Wearing her crisp white shirt, a hat and a dark blue skirt, Lieutenant Nasreen Aziz has been tasked with directing the traffic in central Baghdad. This is far from an easy task; the streets of the Iraqi capital are crowded, confusing and far from secure. Often vehicles belonging to government drivers or to security forces will completely ignore traffic signs and regulations.
But Aziz' task is harder still. Standing at the Al Shaab Stadium intersection in central Baghdad, which is well known for its heavy traffic, she and another traffic warden try to control the flow of cars. But many of the drivers are slowing down, surprised to see a female policewoman on the street, in effect, making traffic even worse.
People are simply not used to seeing a woman doing this job. “But I'm happy to do this work,” Nasreen tells NIQASH. “Everything about this job is great, despite the dangers and troubles. As an Iraqi woman I am so happy to have a job like this, which allows women to take part in the field.”
This isn't actually the first time women have been allowed to do this job. Iraq first gave women a role directing traffic in the 1970s but in the 1980s their role on the roads decreased because of security issues and the various wars that Iraq was fighting. Women ended up back in the offices, doing administrative work.
And the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan has had women directing traffic for several years already. The southern city of Basra followed suit and Baghdad is only now catching up.
“Our media department inside the General Traffic Directorate has been making efforts to spread awareness about women directing traffic on the streets, before the women were deployed,” says Ammar Walid, the spokesperson for the Directorate. “We wanted to get people acquainted with the idea. But we're only really experimenting with the idea right now, we want to know how locals feel about it and whether they can accept this. Iraq is an eastern society and people are not used to seeing women on the streets in this capacity.”
The policewomen forming the vanguard of the experiment are selected in a process that is similar to that used for their male counterparts, Walid says.
“We have the ability to work just as hard as the men and to work by their sides,” says Huda Rashid Hamid, another of the policewomen who started directing traffic, who says she is really happy to be doing this job. “We are capable of doing the impossible.”
On her first day on the job Hamid was really surprised to see so many people staring at her, especially the men. One of the things she found most amusing was the amount of taxi drivers who stopped and took selfies with her.
“Working in unstable security conditions and in the hot weather of Baghdad is certainly challenging,” Hamid says. “But this big challenge is an opportunity for Iraqi women to prove how capable they are.”
“The number of women volunteering to work as traffic police is rising,” says Aboud Najm, director of public relations at the Police Affairs Agency. “Some of these women hold officer ranks, others have had experience out in the field and some are from administrative departments. There are a lot of female staff at the Directorate of Traffic – over 100 women – but not all of them would be working on the street.”
Taxi driver Watheq al-Taei was one of the motorists who was surprised to see a uniformed woman ordering him around. He was even more surprised when she stopped him and at first he thought she was an actress playing a role for some film or television show. He says he actually began looking around for cameras.
“It's really nice to see women on the streets organising traffic,” he notes. “We're happy that these women are part of our Baghdad mornings. I promise that not a day will pass without me managing to flirt with one of these women,” he jokes, “especially if any of them try to fine me or give me a ticket!”