KABUL, Afghanistan – She wears a black headscarf instead of a cap. But otherwise Col. Jamila Bayaz looks like any other district police chief in Afghanistan as she reviews checkpoints in the center of Kabul.
Bayaz, 50, is the first woman to be promoted to run an entire district — the highest front-line appointment for an Afghan policewoman. With just two days on the job, she said she feels up to the challenge despite the threat as policewomen are among the Taliban's top targets.
"I work day and night," she said as she walked through a money exchange bazaar that lies at the heart of Kabul's District 1. "I am ready to serve, I am not scared nor am I afraid."
Women have made much progress since the days of Taliban rule, when they were forced to cover their heads and faces with burqas and banned from going to school or outdoors without a male relative as an escort. They have greater access to education, health care and the workplace but still face widespread discrimination, domestic abuse and militant attacks in this ultraconservative Islamic society.
Being a woman in the public eye poses particular difficulties.
In the past seven months, several prominent women have been attacked, including two Afghan police officers who were killed in the south, an Indian author living in eastern Afghanistan who was killed years after her memoir about life under Taliban rule became a Bollywood film, and an Afghan senator who was wounded in an ambush. Another female parliamentarian was kidnapped by the Taliban and later released in a prisoner exchange.
The assaults have added to growing fears that what few gains Afghan women have made since the U.S. toppled the Taliban government in 2001 could be erased once American-led foreign troops finish withdrawing at the end of the year.
Bayaz's district — one of 10 in the sprawling city of about 5 million people — houses the presidential palace, numerous ministries, the central bank and the main money exchange and gold markets.
She was appointed to oversee it on Monday, more than three decades after joining the police force. In her previous position, she was a plainclothes officer and wore the traditional robe as well as a headscarf. She draws more attention now wearing pants as part of her gray uniform, though she continues to cover her hair instead of wearing a cap.
During the Taliban's harsh five-year rule, Bayaz stayed at home taking care of her children.
"I was a housewife taking care of my family," she said. "Women are part of society and since they left, more and more are getting involved and they need to join the police."
In the two days following her appointment, she has been making the rounds checking on markets and other areas in her district accompanied by a large group of police bodyguards. Although she drives, her bodyguards now take Bayaz around the city and to the police station.
"When I got out of my car, I spoke to my police officers on duty and all eyes were on me. It was interesting for the people to see a woman in uniform," she said. "Carrying out my duties in uniform is a lesson for others. I hope it inspires other women to wear the uniform and I hope more women become officers."
Afghan policewomen are frequently threatened and targeted by the insurgents after and several have been killed in the past few years. In one high-profile example, Lt. Col. Malalai Kakar, who worked in southern Kandahar province, was shot dead by the Taliban in 2008.
Bayaz acknowledges the danger.
"I am the first woman district chief in Afghanistan. There are difficulties, but I will continue," she said.
According to a report released late last year by the international aid agency Oxfam, efforts to recruit more women into Afghanistan's police force have been met with limited success. In 2005, the national police force employed just 180 women out of 53,400 personnel, the report said. By July 2013, that had risen to 1,551 policewomen out of 157,000.
Female police officers are part of teams that search the women's sections of homes during raids, but also work in criminal investigations.
Despite the challenges, recruiting more women to serve as police could have major benefits for the Afghan population, especially women and girls who feel uncomfortable or even afraid reporting crimes to male police, Oxfam said.
Bayaz previously worked in the criminal investigation and counternarcotic departments.
She enjoys great support from her family, including her two daughters and three sons.
Her youngest son Tawhid agreed. The 12-year-old was visiting his mother at the police station after complaining he had not seen her for days and wanted to see what she did at work.
"Yes my mother is working a lot more now, but I am happy she has this job," he said, sitting near her desk.