Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Malalai’s wayward sisters

AAN 4 min

Being a woman criminal in Afghanistan may not lead to wide public recognition as it does in neighbouring India, but Afghan ladies actually have a very respectable tradition of being ‘bandit queens’. In the event of a newly reported instance of this type, AAN’s archival team looks at a couple of memorable past characters.

A young woman is the leader of a fearsome gang of outlaws, organizing kidnappings and extortions at the expense of rich businessmen and their families. The gang, operating in a violent environment, eventually links up with political insurgents who threaten the very existence of state institutions, and must, eventually, be confronted with drastic police measures.

This is not a sketch of the plot of a Bollywood movie (although it bears a striking resemblance with the recent hit ‘Ishqiya’, a memorable movie indeed), but a report that emerged a couple of days ago from Ghazni province, where a twenty-years old girl was arrested, together with her accomplices, in an operation by the National Directorate of Security (NDS). She was at the head of a group of kidnappers and robbers that allegedly enjoyed wide contacts with those ‘Enemies of the State’ – the Taleban.

This is not the first time a woman is charged with both allegations of criminal behaviour and active support for the Taleban. When in mid-2008 the notorious Bibi Aysha, alias Kaftar ‘the pigeon’, surrendered to the Afghan police in her native Nahrin district of Baghlan province, some feared she had sent part of her fighters to join the local Taleban. Despite her previous history of resistance against the Red Army in the 1980s and the Taleban’s Emirate in the 1990s – in the ranks of the Northern Alliance – and her having gone through the DIAG (Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups) program in 2006, by 2008 she was allegedly cooperating with the Taleban facilitator, Imam Sabz (*). With an armed career spanning from the early ’80s, as a mujahed leader, to the recent insurgency – and engaging in banditry, smuggling and feuds with rival commanders in her spare time – Commander Kaftar had at various stages almost managed to match the Indian dacoit queen Phoolan Devi’s record of successful entry into politics. In 2002, she represented Baghlan province at the Emergency Loya Jirga and, after definitively giving up the brigand’s life in 2006, she was proposed for a position in the public administration by the then Baghlan provincial governor, Abdul Jabbar Haqbin.

We need not describe Commander Kaftar at length here, as at the time of her surrender many articles indulged in characterizing her further (including by providing the vintage detail of the Makarov pistol worn in a shoulder holster). But if her wrinkled grin sometimes fails to captivate romantic minds, if we want to re-visit earlier orientalist visions of turbaned femmes fatales, we must go back to Amanullah’s time.

In the late spring of 1923, a young woman known as Dokhtar-e Ishaqzai was the scourge of southern Afghanistan. The Ishaqzai Girl, as the title translates, had reportedly collected around herself a band of young armed men and the gang was occupying the passes to the north of Kandahar; then as now, occupying passes with weapons means proposing to do a specific set of activities, which can range from looting travellers’ possessions  to rebelling against the government. As William Fraser, the British military attaché in Kabul at the time reported in his diaries, ‘She has notified the Governor General that her jurisdiction begins, and his ends, at the Kotal-e Morcha some four miles north of Kandahar(**): beyond that she has established an independent government with departments of War, Revenue, Justice and Public Safety. She now styles herself the Sardar Badshah and has already earned a reputation as a daring raider.’

With her small army increasing day by day (it had reached 50 bandits before the middle of June), the Dokhtar-e Ishaqzai was evidently becoming a serious embarrassment for local authorities. They were apparently unprepared to meet threats from the side of the gentle sex. The general in command of the army garrison argued that it was not part of a soldier’s duty to wage war against a woman, while the police would insist it was his responsibility to mount a major military expedition. The British consul in Kandahar however suspected that the authorities were biding their time on purpose, in the hope that the chieftain would eventually collect round her all the bad characters of the area, giving them a chance to annihilate the rogues (payluch in Kandahar’s parlance) for good.

What followed is not clear, but towards the end of July 1923, diverse reports reached Kabul as to the fate of the Dokhtar-e Ishaqzai, to the effect that she had been assassinated by a killer paid by the governor, or alternatively, that she had fled the government’s offensive and had relocated to Pishin in Baluchistan. In any case, her end cannot have been as bad as her brother’s.  He was shot from a cannon in Kandahar, later that year.

In both the cases of Bibi Aysha and the Dokhtar-e Ishaqzai, a strong familial motivation is evident. Bibi Aysha apparently took up arms against the Soviets after they killed one of her sons, and later, when travelling to the frontline or to an ambush site, never neglected to respect traditional customs by failing to travel with a mahram, a male relative.  Dokhtar-e Ishaqzai formed her armed group after her husband, a more traditional figure of male robber, was executed by the governor of Kandahar. This was in fact the primary object of her wrath, and not the State which the governor represented. What is inscribed as banditry and rebellion in the record could likewise be called revenge, upkeep of the family honour, or the consequences of a broken heart.

(*) He is still one of the main Taleban focal points in Nahrin, where in July 2006, he organized the killing of a Canadian NGO worker in July 2006. By contrast, the policeman who obtained Kaftar’s surrender, Abdul Rahman Sayyedkheli, was killed in March this year serving as the Police Chief of Kunduz.

(**) This leaves a very small space of manoeuvre for state institutions, even by contemporary Taleban standards.



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