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Female army officer faces new battle for safety in Afghanistan

Shukria Amiri is an Afghan army officer, (Credit: Shukria Amiri)

“The most painful scene of my life was when my mother set fire to my military uniform and the photos I had taken with my military uniform, for fear of the Taliban. I felt my heart burn with them,” Second Lieutenant Shukria Amiri says in a trembling voice as she speaks from a secret place in Afghanistan. 

Despite more than three decades of civil war and security problems, the last 20 years have held a number of mixed achievements for Afghan women. They have struggled to break through the thick shell of obstacles and reach the pearl of success. With the advent of the Taliban, not only are hard-won gains gradually fading away, but its pioneers are also in jeopardy.

The Afghan military was one of those fields that had made progress.  Led by NATO, it increased its efforts to recruit more women. As of April 2019, there were 4,984 women serving across the Afghan Security Forces, representing roughly 1.6 per cent of all soldiers.

But now they have all either left the country or hidden themselves because their life is in danger. Despite the Taliban repeatedly saying they have granted amnesty to all, including those who worked for western militaries, the Afghan government or the police, targeted killings are still being reported in Kabul and other cities. 

“My family is worried about me because the Taliban may recognise me at any moment,” Amiri tells Geneva Solutions. 

“The day after the Taliban came to Kabul, my family and I went to my sister's house in Ghazni province. Because all our neighbours in Kabul knew that I was in the army, there was a risk that they might have talked about me to the Taliban. After a month, we moved to another city. Now I live here in a small rented house with my father, mother and two younger sisters.” 

The young army officer was her family’s main financial provider. “This is the fourth month that I have not received a salary,” she says. “I had some savings but they are running out. My father is also sick and I am really worried about how I will be able to buy medication for him without a job and a salary.”. 

Twenty-one year-old Amiri holds a diploma in military affairs from Marshal Fahim Defense University, where she graduated in 2018. Until August, she had been working with the Ministry of Defence in Kabul. 

 Afghanistan is a conservative society, where being a teacher in a girl's school is widely accepted as one of the more acceptable careers for women. But Amiri had always been passionate about joining the military. 

 “When I graduated from school and wanted to go to the military academy but my family strongly objected,  because just six months before I had lost my brother who was a soldier and had been martyred in the war in Ghazni. My parents could not accept me joining the ANA Afghan National Army as well,” she explains. 

“On the one hand they were afraid of losing me, and on the other hand, they thought that they would be criticised by the people around them because, based on general beliefs, it was not seen as appropriate to send a girl to the army,” she adds.

Growing up, Amiri says she always dreamed of wearing the military uniform. “When I was a schoolgirl, I enjoyed seeing my brother in military uniform and had told him that I would follow in his footsteps in the future,” she says. “So, I tried to persuade my family until they eventually agreed, which was not easy.”

When she made it to the military academy, however, she says she rarely ever made it to the battlefield. Instead, she and many of her female comrades were occupied with administrative work at the Ministry of Defence. They were also careful not to wear their military uniforms outside of work for security reasons. 

Today, although the Taliban claim to have changed, the crackdown on women is still taking place across the country. She says she recognises a haze of despair that covers the faces of most Afghan women and girls.

“I have nothing anymore,” she says “My career, my position and my job have been taken away. Even the uniform which I loved, burned and my lovely photos were destroyed. All that remains is a great fear of being killed and a vague future. Nothing else.”

Dispatches from women in Afghanistan