Just days into her job running a police station in Pakistan’s largest city, Syeda Ghazala had to put her training to the test: she opened fire with her .22-caliber pistol at a man who shot at police when they tried to pull him over during a routine traffic stop.
It’s not clear whether it was Ghazala’s shots that wounded the man before he was arrested, but as the first woman to run a police station in Pakistan’s often violent port city of Karachi, she’ll likely have many more chances to hit her mark.
When Ghazala joined the police force two decades ago, she never dreamed that one day she would head a police station staffed by roughly 100 police officers — all men.
Her recent promotion is part of efforts by the local police to increase the number of women in the force and in positions of authority. Shortly after she assumed her new job the city appointed a second woman to head another police station.
In a country where women have traditionally not worked outside the home and face widespread discrimination, the appointments represent a significant step for women’s empowerment.
“The mindset of people is changing gradually, and now they (have) started to consider women in leading roles. My husband opposed my decision to join the police force 20 years ago,” said the 44-year-old mother of four.
But by the time this job rolled around, he had come full circle and encouraged her to go for it. “It was a big challenge. I was a little bit hesitant to accept it.”
The station house is in Clifton, a posh area home to the elite of this sprawling metropolis of more than 18 million people.
But in a city prone to family feuds, political unrest and jihadist violence — where 166 officers were killed in the line of duty last year — it’s by no means an easy assignment. Crimes ranging from petty theft and muggings to terrorism or murder are all part of a day’s work, Ghazala says.
Running a station is a high-profile job in the Pakistani police, one that requires the officer to constantly interact with the public and fellow officers. It’s also a key path to advancement.
Senior police officer Abdul Khaliq Sheikh, said he and others in the top brass hope Ghazala’s appointment leads to more women joining the force.
“Our society accepts only stereotype roles for women. There is a perception that women are suitable only for particular professions like teaching,” he said.
The police force is also training the first batch of female commandos, a group of 44 women going through a physically intensive course involving rappelling from towers or helicopters and shooting an assortment of weapons.
Currently, the two in Karachi are the only women running police stations in Pakistan. In the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where women make up less than one percent of the roughly 75,000-member police force, women only run stations specifically designed to help female crime victims.
In the southeastern Baluchistan province, there are only 90 women on the police force and no women station heads. In Punjab province, only one woman has ever run a station house, back in 2005, but currently no women hold the position.
Ghazala said most people she has encountered in her new job have been supportive, and she’s become a bit of a celebrity in the neighborhood. She said during her career she’s only had a few instances where she’s felt discrimination.
When she got the highest marks in a training course required for promotion, some of the men objected, saying that in Islam women couldn’t lead men.
But she said the commander simply told the men they should have gotten better grades.
“It was the only moment somebody objected to me as a woman,” she said. “Otherwise, all my career, fellow and senior officers encouraged me a lot.”