For a month now, Abrar Sadiq has been the traffic police officer responsible for controlling vehicles at one of the major intersections in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. Her face has become familiar to local drivers and pedestrians but the fact that she’s there at all, a female police officer, means that she is also, always, the subject of curious stares and harassment.
But Sadiq fulfils her responsibilities with courage. She is one of very few females who dare to wear a police uniform and stand in the street for hours, in the bright sun, extreme heat and dust. And she’s proud of herself, saying “this was my dream and it’s come true”.
Still Sadiq and her fellow police officers are not necessarily happy with the conditions in which they work and they’re well aware that their society is not ready yet to see women in police uniforms. They know all about lack of respect and of their perceived inferior status in the eyes of many. But they’re also conscious of the important role that they play, protecting government institutions and their fellow citizens.
“People do not appreciate the important role we are playing,” another policewoman, Awasaf Munir Salman, 30, says. “We prevent female suicide bombers from infiltrating into certain government areas and we protect their lives.”
Yet, she adds, “many policewomen receive anonymous threats just because of their jobs. Women have two choices here – either they have to stay at home doing house work or if they work, it must be in a male dominated environment.”
Sadiq and Salman are two of seven women working in the Basra police force. “There are some other women who work in the police protection service, family protection, criminal evidence and the Tasfirat prison,” Jawad al-Maliki, director of the Basra police, says.
The fact that there are hardly any women working in the police force is due to “conservative and dogmatic beliefs in Iraqi society and its religious as well as its tribal nature,” he explains. “Women prefer to withdraw from the labour market and especially from jobs n the police force, to avoid harassment and pressure from their families.”
The first attempts to recruit Iraqi women into the police dates back to 1978. These attempts ended with only limited success. In 2004, the precarious local security situation after the US-led invasion that toppled the regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, led to recruitment starting again; there was a need for women doing security inspections, particularly inside government buildings.
In order to become a policewoman, female recruits must undertake 60 days worth of training – this includes training in the use of weapons, how to conduct inspections, how to handle violence and rioting and how to identify false or forged documentation as well as lessons in computer use, first aid and human rights.
Local female police commander, Adawiya Hussein, has taken part in several of these training courses. And the main difficulty during training is conservatism from the recruits as well, Hussein says.
“Some women are unwilling to wear the policewomen uniform,” she explains. “They think that they should be wearing traditional dress during training and on the job - so we’ve tried to make this possible, and to make the trainees feel as comfortable as possible during the training sessions.”
Ikhlas Mohammed knows all about conservative traditions. She wanted to join the police but the men in her family convinced her not to. “When my father passed away, my cousin, who is a member of one of the religious militias in the country, and who is younger than me, did not allow me to join the police,” she explains. “He said that women who join the police force are those who fall into sin.”
Police woman Ghada al-Tamimi resigned even before she finished her second week on the job. “My husband’s family pressured him to divorce me when they found out I was a policewoman,” al-Tamimi explains. “They felt I wasn’t good enough for their son because I work in this profession and they started insulting me by calling me “butch”.”
Al-Tamimi says her husband’s family believes that women shouldn’t mix with men, and especially with military men.
Unfortunately policewomen are harassed not only by their families and members of their society but also by their co-workers in the security forces. “Many women who join the police start off full of enthusiasm and courage but end up quitting because of the kinds of harassment they got, especially from senior and high-ranking officers,” says one policewoman who preferred to remain anonymous.
Additionally, many of the male officers find it very difficult to take orders from a female. As one policeman says, it’s embarrassing. “I’d rather be removed from my job than to salute a policewoman,” he says. “People will make fun of me if I do because women are intellectually inferior. How could they become leaders? There is no reason for women to join the police force,” he adds. “It is a very difficult job for them.”
The belief that women do not belong in the police force is further reinforced by various clergymen in Iraq. “Islam has rules that forbid women from mixing with men,” Baghdadi religious leader, Kazem al-Abadi, says. “Women should not be trained by men to use guns. This is a taboo. However if the trainers are women, then that’s not a problem. But the women should not wear pants or act like men - otherwise they will lose the respect of the general public,” he concluded, before adding that: “a female police officer’s job is a demanding and difficult one.”
Not everyone is opposed to women officers. Sami Kazem al-Maliki, the deputy police commander in Basra, believes that women should be encouraged to join the police force. “It is a good way for women to make a decent income,” he says.
With the latest rise in salaries, a policeman can earn up to IQD900,000 a month (around US$600). And in fact, this is another issue when it comes to hiring more policewomen; the 2012 budget for police services has been slashed and presently there’s no extra money available to recruit more females to the force.
In the meantime though, policemen and women enjoy the same privileges with regard to salary, promotion and rank. And police commander al-Maliki not only wants more women to join the force, he looks forward to seeing them in higher ranking jobs.
“In the future, I hope that all female prisons are managed by female officers, and without any interference from male officers,” he says. “I believe we should train up more female officers and prepare them for a career in the security forces.”
This story was prepared as part of the Media Academy Iraq’s mentorship programme for young Iraqi journalists, together with NIQASH’s regular correspondents around Iraq. The mentor for this story was regular NIQASH contributor Waheed Ghanem and the Arabic editor was Mirvat Adwan.