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no salutes
iraq’s female police officers forced to take cash over respect

Kholoud Ramzi
Jobs in the Iraqi police force are some of the most dangerous in the land. It’s even worse for female officers who are harassed for being unfeminine and who cannot wear uniforms or badges of rank because male…
3.11.2011  |  Baghdad
A female officer in Iraqi Kurdistan, where, unlike in the rest of Iraq, women can wear their police uniforms.
A female officer in Iraqi Kurdistan, where, unlike in the rest of Iraq, women can wear their police uniforms.

Female police officers in Iraq are not allowed to wear badges that indicate their rank in the police force. This means that nobody knows whether a female police officer is a captain or a lieutenant.

One Baghdad policewoman, who preferred to remain anonymous, told NIQASH that the decision was made so that male police officers and soldiers were not forced to salute a female superior. “Outside of Iraqi Kurdistan, this [saluting women] is not the done thing,” she explained. The policewoman, who is in her thirties, was wearing a long dress and a white veil. “In our society, policemen and officers feel ashamed if they salute policewomen and female officers,” she explained.

So instead of showing rank policewomen are financially compensated with a monthly stipend known as “rank compensation”.

Policewoman Rasha al-Ameed is a lieutenant and she says she would prefer to wear her badge of rank rather than getting the extra money. Unlike many officers in the police force who took the job out of financial necessity – the police forces are some of the most dangerous jobs in the country but also some of the best paid - al-Ameed says that she wants to do this job and she is proud of her position. “If they give me the chance to choose between the badge and the money, I would choose the badge regardless of how much money was being offered,” she said. “However this isn’t an easy thing.”

Ministry of Interior official statistics indicate that there are around 600 women among the ranks of the country’s police. There are also 4,150 plainclothes policewomen working in inspections – that is, they man security checkpoints on roads and in places like offices, airports and other public areas where security is required.

Besides not being able to show their rank, most policewomen also are not allowed to wear their uniforms on the street. They arrive at work in civilian clothing, then change into uniform during the working day and then must change back into civilian clothing before leaving their place of work. This is ostensibly to keep the female officers safe. But questions arise as to whether this rule is in fact motivated by social opinions because male officers are not expected to do the same.

Sexism within the police force doesn’t stop here. In Iraq a policewoman’s work is usually restricted to administration or to working at a checkpoint. More physical or dangerous activity outside of the office is left to male officers and generally there is the perception that women cannot perform these more demanding tasks.

These perceptions about feminine weakness extend further. At the end of 2007, the Los Angeles Times reported that: “The Iraqi government has ordered all policewomen to hand in their guns for redistribution to men or face having their pay withheld.” The decision was allegedly made because there were not enough pistols available for all the officers and because female officers were taking their weapons home. A female politician told the US newspaper that “she was told the order came after a policewoman went home and found her husband with another woman. The policewoman shot him with her ministry-issued gun, drawing officials to conclude that some women were too volatile to carry arms.”

However all of these reasons were disputed and the decision was also criticized by women’s rights groups. Apparently the move was also due to pressure from religious political parties – the Interior Minster at the time, Jawad al-Bolani, was a member of one of these. However the decision was revoked when the issue was raised in the Iraqi parliament by female MP Maysoon Damluji.

The push to have women in the Iraqi police force is something that has been led by the US forces in the country. The US army’s Brigadier General David Phillips was one of the first to encourage Iraqi women into the security forces. The Los Angeles Times reported his explanation: "We saw this as: “If we could get 50 percent ofthe brainpower in this country that is not being utilized engaged, how much further along would we be?”

Additionally the growing number of female suicide bombers also increased the need for female officers who could search suspects. Phillips was the first to coordinate recruitment efforts at the Baghdad police academy in 2003. The first two graduates were a mother and daughter. By the end of 2004, over 500 women had graduated.

Interestingly though, this is not a new development in Iraq. In 1968, Iraq’s authorities instituted special training sessions for the recruitment of potential female officers. However many of the women simply ended up working in administration at the Ministry of Interior and then, after the Baath party took power in a coup in July of 1968, policewomen were restricted to directing traffic.

And this century, it seems that Iraqis are simply not used to seeing the country’s women as police officers. Often women training for the job are threatened, not just because they work for the state but also because they are seen as doing a job that is inappropriate for their gender. Many Iraqi policewomen will say that they work in the civil service or at the Ministry of Interior without specifying what it is they do.

Unlike many of her colleagues, Batool Mohammed Kathem does not hide the fact that she is a policewoman. She joined the police force at the end of 2003. Her husband was also working as a police officer and some months after Kathem joined the force, he was killed in a suicide bombing. However Kathem decided to stay in the job. “In the beginning, many of my fellow policewomen were eager to advance in their careers,” she told NIQASH. “However, very few of them were able to complete this journey. Because of societal pressure, and the way they were treated by their fellow [male] policemen, many of them preferred to work in the civilian areas rather than in security-related ones.”

According to Kathem, harassment isn’t limited to neighbours, families or people who see them working on the street. Many policewomen are also harassed by male colleagues who describe their role as unnatural and masculine.

The same situation does not apply to policewomen working in the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan. There policewomen can work as investigators on criminal cases and they are able to wear uniforms as well as badges of rank.

“The Kurdish community is more receptive to the work of women in the police,” Lieutenant Flamina Waheed Fakhri told NIQASH; she graduated from the police academy there in 2006, then worked as a criminal investigator and a few months ago she was promoted to head of a district unit investigating violence against women in Iraqi Kurdistan. “There were some difficulties during the first training sessions but later on, things got better.”

Fakhri wears a veil but this doesn’t pose any problems, she explains. Her male colleagues still salute her as they do other ranking officers.Still, Fakhri adds, “although many people have started to accept women as police officers there are still those who ask me why I would choose this field of work”. And she says she sympathises with the policewomen working in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq, where female officers are not as accepted. “If I were in their shoes, I might consider quitting this profession,” Fakhri concluded.