Kabul, Afghanistan – There is relish in Khatera Malikzada's voice when she talks about the time the Kabul police needed a woman.
The policemen, armed with guns and strict orders to search a local house, had made it no farther than the front gate. Following the customs of Islam, "the women were not allowing them to enter the house unless they had a female police officer," says Ms. Malikzada.
In four years on the force, this is her highlight – coming to her befuddled colleagues' rescue. But it is one of only four searches she has ever done. She has no gun and no beat, and some neighbors won't let their daughters even talk to her – fearful that she might put strange ideas in their heads.
As Afghan women seek a balance between new opportunities and tradition, the Kabul Police Academy is a unique proving ground. In a profession dominated by men, it offers both the first glimpses of independence and a frustrating lack of opportunity.
There has been progress in recent years, with women moving into better posts – from the head of the passport department to emergency call centers, says Tonita Murray, gender adviser to the Afghan department that controls the police, the Ministry of Interior.
"Still, a lot of it is tea-making and tokenism," she adds.
In a total police force of some 80,000, there are no more than a few hundred women. Within gender-specific roles, there is some scope for advancement. Before she was assassinated in September, the head of the crimes against women department in the southern city of Kandahar, Lt. Col. Malalai Kakar, was Afghanistan's highest-ranking female officer.
Yet in a country where men are still held responsible for the safety of women, the Afghan attitude toward women police officers can often be paternalistic, "treating them like children," says Ms. Murray.
Malikzada still can't believe she doesn't have a gun. "My own life is in danger, and I have nothing," she says.
When fellow officer Marzia Faizi went to the western city of Herat on a recruiting trip, her now-deceased father was so upset at her perceived immodesty that he did not speak to her for a month after she returned. Now, her uncle has prohibited her from taking trips to other provinces, despite the fact that such trips "are the sort of thing that can help my career," says Ms. Faizi.
It is clear why the Afghan police are eager to send Faizi around the country as a recruiter: Dedicated, self-assured, and educated – even speaking a smattering of English – she is the image that they want to project.
Like Malikzada, Faizi has appeared in a television advertisement in Kabul. In it, she asks her fictional mother: "When the police come, do you want a man to search the women?"
Sitting amid desks in an unlit classroom of the police academy, her hunger for the job is palpable. "In my childhood, when I was watching films, I wanted to be a police officer," she grins.
Recalling three months she spent assigned to the Ministry of Counternarcotics as an interrogator, her expression radiates fulfillment – the woman now living the life that the girl once imagined.
"I liked that very much," she says, beaming.
For her, Ms. Kakar was something more than a hero. Standing only five feet tall, Kakar was known for her bravery and refusal to be limited by her sex. Famously, Kakar killed three assassins in a shootout in 2004 and even beat a man who had chained his wife in his basement.
When Kakar visited the women's dormitory at the Kabul Police Academy once, she and Faizi stayed up talking until 3 a.m.
"I really loved her," Faizi says. "She was telling us, 'You are the future.' "
"When we go out of the academy, the person who wants to welcome us with a bullet might be waiting," she adds. "But there is no other way."
Such determination, however, is hardly universal among women officers, Murray says. "They lack the self-awareness that they can be independent actors – that they can have ideas and put them into action," she adds.
That is partly the Afghan culture, "where police [regardless of gender] are trained to take orders," Murray says. But it is more acute in women, who are "always on the sidelines, particularly when it comes to physical training."
In the late autumn sun, officers are being graded on an obstacle course at the Kabul Police Academy. The atmosphere is hardly Parris Island. Some male officers do not even attempt the climbing wall, ambling around it.
When it is time for the four women police officers, they scramble through the maze of bars incorrectly, dissolving into giggles as the instructor makes quiet comments.
Sahib Jamal says she joined because she likes the uniforms. "I like the protocol of the ceremonies," she says.
For her part, Faizi is frustrated that more women haven't been moved up the chain of command to help set more of an example. "Then women would be encouraged," she says.
But so-called Family Response Units set up to deal with domestic violence are giving women are a chance "to show what they can do," says Murray. "As they show competence, they will be given more opportunities."