Kandahar's No 1 lady detective fights crime from under a burqa

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The Independent Online

At home she is a dutiful housewife and devoted mother of six. But on the dangerous streets of Kandahar she is the city's only female detective, never venturing out without a pistol under her burqa.

At home she is a dutiful housewife and devoted mother of six. But on the dangerous streets of Kandahar she is the city's only female detective, never venturing out without a pistol under her burqa.

Malalai Kakar has been a legend in southern Afghanistan's biggest city, the capital of the deeply conservative Pashtun people, ever since she killed three would-be assassins in a shoot-out.

In doing so, she won respect in a society obsessed with honour and bravery, where women are confined strictly to the home and must still wear the burqa at all other times.

"She is truly another Malalai," said the police chief, Khan Mohammed, in reference to her namesake, a national heroine who rallied a wavering Afghan army to defeat 19th-century British invaders. "We need more detectives like her."

Malalai - she is known by her first name only - is a slight woman of 35 with determined eyes. She dislikes wearing a burqa but admits it makes a useful disguise when she is on the trail of criminals.

"On election day, I went to the polling station to check on voting, wearing my burqa so the people did not know it was Malalai," she said. "I saw some irregularities. But generally it was quite fair."

As Kandahar's only policewoman, Malalai has duties besides arresting female criminals. She runs the women's prison, accompanies her colleagues on raids so she can search female quarters and settles domestic disputes

"Sometimes the husband accuses the wife, sometimes the wife accuses the husband. I try to decide who is right by talking to the neighbours and investigating," she said. "I try to bring peace between them. Very rarely it ends in divorce, but I always seek a guarantee from the husband that he won't harm his wife." She traces many problems to the custom of arranged marriage. "It is unfair," she said. "Our religion authorises love first, then marriage." But her own arranged marriage has worked well.

She tries to bring this mix of common sense and sympathy to her dealings with female wrong-doers, such as the 10 burqa-clad pick-pockets arrested in Kandahar in the past month. "Their downfall is due to poverty," she said. "They rely on charity."

Some crimes are more serious - last month she arrested a woman for the attempted murder of her husband. "She called on her lover to kill him, but he was only injured ... I joked with her that she should have made sure her lover had a sharper knife."

Malalai became a policewoman 20 years ago at the insistence of her father, a policeman. She says she never discusses her work with her children or husband, who works for the UN, and tries not to worry her family about the death threats she receives.

The threat is real. Fundamentalists in the city, once the Taliban's spiritual heartland, hate the idea of a female police officer. "I am not afraid. I must pursue my duty. If Afghanistan is to be rebuilt we must stand up to these people," she says.

During the Taliban era she had to give up work, and went into hiding when they came looking for her. She was never sure if they were just curious to see the woman who had killed three men in the 1980s or if they meant to arrest her.

"Our Afghanistan is much better now, women have some rights again," she says. "There are real hopes after this election. But we who have seen so much misery cannot say what our futures will hold."

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