Afghan Army Makes Room for More Female Officers

Col. Amoni of the Afghan National Army congratulated a female officer who was named one of the top-10 graduates at the Afghan National Army Officer Academy ceremony on Feb. 25, 2016. (Phillip Walter Wellman/Stars and Stripes)
Col. Amoni of the Afghan National Army congratulated a female officer who was named one of the top-10 graduates at the Afghan National Army Officer Academy ceremony on Feb. 25, 2016. (Phillip Walter Wellman/Stars and Stripes)

KABUL, Afghanistan -- More women are becoming officers in Afghanistan's male-dominated army, with 13 new female officers graduating from the service's academy this past week and more than 20 cadets expected to enroll in the next class.

"Recruiting for female officers this year is up on last year, so obviously, whatever we're doing, it's working, which is good news," said Maj. Gen. Paul Nanson, head of the British Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, which helped set up the Afghan National Army Officer Academy in October 2013.

While the academy is Afghan-run, instructors from Britain, New Zealand, Australia, Denmark and Turkey play advisory roles.

At a graduation ceremony on Thursday, 275 cadets became junior officers. Two women were among the top-10 graduates. It was the third academy class to include women since 2014.

Even the small number of women becoming officers is notable in a patriarchal society where women are routinely treated as second-class citizens, often lacking the ability to choose whom they marry, to venture out in public unaccompanied or to gain an education. That has changed somewhat since the ouster of the Taliban, who imposed strict Islamic rule in Afghanistan. Many girls now go to school, and women occupy public office, but women continue to suffer injustices and ill treatment, particularly in rural areas.

President Ashraf Ghani has been working to improve gender equality throughout Afghanistan's staunchly conservative Muslim society.

However, British Lt. Aimee Morris, who works with female cadets at the army officer academy, said the government's "desperate" drive to get women into the army has led to lax standards in the past -- something that is now being addressed.

"We've battled with these cadets and we've worked really hard, and they are graduating at a decent standard," she said, adding that some exceptional women are among those who completed the course.

"Even if there are only two or three in an intake that are going to do that well, it is making a difference, it's changing male perception, it's changing everything else, and that will help."

Changing perceptions has been one of the academy's strategies to encourage more women to become officers.

"If you're a girl, you need to get your father, uncle or brother's signature, you can't join alone," said recruitment mentor Lt. Japhet William Eichel of the Danish army. "So we've directed the recruitment efforts towards the patrons of the family -- not only saying to the females: ‘You're a young girl, join,' but also to the males: ‘You have a young daughter or sister, make them join.'"

The roles female officers are typically limited to are administration or dealing with female suspects. But officials hope they will expand into other areas -- such as medicine -- as the number of female officers increases.

Speaking on the sidelines of the graduation ceremony, Afghan Col. Amoni, who like many Afghans uses only one name, described all of the female cadets as courageous for choosing a military career.

"It is very special to see the girls becoming officers, especially for the girls themselves," she said. "You can see it in their eyes. They will contribute, with the boys, to bring back the lost hopes of Afghanistan."

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