Stepping Outside Cultural And Religious Boundaries
October 28, 2007
In the United States, it’s common to have both men and women in the workforce. In most families, both the husband and wife hold down jobs outside of the home, just to make ends meet. In Iraq, there are strict tribal and religious cultural taboos, strongly discouraging women from working outside their homes. In their culture, it is felt to bring shame upon the men who allow it. In Ramadi, there are 14 women who’ve made the choice to step outside those cultural and religious boundaries and become police officers. Their culture has yet to embrace the idea that men and women are equals, in the home and in the workplace.
“Right now, our province is safe and peaceful. But anything could shake that up and we could be in danger,” said Genan, who is a 37 year old mother of 3 children and who’s also 7 months pregnant.
Genan and 4 other women graduated from the police academy in October and agreed to speak to the press about that decision, on the condition that only their first names were used. Despite their determination to work as police officers, they fear reprisals if their full name were known. They work in the west Ramadi police station.
The men in Iraq are being recruited in very large numbers to work as police officer and Soldiers, in preparation for the day when Iraqis will take full control of the security responsibilities for their country. That recruiting effort is going well, especially in Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar province, where the numbers of police officers has increased from around 200 in 2006 to around 8,000 now. Currently, 14 women have stepped forward and joined those ranks. When they learned that recruits were being sought for the police force, Genan, Kadmia age 35 and Fatma age 27 say that they jumped at the opportunity.
“In Iraq, a woman’s job is to stay home and be a housewife. Men and women are not equal,” said Genan, as the others nodded in agreement. “It’s nothing like in the U.S.”
They were also emboldened and encouraged when they saw women serving in the ranks of the US Troops tht were patrolling and fighting in the streets of Ramadi.
“They left their children at home, not a few houses way, but thousands of miles away,” Genan said. “If American women can do it, we can do it.”
As they observed things happening in their neighborhoods, they felt they could help make a difference. They saw women insurgents blow themselves up with suicide vests. Many times those women were being allowed through the security checkpoints, because of the cultural and religious rules prohibiting men from searching the women. They felt they could help prevent such attacks.
In training, the women have learned to fire several types of weapons. They’ve learned to conduct searches, identify vehicles that are likely to contain explosives and they learned how to identify a person who is acting suspiciously. Currently, their role is limited to searching females who visit jail inmates. Two days a week, they spend their time patting down women at another downtown location outside of the police station. They spend much of their time on duty in a small room which has no windows and two couches, their personal cell phones and each other for company. Once Genan, Kadmia and Fatma made up their minds to join the police force, they went to their neighbors to attempt to convince them to join as well. They ended up with a group of 14 women.
Kadmia, who is the mother of 2 sons and 3 daughters (two who’ve also joined the police force) decided that she would make uniforms for the women. She did so by altering the men’s long sleeved light blue shirts and making them fuller and longer. Each bears an Iraqi police patch on the right shoulder. Ankle length slim black or dark blue skirts complete their uniform, along with a long black or light blue headscarf, which they provide.
One of the instructors at the academy, was surprised at how well the women were prepared and at their enthusiasm. One of the trainers, 2nd Lt. Kristy Goddard, says she was really surprised.
“They studied ahead of time,” she said. “They were way motivated. They knew thee would be a lot of obstacles to overcoe and they wanted to do it anyway.”
The women participated in an abreviated training program. What the US Military Police cram into 12 weeks, they did in 5 days. The next class will increase to eight days and one of the female graduates will help to train others.
The women, as police officer are equals to their male counterparts, earning the same about of money, approxiamately 785,000 dinars a month. In Ramadi, rent averages around 100,000 a month or about $80 US per month and feeding a family costs about 250,000 dinars or around $200 US per month.
When interacting with their male counterparts, the women maintain an air of professionalism, but once they’re in their office, they chatter and rave about their new jobs and the sense of freedom that they feel. They say their male counterparts treat them with respect, but they’re sure they probably gossip behind their backs (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?).
“I love what I’m doing now,” Fatma said. “Just like the men are protecting their country, I want to protect my country. That’s why I’m doing this.”
Fatma, though has to deal with disapproval from her family. Six of her sisters and 2 of her brothers, as well as the majority of her extended family, won’t speak to her now. Only her mother and one sister will have anything to do with her. Her husband isn’t happy with her decision either. After 7 years of marriage, he’s threatening her with divorce.
“‘Either quit the job or divorce me,’ he said. I will pick the job,” Fatma said.
Another of the women is fearful for her life. A photograph of the group was published in a local newspaper, even after they were assurred by the newspaper editor that it wouldn’t appear. The women say that initially, their families and especially their husbands were reluctant for them to go to work, but now they’re beginning to come around. Fatma says that she earns more per month than her husband does. He works temporary construction jobs. Genan feels lucky because he husband doesn’t mind helping out with the children, who are ages 3, 9 and 11.
“They used to support us. Now we’re just returning the favor,” Genan said.
These 14 women are breaking ground in their country. They’re stepping outside the cultural boundaries that have virtually held women in their country prisoner for thousands of years. I support these women 100 percent in their endeavors and I hope that people in Iraq will be able to look past the traditional roles of women, and see what an asset they can be for their communities and their country.