Iraq's policewomen struggle to change perceptions

BAGHDAD Sun Apr 5, 2009 12:33pm EDT

1 of 7. Policewoman Bushra Kadhem, briefs other policewomen at the Iraqi National Police headquarters in Baghdad March 30, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Saad Shalash

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - In her old Baghdad house, policewoman Bushra Kadhem serves breakfast to her children, finishes her tea and readies herself for a day manning checkpoints in one of the world's most dangerous cities.

Kadhem, 43, became one of Iraq's first policewomen in 2005, joining when an insurgency raged and militants made a point of targeting recruits in the fledgling security forces. Being at the wrong checkpoint at the wrong time meant death.

Now, with violence falling across Iraq, Kadhem says she faces a more persistent challenge: persuading a conservative husband and society at large to accept her choice of career.

"We have to change the perception of women which says they should stay at home or only do certain kinds of work," she said. "At the beginning female policewomen were seen as a very odd phenomenon, but I hope society can progress beyond this."

Even under the rule of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party -- viewed in its early days as relatively progressive for the Middle East when it came to women's rights -- women did not serve in the police, except as traffic wardens.

Later, as decades of war and sanctions crippled the country, choices for women shrank. Their increasingly impoverished menfolk fell back on traditional values rooted in Iraq's tribal structure and Islam, which see a woman's place as in the home.

A campaign by Saddam of "Islamisation" in the 1990s saw women's rights eroded. And since his downfall in the 2003 U.S. invasion, Iraq has been dominated by Shi'ite Islamist parties that are not sympathetic to calls for gender equality.

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Now, as U.S. forces hand over to local police and troops and get ready to withdraw completely by the end of 2011, female officers will play a vital role in the Iraqi security forces.

Whatever the complaints of their husbands or male colleagues, policewomen like Kadhem point out that one of Iraq's enemies, al Qaeda, has no qualms about recruiting women.

Last year saw around two dozen female suicide bombers launch attacks on behalf of the Sunni Islamist militant group.

They have proved a successful tactic, precisely because women are unlikely to be frisked by male police, police spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Mohammed Ibrahim said.

The handful of women who joined the force after the invasion has grown to 3,100 out of 480,000 police. In the National Police, there are only 120 police women against 45,000 men.

But things are changing. Two months ago, 490 police women graduated from the police academy, the biggest number so far.

"We're building a new culture," said Samira al-Moussawi, the head of the women's committee in parliament.

"There's fresh confidence that we can purify our society from misconceptions about women."

Kadhem has strong personal reasons for her commitment to the force: her son, also a policeman, was kidnapped and killed in a sectarian attack at the height of the violence in 2006.

"The killing of my son made me determined to move up in my career," said an emotional Kadhem, wiping tears with a napkin.

Female police officers tend to be restricted to administrative jobs or check points. Raiding houses in search of militants remains the preserve of men.

"She can do lots of things, but not involving roughness and physical power," said Haider Abdul Amir, a police lieutenant. "Women are too emotional and easily affected by events."

Such stereotypes are a problem, says Kumait Abdullah as she recalled how male colleagues took photographs of her with their phones during one of her first lunches in the mess hall.

"In Iraqi society, there are people who understand women can serve as well as men, and then there are the fanatics," she said. "I hope soon that everyone accepts us as just as capable."

(Editing by Tim Cocks and Angus MacSwan)

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