Wars of Their Own

By Rudy Landeros

For weeks the horrible screams that burst from the dank cellar were ignored. After five long months, probably overwhelmed by the guilt of doing nothing, the neighbors finally notified the police. When she was pulled from her hell, the frail 15-year-old child bride was emaciated and near death. From her injuries it was evident that she had been tortured, her body covered with cuts, burns, and bruises. Several of her fingernails had been torn off, one of her ears had been mutilated and chunks of her black hair had been yanked out. This was her punishment. Her crime? She refused to be forced into prostitution by her in-laws.

When I arrived in Afghanistan in June 2011, this was only one of the many cases of brutality that sent shockwaves throughout the country and the rest of the world drawing the attention to the rampant and systemic violence against women and girls. The problem was so prevalent that a 2011 poll conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation determined that Afghanistan was the most dangerous place in the world for women. According to a United Nation report 87% of women had encountered at least one form of physical, sexual or psychological violence or forced marriage in their lifetime.

Common throughout the country was the disfigurement of a woman’s face by cutting off her nose, lips, and ears. This violence was not perpetrated by strangers, but by husbands and families who believed they had been dishonored. Worse yet were Honor Killings, by fathers and brothers who disapproved of a woman’s behavior, and the practice of Baad that required a family to give away a daughter as compensation to settle a dispute or crime. More abhorrent was forcing rape victims to marry the rapist or the prosecution of the victim for the offense of Zina (adultery). Even if they fled from the violence, many were caught and prosecuted for the moral crime of running away from home. For many women and girls the ultimate escape was self-immolation—setting themselves on fire to escape the brutality.

To address the violence in 2009, a law—the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW)—was adopted by Presidential Decree that criminalized various acts of violence against women, including child and forced marriages, forced self-immolation, Baad, rape, assaults, and 18 other acts of violence. However, several reports by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), found that the law was seldom used and that many of the cases were settled by mediation, which provided little justice for the women.

When I departed the United Nations Headquarters in New York—ready to make a difference in a brutal part of the world—my marching orders from the UN Police Division were to strengthen my unit’s working relationship with the UN’s Developmental Program (UNDP) and it’s Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan (LOTFA) Unit, which was the steward of over a half billion dollars contributed by the international community for the development of the Afghan national police. Because of the rampant violence against women and children, and my own experiences under a violent father, I knew empowering women was going to be one of my team’s key objectives. In some ways, I believed it was my chance to make up for the times I had failed to defend my mother and siblings against my father’s brutality so many years before.

One of the first things I did upon my arrival in Afghanistan was to hire A. Heather Coyne, a U.S. Army reservist who had already been in the country for two years. I was moved by her passion for police accountability, access to justice for women, and the need to improve the trust between the community and the police. Shortly thereafter, A. Heather and Tor, the first police adviser assigned to the team, developed our unit’s two pronged mission to assist Afghan women and to build the trust between the police and the community.

A. Heather, Tor and I had spent hours poring over dozens of applications from Afghan women applying for one National Professional Officer (NPO) position assigned to our unit. Our main focus was helping policewomen, and I desperately needed to hire a female. Since the overthrow of the Taliban Regime in 2001, a record number of Afghan women and girls were attending school, and many more were working outside of the home.  But there were still many people throughout the country who were adamantly against the interaction between the sexes absent a mahrammet, a male guardian. In some places this tradition severely restricted a woman’s access to education or training even if the student was a policewoman.

After A. Heather, Tor, and I reviewed the stack of resumes, we shortlisted five of the most qualified women and scheduled a full day to interview them. When Latifa hesitantly walked into the room, the expression on her face was as subdued as the black hijab that completely covered her hair, and the shapeless long black dress that hid her tall body. She was too timid, spoke too softly, and struggled to maintain eye contact when she answered questions. But when asked what needed to be done to make policewomen more productive members of the force she shot back: “Give them the same opportunities given to men!”

Because of her job as a legal adviser for the Ministry of Interior, Latifa knew firsthand what she was talking about. As the ministry that oversees the national police, many women worked there but only a few were assigned substantive positions. Most were relegated to serving tea, cleaning rooms and mending clothes. Even if a woman clawed her way to the top, like one female police general had done, they were often sidelined, discriminated against, harassed, and threatened. In the face of these threats many women quit, or like the general, they fled their own country out of fear for their lives. 

My impression of Latifa forever changed when she confidently described the measures she would take, not only to help policewomen but women in general.  It was obvious she had spent much of her life thinking about this issue.

As fate would have it, in June 2012, the Dutch Embassy in Kabul offered to earmark to my UNAMA Police Advisory Unit approximately $4.5 million dollars if we could submit to them a comprehensive proposal on how we intended to accomplish our goal to help women police and strengthen Community Policing. The meeting with the Dutch Embassy personnel exceeded my wildest expectations. The proposal, known as the Afghan Democratic Policing Project (ADPP), consisted of six components that focused on building the capacity of women police and strengthening the Community Policing model of law enforcement. Of all the components, my favorite was training, which brought together investigators from the Afghan Police’s Family Response Unit and doctors from hospitals in Kabul to develop a plan to help female and child victims of family violence and sexual abuse. The training sessions were taught in the Dari language by a group of dynamic and fearless Afghan women who had the skill of getting everyone, men and women alike, actively involved in the training.

In one training session I attended, several of the female police investigators and doctors defiantly held their ground in debates with male colleagues regarding an Afghan woman’s right to be treated with respect and dignity. As the debate raged, many of the women participants used excerpts from the Koran, the country’s constitution, and criminal law to dismantle their male colleagues’ argument that men have the right to do whatever they want with their women. A female police investigator used a case she had recently encountered to make her point: “Tell me where in the Koran or in the law does it say it is right to beat your pregnant wife to the point where it kills her unborn child? Tell me where it says it is okay to slice your wife’s tongue out and leave her to die?”

The room fell silent as she described the case of a 25-year-old man who brutally beat his 16-year-old wife and cut out a large portion of her tongue. The trauma had been so severe that the unborn near-term baby died from the beating. The investigator explained that her male police counterparts refused to arrest the husband or investigate the case until she and the victim’s father placed the dead fetus on the male colleague’s desk. “Is this right?” was her final question before she calmly sat down. As I listened to her and the other policewomen and female doctors in the class I couldn’t help but have a profound sense of respect and admiration for their bravery. The courage these women displayed reminded me of the times my mother endured brutal beatings, rather than allow her children to be harmed. Just as my father targeted those weakest around him, the Taliban actively targeted and killed women in these professions, these courageous women risked their lives by publicly arguing with their male colleagues for what they believed was right. But the happiness that filled my heart as I watched these women fight for their rights was overshadowed by what happened to Latifa one night:

The six masked men burst through the door and ordered everyone onto the floor. Armed with assault rifles they systematically ransacked the house. For two long and agonizing hours the gunmen terrorized Latifa, her husband and her in-laws. One by one they were each taken into a separate room and interrogated.  As they led her into the bedroom, Latifa feared the worst. Although they never touched her, the men, dressed in ankle length blouses and baggy trousers worn by the Taliban, repeatedly threatened to rape and kill her. Throughout the ordeal, she was warned the Afghan government would soon fall to the Taliban. And when it did what would she do then? To Latifa and her family it was obvious this was not a robbery, it was a warning meant to intimidate her. But it didn’t. The following day she went to work. 

During my two and a half years in Afghanistan, incidents like this happened a lot. More common were the anonymous night letters and phone calls that threatened Afghans with death if they continued to work for infidel organizations such as the UN, European Union, NATO and the various foreign embassies in the country. Many quit their jobs, but not Latifa, she refused to be bullied.  Up until my time in Afghanistan, I resented my mother for allowing herself to be bullied and beat by our father.  But watching Latifa carry on her fight to help women and children in the community while under the threat of violence made me see that my own mother fought not so much to protect herself, but rather to protect the ones in her care. What I’d seen as her weakness was actually the manifestation of her great strength. I began to come to terms with the fact that I was in no position to play savior.  That my contribution would come from empowering those in need, rather than believing that I could fight their battles for them.

Rudy Landeros, who was raised in East Austin, attended the University of Texas at Austin. Upon graduation he taught at AISD’s Govalle Elementary School. After teaching for three years, he switched careers and became an Austin police officer.  Rudy retired from the police department after 24½ at the rank of assistant chief. For the next eight years he worked as a Senior Police Adviser with the United Nations in Sierra Leone, West Africa and in Afghanistan. In 2013, Rudy retired and returned Austin where he now resides.

He is currently working on a memoir.

Check out the other authors posting pieces for our anniversary series:

Diane Lefer: What I Learned From Genital Cutting

Susanna Childress: Retroactive Empathy: A Haunting

David Olimpio: Variations on a Theme

Donald Quist: The Animals We Invent

Gene Kwak: Dirty Work

RE Katz: The Shift

P. E. Garcia: Some Thoughts on Forrest City