Frontline Rawalpindi, Pakistan: The woman fighting crime and prejudice

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FROM HER desk, senior house officer Begum Shamshad Ashraf looks out on to a battlefield. Her office itself is the same as a police officer's room anywhere, with its framed photographs, miniature flags and a thick belt curled up on a side table.

The battlefield is not the dusty, dirt yard outside where goats scavenge between the armed sentries, but the maze of narrow, twisting alleys in the bazaars beyond, where her 30-odd female officers fight a daily war against murderers, rapists, drug smugglers and thieves, not to mention the prejudice of her male colleagues.

With her easy smile, lipstick and shining brown eyes Ms Ashraf hardly looks like Pakistan's most senior policewoman. But ask her about her job and the steel shows.

"I do not think you understand quite how powerful I am," she said curtly. "I could protect the Prime Minister single-handed. I do not even need this." She slapped her .38 service revolver down on her desk with a heavy thud.

As for the attention of Pakistani males, nothing has yet bothered her in 14 years as an officer. "They know better than to mess with me," she said calmly.

Ms Ashraf, 41, commands a force of 35 officers. They have their own women's police station, built in 1994 and opened by the then prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. Ms Bhutto and Begum Ashraf should have much in common. Both have made it to the top in a harsh, male-dominated world and both, if the government's allegations are to be believed, have considerable experience of criminal activity.

The station, in the relatively quiet "civil lines" area of Rawalpindi - a huge metropolis on the northern plains - was less than busy yesterday afternoon. Eight constables were on crowd control at the High Court, eight more were helping hundreds of male colleagues maintain order at a funeral for a religious leader shot dead by a rival sect.

Only one criminal was languishing in the station. Lying on the concrete floor of the barred cell was a woman who had, Ms Ashraf said, stabbed her nephew to death. The cell holds 10 but, according to local lawyers, is regularly filled with twice that number.

Much of the crime dealt with at the station is domestic, although theft, public order, sexual offences and heroin addicts usually keep its officers busy.

To protect female prisoners, mainly from rape by male police officers, Pakistani laws prohibit their incarceration overnight anywhere but in a women's jail. By the small hours the little cell is packed with women picked up off the streets simply because they were out without their husband or a male relative.

Ms Ashraf says the job is hard. "No one wants to be arrested. We are always fighting and being beaten."

The police are not the only ones being beaten. Physical abuse of suspects, bordering on torture, is rife in Pakistani police stations. The seven women's police stations are no exception. Nor is bribing the police to drop charges restricted to male officers.

Despite the rigours of her job, Ms Ashraf has a softer side. She has two children, has two university degrees, a certificate in criminology from the University of Australia and writes poetry.

She has published a biography of Pakistan's most famous poet and is a published poet. The subject of her verses? The plight of women in Pakistan.