Algeria's women police defy danger and stereotypes

ALGIERS Thu Aug 6, 2009 1:41pm EDT

1 of 16. Female police cadets perform during their graduation ceremony at the police academy in Ain Benian August 6, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Zohra Bensemra

ALGIERS (Reuters Life!) - Fatma-Zohra Benehmed watched her 26-year-old daughter graduate on Thursday from a police training academy in the Algerian capital and recalled how, at first, she was worried by her choice of career.

Even in relatively liberal Algeria, some people believe the police force is not a suitable profession for a Muslim woman, and, whatever your gender, it can be a dangerous job: Islamist insurgents have killed hundreds of officers.

"To begin with, I didn't want her to," Benehmed said, as her daughter and about 500 fellow female cadets displayed skills that included firing blank rounds from sub-machine guns and dismantling then re-assembling firearms in under 30 seconds.

"But she has persevered so much and I am happy. I respect her ... She wanted to do it. You have to be brave and you have to encourage your children. And besides, it's for our country."

Relatives of the cadets ululated and clapped while a group of young women, dressed in dark blue overalls and heavy boots, hurled each other to the ground in a demonstration of their hand-to-hand fighting skills.

In many parts of the Arab world, where conservative attitudes to the role of women in society are widespread, scenes like this would be unthinkable.

EQUALITY FORGED IN WAR

But Algeria, a former French colony in North Africa where almost all the 35 million population are Muslim, takes pride in the fact that equality for women is enshrined in its laws.

Officials say that is a legacy of its struggle for independence, when women guerrillas fought alongside men against French troops, and when ideas about equality were shared with other left-wing liberation movements in Cuba and elsewhere.

In practice, social norms mean Algerian women do not have complete freedom: many people consider it inappropriate, for example, for a woman to smoke in public.

Many of the female police officers who left the academy on Thursday will take up office jobs or be assigned to directing traffic. Few will go into front-line roles.

Nevertheless, Algeria's police are working toward full equality, said Ali Tounsi, head of the national police force.

"Women have won their place in society," he told Reuters after the ceremony. "In Algeria, we recognize the role of women in building the country ... In the war of independence, men and women were mobilized in equality."

Asked about attitudes that women should stay at home and raise children, he said: "That is in the past."

Inside the academy building, a roll of honor carries the names and photographs of 25 women officers who have died in the line of duty -- most of them in the 1990s when the conflict between the government and Islamist militants was at its height.

The violence has subsided now and women officers are rarely targeted. That does not mean though that the cadets who graduated on Thursday will be out of the firing line.

Islamist insurgents affiliated to al Qaeda still mount regular ambushes and bomb attacks on security forces. In the latest major attack, at least 14 soldiers died last week when their convoy was ambushed, local media reported.

After the graduation ceremony was finished, commanders gave the order to stand down and the new police officers ran to embrace their families.

Karima, a 23-year-old in a blue police overall, said the potential danger was not a problem for her. "It's for Algeria," she said, standing next to her father. "We are ready to do everything for Algeria."

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

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