It was just after 7am when the car carrying Colonel Saba Sahar, one of Afghanistan’s most senior female police officers, came under fire from armed insurgents. In the back seat, Sahar’s four-year-old daughter began screaming as bullets shattered the windscreen and ripped into the upholstery. As she pushed her child under the seat in front of her, Sahar saw three men carrying AK-47 assault rifles, firing as they approached the car.
In the front of the car her bodyguard and driver had both been hit and were badly injured and unconscious. Looking down, Sahar saw blood seeping through her clothing. “It took me another moment to realise I’d been shot too,” she says. She knew that she only had minutes to try to save her daughter. “They were five or six metres away, and they were moving closer to the car, still firing. They would have killed my child,” she says. Bleeding heavily from five shots to her stomach, Sahar reached forward, grabbed the gun from her slumped bodyguard and started returning fire.
Meanwhile, a few blocks away, Sahar’s husband, Emal Zaki, was getting their older children ready for school when he heard the gunfire. Wondering whether she could see what was happening on the road ahead, he dialled his wife’s number while he helped his children tie their school shoes.
“When she picked up the phone she was still firing at the insurgents,” he says. Through the sound of cracking bullets, Sahar screamed that she was injured and told him to call for help. By the time he reached her car a few minutes later, the gunmen had fled. He found his wife clutching the gun in one hand and their daughter in the other. “I have never seen so much blood in my life,” he says.
Dragging the bodyguard and driver into the family car, they sped through the streets to the hospital. “My wife stayed conscious until she was sure our daughter was safe and then she passed out,” says Zaki.
Sahar knows she is lucky to be alive.
In September, just a few weeks after the attack, the US embassy in Kabul warned that Afghan women in public roles were at increasing risk of being targeted by extremist groups, particularly women working for the government and armed forces.
This year eight policewomen have been targeted in similar attacks. Six have died.
In a country where men are so dominant, the more women we have in the police, the more other women will be able to seek justice
In July, 23-year-old Fatima Faizi, a police officer with the anti-narcotics squad, was kidnapped by armed insurgents. Her mutilated body was found on the streets weeks later. Just weeks before the attack on Sahar, another female police officer was killed in Kunduz province by armed men who dragged her out of her house and murdered her in front of her neighbours.
Speaking from her hospital bed, Sahar says she was not surprised she had become a target. Also famous as an actor and documentary filmmaker, in recent years she has risen to become one of the most high-profile women in Afghanistan’s police force, responsible for coordinating special units combating terrorism, drug trafficking and criminal networks.
“I am a very visible woman in public life and I have dedicated my life to working on women’s rights and encouraging other women to join the security forces,” she says. “Yet even now I am not afraid. has changed, and those attacking and trying to silence us have to accept this.”
Since the fall of the two decades ago, Afghanistan’s police forces have become a focus of national and international efforts to create more visible public roles for women. Yet few of the 4,080 women in Afghanistan’s security services have risen up through the ranks. Many remain in backroom jobs, and those who are out on the streets face harassment, abuse and discrimination.
Sahar believes the recent attacks on women in the security services are part of a wider campaign to silence progressive voices and undermine the precarious peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban under way in Qatar.
In early December, the Afghan government and the Taliban agreed for peace talks after more than two months of discussions, allowing negotiations on ending a nearly 20-year civil war to finally begin.
Yet in Afghanistan, there has been a wave of bloodshed that has seen targeted killings of journalists, human rights workers and activists.
According to Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, in attacks in the first six months of 2020.
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Against this backdrop, women in the security forces are an obvious target.
“[The armed groups] want to stop women from going for these jobs,” says Sahar. “Every Afghan must be represented in the security services. In a country where men are so dominant over every aspect of our lives, the more women we have in the police, the more other women will be able to seek justice, protection and support. We must resist.”
She is aware that staying in Afghanistan might mean further attempts on her life.
“Leaving my country has not even crossed my mind,” she says. “Why would I leave when my struggle is here with my people? If I stay I can help work towards a peace with the Taliban or I can fight as a solider of Afghanistan. I do not fear another attack from them but I pray they come to us in peace. I am not afraid to fight them again.”