In the no man's land of Kandahar province in Afghanistan, Malalai Kakar was like a feminist action hero. Swathed in her burka and carrying a Kalashnikov in her hand and a 9-millimeter pistol on her hip, the region's top female police officer -- and mother of six -- apprehended thieves, killers and wife beaters. Once, in a shootout with a dozen Taliban fighters, she and three male officers held their own until the Taliban fled. Another time, she burst into a home, knocked down the husband and rescued a woman and child the man had kept chained in a cage. Back at the station, Kakar mediated neighborhood disputes and even marital disagreements.
It's hard to state what was more important, Lt. Col. Kakar's status as the highest-ranking female police officer or her work as the head of the department's crimes against women division. Although she was routinely accompanied by her brother for propriety's sake, Kakar's work violated the sensibilities of ultraconservative Afghan men; she insisted on defining rapes, assaults and beatings as crimes, not as cultural and religious traditions. Unfortunately, with the resurgence of the Taliban, crimes against women have returned with a fury. Kakar, who knew the danger, pitted herself against the terrorists. Last week, after ordering her to quit police work "or else," the Taliban assassinated her. It announced the event with joy.
Kakar knew the danger -- the Taliban left death threats nailed to her door at night -- but loved the work. She was the first woman to graduate from the region's police academy and had been an officer for seven years when the Taliban came to power. She fled to Pakistan, returning to the force, with the support of her husband, after the Taliban fell. At work, she once said, "I am like a man. I am brave, honest, strong."
Why single out her death in this deadly place? After all, a suicide bomber killed three police officers and three civilians that same day, and in the last three months insurgents have killed more members of Western forces than in almost seven years of war. But Kakar's death, and the Taliban's promise of more assassinations of women who work outside the home, carry unusual significance. Her murder was meant to intimidate and devastate the country's entire population -- an admonition to men who dare support education and employment for their daughters and wives, and a warning to women who leave their homes. For Americans, it is a measure of the depravity of our enemies. For everyone, however, Kakar's life, more than her death, is a reminder that in Afghanistan, where terrorism and crime and religious extremism collide, there are valiant fighters on many fronts.