Lt. Islam Bibi’s decision to become a police officer would not have raised eyebrows in the west. But signing up for such a dangerous job in southern Afghanistan turned her into a symbol of female empowerment.
Under the Taliban rule, women were banned from working outside of the home. They could not receive an education after the age of 8, be treated by male doctors or ride a bicycle. Women were not allowed to drive, vote, play sports, run for public office or appear on radio or television. On the rare occasions when women were allowed to leave their homes, they were required to wear a burqa, a garment that covered them from head to toe, and be accompanied by a close male relative.
Violating any of these rules, which were enforced by the Department for the Propagation of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice, could lead to verbal abuse, beatings and execution. The religious police even punished rape victims — who were considered guilty of adultery and fornication — by publicly flogging or stoning them for their “crimes.”
Experts believe that 60 to 80 percent of Afghan marriages were arranged by force. According to a report by UN Women and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, 56 percent of all marriages in Afghanistan occurred when the bride was under the age of 16. Domestic violence is endemic, and many women choose suicide to escape.
After the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, the Karzai administration relaxed policies concerning women’s rights. Afghanistan’s new constitution, which was adopted in 2004, also recognized the equality of men and women, yet much of the country’s male population clung to the Taliban’s ultra-conservative outlook.
In the past decade, Afghan women have slowly started to emerge from the prisons that were their homes. They have removed the burqa, opened small businesses and even sent their daughters to school. These actions involved a great deal of courage since the Taliban continued to wage war on them by poisoning water supplies, fire-bombing schools, killing teachers and throwing acid on female students.
Bibi was one of those brave women.
At 10, she was forced to marry a man who was 43. Bibi had the first of her five children when she was just 15. Then in 2004, she decided to join the Afghan National Police because she needed a salary and wanted to create a safer future for her three sons and two daughters.
“Firstly I needed the money, but secondly I love my country,” Bibi said in April. “I feel proud wearing the uniform and I want to try to make Afghanistan a better and stronger country.”
As a police officer, Bibi enforced security, searched passengers at the airport, trained other female officers and protected voters at polling stations. She even single-handedly stopped a would-be suicide bomber from detonating his explosives by throwing herself on top of him when he resisted arrest.
Over the next nine years, Bibi rose through the ranks to become the most senior female officer serving in the Helmand province. She commanded a team of nearly three dozen female officers in the criminal investigation department in Lashkar Gah, and was often profiled in the international press as a role model.
For this, Bibi was regularly intimidated by insurgents and opium smugglers, and received numerous death threats. Some of those threats came from her own family. Her brother was so hell-bent on killing her for having the temerity to work that the government eventually decided to take away his gun.
On July 4, the extremists succeeded in stopping Bibi. She was riding a motorbike to work alongside her son-in-law when two gunmen opened fire. Bibi was seriously injured in the attack, and later died in the emergency room. Her son-in-law was also wounded.
She was 37.