Women defy Islamists to serve in Afghan army

Female fighters: Khatol Mohammad Zai, Afghanistan’s first woman general, paves the way © PA

The Afghan National Army Officer Academy is to begin training its first female recruits. Can women soldiers play a role in bringing gender equality to the troubled country?

It is among the worst countries in the world in which to be born a woman. Routinely discriminated against, persecuted and abused, Afghanistan’s female population has one of the lowest life expectancies in the world, appalling literacy rates and a high rate of infant mortality. Women who speak out or take on public roles that go against ingrained gender stereotypes face fierce intimidation.

But perhaps the Afghan National Army could be about to change the lives of some Afghan women forever, by training them to become officers alongside the men.

At the end of this year, British troops will end their combat mission in Afghanistan. Part of their legacy will be The Afghan National Army Officer Academy – nicknamed ‘Sandhurst in the sand’ – where British officers are training Afghan soldiers to take over once they leave. The first female soldiers to become army officers will be chosen from the ranks and will start their training in April.

There has been enthusiasm for the scheme in some parts of the country, but trepidation and hostility too. Women in the Afghan army are not expected to perform frontline fighting roles, but extremists are still angry. Some who have already come forward to serve their country have been targeted for attack, sometimes even murdered. Last year, Latifa Nabizada, a pioneering army helicopter pilot often described as the country’s Amelia Earhart, was forced to retreat to a desk job after suffering a barrage of death threats from the Taliban.

Nabizada, whose daughter sometimes accompanied her on flights when there was no one else to look after her, said it had become too dangerous to even travel to work. Zahra Bayat, a female trainee, said: ‘When I decided to join, my immediate family were pleased for me but my uncle, who is a mullah, thinks I have shamed the family. He told me that if he sees me in the street he will kill me.’

Battle of the sexes

Any equality won by female soldiers will not directly affect the freedoms and opportunities of other women. Many human rights groups believe the main issue is illiteracy – until women can read and write, they argue, the women will not be able to prevent political deals like that in 2009, when ministers in Kabul bartered away many Shia women’s rights. Some observers are worried the officer training course could even make the situation worse by provoking the ire of the Taliban.

Others protest that change, however small, creates its own momentum. The female trainees will win respect from their colleagues and the Afghan people. And even in non-combat army roles, such as nursing and driving, the idea of women at work will seem normal. This handful of women will inspire future generations.

You Decide

  1. Should women be allowed to take part in combat?
  2. Should protecting women’s rights be a condition of declaring ‘mission accomplished’ in Afghanistan?


  1. Imagine you are growing up under the Taliban. In groups, list some of the ways in which your life would be different.
  2. Research women in armies around the world. How does their participation differ from country to country?

Some People Say...

“Women are better suited to some jobs, men to others.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Afghan women have it bad, but we’ve had women’s rights in the West for years.
Women’s rights vary from country to country. While the position in Europe is generally far better than in places like Afghanistan, even in developed countries debate still rages over issues such as representation in parliament and equal treatment at work. Learning about conditions for women in other countries can ensure we don’t take for granted the freedoms that have been won for us.
Some women would prefer to stay at home and be mothers. Is that wrong?
Absolutely not. But the difference is that in countries like Afghanistan, few women have the freedom to make that choice. Under the Taliban, Afghan women were not even permitted to leave the house without a male member of their own family.

Word Watch

A 2011 study conducted by the Thomson-Reuters Foundation declared Afghanistan the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a woman, due to violence, poor healthcare and poverty. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Pakistan were next.
British troops
The UK invaded Afghanistan as part of the US-led operation in 2001, in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on America, to oust the Taliban government that was sheltering the al Qaeda leaders. But it was not the first time. The British made three attempts between 1839 and 1919 to conquer Afghanistan, and were defeated each time.
The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, in Surrey, is where all officers in the British Army are trained. Past alumni include Princes William and Harry and singer James Blunt.
Amelia Earhart
The first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. She mysteriously disappeared in 1937 while trying to circumnavigate the globe.
The hardline Islamic movement became powerful in Afghanistan in 1994. They forced women to wear the all-covering burqa, made adultery punishable by death and banned television, music and cinema. They even forbade children from flying kites. No longer in government, it is feared they will gain some power again once Western troops leave.
Shia women’s rights
The government reduced Shia women’s rights in 2009, explicitly permitting rape within marriage and forbidding women from receiving an education without their husband’s permission.

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