In the conservative West Bank city of Hebron, a special, highly-trained unit of women officers is not just about gender equality, it's about smart and effective policing.
HEBRON - For having created the first-ever Palestinian female special forces unit, Ramadan Awad has garnered awards from his European colleagues for his forward-looking approach to gender equality. But the Hebron police chief still sees it all in practical terms. "I simply needed a women's unit for operative reasons," Awad says.
Parodoxically perhaps, because the largest city on the West Bank is also the most conservative, it needed Awad's bright idea back in 2007. Because in Hebron, it is unthinkable for male police officers to search a house with women in it. "Our criminals aren't stupid, and use that social convention to their advantage," he explains.
Women are used as drug couriers for the same reason – a male official cannot conduct a body search on a woman. Since the special female force has been in action, Awad says, they've found drugs in women's underwear drawers and weapons hidden in bridal gowns. Soon, all teams searching houses will include at least one female member.
Altogether there are 900 police officers in Hebron. Of the 50 women employed by the force, 25 were selected and sent to the police academy in Jericho. Here they were trained in self defense, house and body searches, human rights, de-escalation tactics, and techniques for breaking up demonstrations. The women also learned how to deal with having stones thrown at them from all directions, and how to leap over burning tires – both situations they may encounter in dealing with demonstrators.
By the time they returned to Hebron, they also knew how to use truncheons and tear gas, and – for extreme emergencies – pistols and Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles.
Inshira Abu Allam is one of the women who trained in Jericho. "It really was very strenuous," she says. "We did exactly the same thing the men do." And they were the ones who asked Commander Awad for it to be that way. "We wanted to be fully up to the job!"
Abu Allem remembers that before the training she and other policewomen had to break up a demonstration of Hamas women: "We didn't have helmets, shields, vests much less any training." Now, however, handling a job like that would pose no problems.
From secretary to search and seizure
She remembers a case where she and her female colleagues climbed over the walls onto a house roof after the women inside refused to open the door – an athletic feat that their male colleagues actually wouldn't have done, she says proudly, and that caused much wonderment among onlookers. Another time she arrested a criminal in his sister's home, dressed as a woman.
Abu Allam has been a policewoman since 1996. "When I first joined, women were secretaries," she recalls. Things slowly changed. In December 2007 the first female traffic cops went out onto the streets of Ramallah. In Nablus they also had to learn English so that they could help international visitors.
In the last two years, 150 female force members were hired on the West Bank. That means that of the total of 8,000 Palestinian police officers, some 400 are women. The disproportion is striking, deputy police spokesperson Shahabil as Saifi admits, but efforts are being made to change that. Police chief Hasim Attallah has repeatedly encouraged women to apply for higher-up positions, and with some success: today, women direct the prison in Ramallah, the police station in Beit Sahour, police coordination in Jericho, the interrogation department in Kalkilia, and the department for the protection of women and children.
Women are indispensable in the latter area, police chief Awad says. A young girl, for example, who may have been sexually or otherwise abused, is much more likely to confide in a woman. Even just establishing if a woman has been hurt requires another woman, because a woman would never show her wounds to a man she didn't know.
Awad sounds tired when he talks about the tribe loyalties and family honor that still impact life in Hebron. "Many conflicts are handled by parties concerned, without involving us," he asserts. "We're trying to change that, and here female officers have a big role to play."
On the street, most female passersby have a positive attitude to policewomen. Inshira Abu Allam says she's already had two young girls approach her and ask how one becomes a policewoman. Sometimes she's even asked to pose for photographs – not by foreigners or journalists, but by normal Palestinians.
"They think I look like a female cop in a foreign movie, and they ask me to draw my gun," she relates. Which she doesn't do: "There are rules. I can't go waving my gun around."
The stupid remarks, she says, are all from men. "They ask if I can't cook, or why else would I be doing a man's job." She says she explains in a friendly manner that police work isn't a ‘man's job." And she leaves out that she actually enjoys cooking – after she gets home from work.
Read the original article in German.
Photo - Libertinus