Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Iraqi Policewomen Brave Bombers and Bias

Unarmed and exposed, female officers face uphill struggle in dangerous profession.
By an IWPR-trained
The woman cautiously scanning the passersby is herself an object of their suspicion, wearing a blue uniform and a scarf across her face that reveals only her eyes.

Layla is 28 years old and divorced, with two children. Four months ago, she joined the police force in Kirkuk, a violent Iraqi city simmering with ethnic tensions.

She works a seven-hour shift outside a government office, checking for weapons on women entering the building.

The recruitment of policewomen has been stepped up in Iraq in an effort to thwart the surge in attacks carried out by female suicide bombers.

Layla says her veil and her uniform hide her identity from militants who regard the police as allies of United States forces.

"I usually come out in normal clothing, with my face exposed," she said. "Once I get to work, I change into my uniform and completely cover my head except for the eyes, which I can also hide behind sunglasses."

Militants are not the only foes women like Laila face. Traditional men also disapprove of policewomen for having chosen a male-dominated profession that takes them outside the family.

However, high unemployment and poverty has forced countless women in Kirkuk to look for work in places they may normally have avoided.

A government employment office in the city of one million said it had more than 9,000 women on its books that had yet to find work.

Women's advocates say that most women who join the police do not have male breadwinners in their families, and many have small children to support.

Um Ali, a 45-year-old policewoman, says her parents had tried to stop her becoming an officer but she insisted on taking the job, "as I wanted to bring bread to the table for my kids".

She has four children. Four years ago, her husband was killed in a roadside bombing. For the last three years, she has been guarding government offices in Kirkuk.

"I do not want to be dependent on others in such difficult times," she said.

Joining the force is a good option, Um Ali says, as women her age often lack the higher education qualifications other jobs demand.

Kirkuk has been advertising for policewomen since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The city had seven female officers at the time of Saddam's downfall, according to the city's police chief, Brigadier-General Torhan Abdul-Rahman.

He says the number of women applying to join the force is at an all-time high.

"Some of them genuinely believe in helping restore security and stability," he said. "Others are doing it for the income, after losing hope of finding civilian jobs."

Women from the US military have helped train Iraq's policewomen. In Kirkuk, Abdul-Rahman says the two training courses held so far attracted 105 applicants. Of these, 60 women passed the course and were selected.

However, only 47 of the 60 eventually took on the job. "The rest of them left because the salary was low," Abdul-Rahman said.

The frustration is evident in Layla's voice as she describes her wages.

She says she was encouraged to sign up as a policewoman because it promised an initial salary of 500,000 Iraqi dinars (420 US dollars).

After passing the entrance exam, however, the graduates were told they would be placed on temporary contracts with an initial salary of 200,000 dinars until the ministry could offer them permanent jobs.

"This sum of money is not enough for me and my family," she said. "I pay 150,000 dinars (130 US dollars) as rent.

"I gave in to that bitter reality… hoping that the ministry would offer us permanent jobs and our salaries would increase accordingly."

Abdul-Rahman says all police recruits who start on temporary contracts can expect to receive permanent ones within a year.

He says men and women offered temporary contracts are entitled to the same monthly salary of 300,000 dinars.

But, he says, the ministry has not been able to pay some recent recruits their entire salaries on time – as appears to be the case with Layla.

Abdul-Rahman says these recruits will be compensated over the coming months for wages they are owed.

Once on permanent contracts, policemen can expect to earn 700,000 dinars per month. Their female counterparts receive a monthly wage of 600,000 dinars.

Unlike their male colleagues, Iraqi policewomen do not carry guns. Their right to bear arms was revoked by an interior ministry ruling last year, the reasons behind which are not clear.

Layla and Um Ali say they feel vulnerable without weapons.

"People constantly look at us in a suspicious or offensive way," Um Ali said. "We are harassed and pestered."

"Once a woman I was searching threatened to kill me just because I told her to get in the queue."

Um Ali says she was shaken by the threat and wept when she went home, cursing the risks her job exposed her to.

Abdul-Rahman says policewomen do not take part in military operations. Their duties are currently confined to "searching women and guarding checkpoints and official institutions".

The police chief says there are plans to create an exclusively-female regiment in Kirkuk which will take part in all operations, though no date for this has been set.

He says he has been impressed by the performance of women recruits in training so far. "They respond better than men and are more adaptable," he said.

Layla says she found the preparation to become a policewoman grueling.

Tearfully, she describes how she made it through training by "thinking of the day when my two sons would finish school and start providing for the family".

The names of the policewomen in this story have been changed to protect their identities.

More IWPR's Global Voices