As the clock strikes five on a cold winter morning in Islamabad, nearly 60 women jump to their feet. A slight chaos breaks out in the spacious, regimentally clean and usually organised dormitory, each of which houses eight female officers of the Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS), commando division of the Islamabad Police — many of these women joined the Islamabad Police for their initial training and then volunteered to join the ATS. The officers change from baggy shalwar qameez into their signature black attire in an almost synchronised movement. Belts snap shut and laces are tied hurriedly, followed by a voluntary headscarf or niqaab (veil).
Once ready, firearms are secured from the weapons room [MP5 submachine guns and Glock semi-automatic pistols] and everyone heads to the transporter, which will drop and pick commandos from 13 beats (each beat or route covers two sectors) in Islamabad covered by three shifts. The ATS vehicle closely trails that of the Punjab Rangers — whose directive is border guarding and to defend particular sectors in what they call ‘Operations Other Than War’, peacekeeping missions and disaster relief operations — maintaining a distance of 100 yards throughout. The female officers on this specialised task force belong to different ethnic and religious backgrounds but have come together to fight terrorism in the country and are gradually becoming a force to reckon with.
In equal stride
According to information released by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in 2010, women first became part of the police force in the subcontinent in 1939 when seven female constables and a head constable were inducted to contain female agitators of a farmers’ movement in Punjab. There was no significant change in numbers until 1952 when 25 constables, two head constables and an assistant superintendant were recruited.
A female ATS commando heading back to ATS headquarters. PHOTO: SA’ADIA KHAN
The year 1994 saw the establishment of Pakistan’s first women-only police station in Rawalpindi spearheaded by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. This was then replicated in Abbottabad, Peshawar, Lahore, Multan, Karachi and Larkana. It was soon after this that women were inducted into a specialised training programme of anti-terror squads.
Across Pakistan, there are a total of 14 police training schools, which are demographically broken down as follows: five are located in Punjab, five in Sindh, three in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) and one in Balochistan. The Balochistan wing of the ATS was established in 1981 and was converted to the Anti-Terrorist Force in 1997. Furthermore the K-P police department recruited its first batch of women police commandos as recently as November 2014.
Female commandos heading out for the second shift change of the day. PHOTO: SA’ADIA KHAN
In Islamabad, the first women-only anti-terrorism squad was set up in October 2001, following the events of 9/11 which led to a high-security alert in the federal capital. According to a report in a local newspaper at the time, 22 female police officers and 10 graduate officers were trained in martial arts, swimming, driving, shooting, bomb disposal, rescue operation and anti-rioting to combat terrorism. As the security situation across the country deteriorated over the years, each province began to train its own female commandos.
A tough calling
Chief Instructor Mohammad Akmal, who has been in this profession for 31 years and also trained female commandos from other countries, recalls how many of the current female trainers would peer over the balcony of their [Islamabad Police] barracks and watch the intense training being conducted in the adjacent grounds. “At first I was not sure if these girls would be able to complete the mammoth run and circuit, but they did and I am so proud of each and every one of them,” he says.
Combat training comprises 90 days of intense and extensive drills including survival skills, hostage rescue, counter terrorism strategies, policing protests and cases of domestic violence, dealing with rape cases and overseeing autopsies. The officers are required to be up at the crack of dawn and start their day with a one-hour run followed by physical training. A kit inspection — where uniform and other components such as gas mask, hand cuffs, ballistic vest and batons are checked — kickstarts the second session followed by weapons training. “No one has failed to graduate as they are dedicated and ambitious,” adds Akmal.
An unlikely call to action
Although Hafiza Sarah Khan* had many conventional job opportunities after completing her Masters degree, she chose to join the ATS commandos instead. Wearing the black commando uniform was a primary motivation for Khan, who had always been in awe of the Punjab Police Elite Force. “I am one of nine siblings but the first and only one in the forces,” she says adding that she was proud to be supporting her family financially while following her dream.
Despite many cultural and societal stereotypes, many brave women have made the unusual choice of being part of an ATS squad. PHOTO: SA’ADIA KHAN
However, since the profession is considered to be an unusual choice for women and falls prey to many cultural and s0cietal stereotypes, these officers are often confronted with strange remarks. “For instance, a man once said, ‘you look like a perfect woman, why would you want to dress like a man and do this work?’” shares one of the officers. Therefore, it is imperative to have the support of your family, adds Khan. Raheela Ahmed’s* first interaction with female officers was also through a local TV drama. “I was so impressed by the female police officer in the drama that I decided right there and then to join the police force,” she shares. A few years later she saw an advertisement in the newspaper, asked her father for permission and has not looked back since. “I have also inspired my sister and brother to join the police force,” Ahmed says proudly. “I love my work, my family and my country. Hence, I don’t dwell on the risk factor.” Even though these courageous officers brush the risk factor aside, their time on the field is no child’s play.
Face-to-face with death and danger
Members of the ATS are first responders, which entails being the first on the scene of an emergency, natural disaster or terror attack. In October 2005, when two luxury apartment tower blocks in Islamabad were razed to the ground as the result of a 7.6 Richter scale earthquake, ATS was the first to respond to the incident. As soon as the team got the news, its primary objective was to get to the site and secure the area. “We were there within five minutes,” recalls Akmal. “I was part of a team that rescued nine people from the rubble, and I will never forget those moments of desperation to save more people.”
Female ATS commandos boarding the transporter alongside their male counterparts. PHOTO: SA’ADIA KHAN
As part of the ATS Commando Division’s primary mission these highly trained individuals are also specialists in hostage rescue and counter terrorism. When a Rapid Response Force is dispatched for a raid, it is the female ATS commandos who form the front line and are the first to secure entry. Their male counterparts follow them. Sana Tahir* recalls one such drug raid conducted by four teams in collaboration with Islamabad Police in Saidpur Village. “We had surrounded a house. It was late at night so visibility was low,” she says. Tahir was one of the female commandos negotiating with the people inside the house until one of the women inside opened the door and the male residents were arrested. Female commandos are crucial in such situations since male commandos are not allowed to touch women and only female officers can body search women. The male commandos also regard the female wing as an asset due to the unique skill set they bring to the table. “Women are the soft face of ATS. We [men] are aggressive and sometimes lack the level of patience women have,” says Saghir Anwar, an ATS commando. “It’s all about teamwork and they bring balance to the team.”
The ATS female commando motto — ‘Respect us, fear us’ — could not be more fitting of these female commandos who are hugely outnumbered by their male counterparts currently but make up for that with their high morale and spirit. Not only do they train alongside men but are always ready to accompany them to any mission, as dangerous or demanding as it may be. “We stand shoulder to shoulder alongside our male colleagues,” says 27-year-old Bushra Rehman*, a female ATS commando.
Female ATS Commandos start their day at the crack of dawn with intensive training and then set off to patrol the city. PHOTO: SA’ADIA KHAN
DSP Akram Jappa who spear headed the recruitment of women into the ATS squad in Islamabad Police feels that their presence is paramount for the force to go from strength to strength during this critical time in dealing with terrorism in Pakistan. “They are mothers, sisters and daughters but we need them to be commandos too,” says Jappa. “They bring a different temperament to the ATS and are very effective and committed to combating terrorism in our country.”
*Names of the commandos have been changed to protect their identity.
Sa’adia Khan is a freelance photographer based in Islamabad. She tweets @IM_SaadiaKhan
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 18th, 2015.