‘Our place’: Iraqi women joining police forces challenge patriarchy | Women News

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Baghdad, Iraq – When Saja al-Abayji joined the police academy, she was unsure how to handle the rigorous military-style drills and worried about how society perceived women joining the police force.

Her class in 2011 was only the second to see a selection of female officers graduate alongside hundreds of men who planned to serve in the Iraqi Ministry of Interior (MOI) overseeing police and border control in the country. country.

But a decade later, the 34-year-old is now a senior traffic officer, having served for years with the General Directorate of Traffic in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. Instead of being one of a select few women in Iraq’s internal security forces, al-Abayji is one of hundreds of female officers who have taken on various roles in policing and border control in Iraq.

Speaking from his office in central Baghdad, al-Abayji said that as the number of female police officers on the streets of Iraq grew over the years, society was slowly changing its conservative views on the role of women in law enforcement.

“People thought that women would not succeed in the police, thinking that it was not for us to be there. And so we [female officers] received a lot of discouraging words,” al-Abayji said, explaining that many people saw them as “trespassers” on the ground.

“But over time society started to see things in a different light.”

While Iraqi women have been world pioneers in all walks of life – medicine, engineering and the arts – and have served as government ministers and members of the military and civil service, the agencies of the Ministry of Interior Iraqi – police, highway patrol, traffic department, and border enforcement, to name a few – did not have female officers until about a decade ago.

Iraqi Interior Ministry agencies, including the police, highway patrol, traffic department and border police, did not have female officers until a decade ago. [Courtesy: Saja al-Abayji]

Path filled with challenges

Al-Abayji said many of his female peers dropped out of the Higher Institute for Security and Administrative Development during their police academy training because their families were not supportive of their career choices. .

“It reflected the situation in society at the time regarding the role of women,” said al-Abaiji, who fortunately found his greatest support from his family and fiancé at the time.

“When I finished my degree in computer science, it was my family and now my husband who encouraged me to apply to the institute,” al-Abayji said. “Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to deal with all the negativity around me.”

Despite this, al-Abayji found the path to becoming a police officer difficult and full of challenges.

“At the beginning, I never shared what I was doing with the people I had just met. I also never wore my police uniform to and from work, not only for security reasons, but also because I wanted to hide,” she said. “I just didn’t want to be judged.

“But one day, I wondered why is society so proud of men who do exactly the same job as me? I realized I had to open up to change people’s minds,” she told Al Jazeera.

The other main challenge for al-Abayji was getting used to his new role and duties.

Early in his training at the institute, al-Abayji said that “the idea of ​​handling a weapon and dressing in a male-looking uniform was very difficult.

“In college, I wore pretty skirts and heels,” al-Abayji said. “Then all of a sudden I was doing drills and learning how to shoot a target. It was a huge shock to my system.

Despite the challenges, al-Abayji said, as her physical ability and confidence increased, her “desire to succeed also blossomed”, and she became adamant about moving up the ladder.

Female police officer.
Iraqi women have been world pioneers in the fields of medicine, engineering and the arts, and have served as government ministers and members of the military and civil service. [Courtesy: Saja al-Abayji]

Gradual change

Speaking from his office in central Baghdad, Major General Saad Maan’s spokesman said the Interior Ministry began encouraging women to join the internal security forces in 2010, not only to what they could offer, but also to reflect the importance of expanding the public role of women in Iraq.

“The involvement of women has been effective and necessary and reflects the progress and success of the ministry itself,” he explained.

Maan said the most fundamental obstacle that women continue to face as police officers is the patriarchal culture in society, which also exists within the ministry.

“Police men find it difficult to address female police officers using their given titles because of the ingrained patriarchy in them,” Maan said.

Despite this, Maan said there has been overall progress. “Initially, we pleaded with women to volunteer in the force. Today, we receive tens of thousands of applications each year.

Protesters are dispersed by riot police during a demonstration in Baghdad
Protesters dispersed by riot police during a protest in Baghdad, 2018 [File: Khalid al-Mousily/Reuters]

Look forward

Esraa al-Saadi, a 32-year-old officer in the interior ministry’s media and public relations department, said that while women serving as police officers were initially confined to administrative roles, this is no longer the case.

“Now women do everything and share tasks that were previously reserved for men,” al-Saadi said, referring to female police officers who made arrests and participated in interrogations, investigations and searches.

Al-Saadi said she had experienced this transformation firsthand in the last five years of her career, adding that it boiled down to the fact that “Iraqi society is becoming more open and also accepting the police as a place for women”.

Although al-Abayji acknowledged that society has come a long way, she said women in the police force still need to push further to be able to reach leadership positions.

“We have female junior and senior police officers, but no female majors, lieutenants or brigadier generals,” al-Abayji said. “My ambition is to see my female peers one day become leaders in the Iraqi police. And so while we’re getting there, there’s still a lot to do.

Still, al-Abayji added, “Now I walk the streets of Baghdad in my uniform and people celebrate and are proud of what I do.”

Follow Arwa Ibrahim on Twitter @arwaib

Police men and women in the streets of Baghdad.
Many Iraqi women have dropped out of the police academy because their families did not support their career choice [Courtesy: Saja al-Abayji]

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