced. 

Zala Zazai, 21, took charge in a province plagued by a Taliban-led insurgency after she was sworn in early June in an official ceremony, vowing to serve her community despite the dangers.

Her appointment received mix reactions, with many applauding the move as a step towards gender equality in a highly patriarchal society. Others voiced opposition to having a woman police chief, due to patriarchal cultural norms.

Zazai - who completed her military studies in Turkey - told The New Arab’s Arabic-language sister site that the uproar that followed her appointment as local police chief does not concern her, with the national debate even seeping into her own family.

"My only concern is to encourage women in Afghanistan who come from deprived backgrounds to pursue their dreams and ambitions, despite living in a male-dominated society," she said.

"My family and I have fought cultural traditions, but as a result my extended family, including my uncles, and the closest people to us stopped talking to us," she said. "They stopped visiting us or inviting us over, as if I had committed a crime.

"However, I continue doing my work, because I work for my community and I want enable women to raise their voices and be heard," she said. 

Zazai's journey into the police force has been a challenging one, she acknowledges.

"I was born into a family that was part of a tribe, which did not allow women to go out to study," she said. "So how do you think they responded to me working in the police force? But thanks to my mother’s support, I was able to push past these hurdles. 

"I took a daring step and accepted my appointment because this is the job that I love and I can use this platform to serve women," she added. "I expect people to support me, and to only criticise me if I failed at my job."

Supporting local women

Zazai chose to work in a remote province because "there is an urgent need to encourage women to come forward", she pledged. 

Through her position, she believes that she can encourage women to approach the police knowing their concerns will be taken seriously.

"It is very disappointing that I have received so much resistance," Zazai commented. "People should cooperate with me! I dared to accept this appointment so that I can help women. People should support me, not criticise me."

In accepting the position, Zazai also hopes to encourage other women to take jobs traditionally dominated by men.

"I hope more woman would be inspired to join the military or police force," she says. "Every woman in this country can work alongside man and perform a good job."

Under Taliban rule, between 1996 and 2001, women were strictly prohibited from working in public and were forced to run small businesses from home for income.

A few women were permitted to work in certain public fields, such as being medics and nurses, but restricted to treating women patients only.

Since the overthrow of the Taliban, women have sought to return to the public sphere, taking up posts such as teachers, civil servants and aid workers.

However, cultural traditions still restrict women's roles in society. For many, like Zazai, taking up public posts the decision can be a life-endangering one.

While her appointment caused a national uproar, many took to social media platforms to applaud her for her courage.

"She is the first ever woman to have taken a man's job in an extremely patriarchal society. Her name is Zala Zazai and she is the first ever female chief detective for Khost province. More power to her," Afghan journalist Habib Khan said in a tweet.

"Zala Zazai took on one the toughest jobs there is: Deputy Chief of the Criminal Investigation Department in Khost. Her dedication & determination to keep her community & #Afghanistan safe is truly humbling," the UN Women Afghanistan said in a tweet.

In response to support, Zazai said: "I expect the people will not discourage me. It is true my age is young, but I have studied, and I can perform this job."

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