Women in Uniform Frowned Upon

A growing number of women are risking traditionalists' ire by taking posts as security guards.

Women in Uniform Frowned Upon

A growing number of women are risking traditionalists' ire by taking posts as security guards.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

She walks to work through the streets of Baghdad like many other women in a long black abaya that covers her from head to toe. But when she reaches her workplace she pulls off the veil to reveal fitted blue trousers and a gray shirt. It is the uniform of the Facility Protection Service, FPS, in Baghdad.

"Society does not accept my work," the woman said, explaining why she will not wear her uniform on the street. Like other female security guards she did not even want her name used. "I live in a working-class neighborhood and people always bother me with their comments,"she added.

Many women have taken FPS jobs because they need the pay checks. But they suffer criticism from family, neighbours, colleagues and members of the public who do not consider the work appropriate for a woman.

Coalition forces established the FPS after the war to protect buildings that provide public services, such as hospitals, banks and government offices. The work entails searching people who enter buildings to make sure they are not carrying weapons or explosives.

Women were needed for the force after the previously all-male personnel ran into problems when they tried to search women. Citing worries about modesty, they often refused to be patted by men or let them inspect their purses.

"Some could exploit not being inspected by us to hide explosives," said US trainer Colonel Richard Bowyer. "So we trained women to do the job. They're doing a fantastic job now."

Coalition forces and Iraqi police have so far trained scores of women to guard buildings and search other women. Applicants must be over 18 and train for five to seven days. They earn about 100 US dollars a month.

But they face resistance. "Society does not accept this kind of job for women," said Qudoos Khalid, an FPS employee. Her sister Zahra, who also works for the service, agreed, "I like my work and never go absent but people do not understand it."

Ameera Abdullatif is the mother of five children. Her husband is unemployed and although he has reached retirement age, he has no pension. "I am responsible for providing for my family," she said. But her husband objects to her working in a public place and wants her to quit.

A single woman working for FPS said she had to hide her work from her married brother. "If he knew he might kill me," she said, asking for her name not to be revealed. Her parents are dead and her relatives do not assist her. Her new job enables her to study and help her other brothers.

The women security guards also encounter problems with the public. Some women still refuse to be searched, even by a woman, claiming it insults their dignity. One guard at a Baghdad bank said a woman had spat in her face and called her "a traitor and an American agent". "I controlled myself and showed respect for her age. They taught us not to return insults," said the guard.

US trainer Captain James Zoizack explained that along with learning to identify weapons and explosives and detect where they were hidden, women guards are taught to treat the public with respect. "Even if they offend us, we respond with a smile", he said.

The women have had to win over the skepticism of their male colleagues. "At first we did not accept them," admitted Haidar Taha. "Later we noticed they were capable of taking responsibilities and were equal to us in their work".

Another security guard said, "Everyone should cooperate with them so they can do their work. It is the duty of all Iraqis." He said he was even ready to see Iraqi policewomen in the future. In fact, Iraq had women police officers in the 1970s. But they all eventually quit, complaining of harassment.

Ula Ali, who was trained by the Iraqi police to be a security guard, said she planned one day to be a police officer. But for now she proceeds with caution. "I change my clothes at work," she said. "I am still afraid of criticism in the street."

Her co-worker, who wears the abaya, wants to continue working - but without the harassment. "I want to work in this field in the future without being bothered," she said. "And to proudly wear the uniform, because I am serving society."

Dina Tariq Mahdi is an IWPR trainee.

Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
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