Gaza’s ‘Girls In Blue’
Translation by Mukarram AbuAlouf
At several public events over the past year in Gaza, I have noticed the presence of policewomen, complete with Hijab and blue hat. Contrary to the urban myths of the oppressed Muslim woman, these women appeared to be every bit as professional and effective as their western counterparts, as well as their male ones. Interest piqued, I sought and obtained an interview with Mariam Alnao’ouk, Representative of the Department of General Management of Policewomen in the Gaza Strip to find out a bit more about their work.
Mariam Alnao’ouk, Gaza Police Woman
I asked Mariam Alnao’ouk how she came to be a policewoman.
“After Hamas gained control of the Gaza Strip all of the existing policewomen withdrew their services, and stayed at home. This caused many problems, because in a Muslim society men have to respect women, not see them without their heads covered, and not touch them. This made it very difficult to deal with women offenders – especially because these women quickly took advantage of this, and would do things like take off their Hijab, or remove their clothing, so the policemen would have to leave. Others would accuse the policemen of sexual assault. So the government had to quickly recruit policewomen, and train us.”
What did she do before she became a policewoman? I asked.
“I was a new graduate – I had just completed my social work degree. They advertised, and I applied, and was accepted. Along with me there were engineers, lawyers, other social workers, women with degrees in religious affairs. There were also high school graduates, and some without any qualifications at all. The higher your qualifications are, the higher-grade position you can attain,” she replied.
“We did practical and theoretical training, for example investigation, psychology, public relations, marching, self-defence, weapons training. We also did physical training, like running and climbing, but we didn’t do the really rough stuff, like crawling on the ground. We also did military courses, where a group of women were trained by men, and the three best were selected to train as trainers – I was one of them. Then we trained the other women.”
Are policewomen only in Gaza City, or other places too?
“Policewomen are distributed throughout the five zones, North, Gaza City, Middle, Khan Younis, and Rafah. Every police station has women officers. This centre here in Gaza City is the General Management for the entire Gaza Strip, and supervises and co-ordinates operations in all the other places. We have monthly meetings where all issues are discussed, and every station also produces weekly, monthly, six-monthly and annual reports. I have been head of the policewomen division for a year now.”
Gaza policewomen on duty at Mavi Marmara memorial event, 2012
What are the biggest crime problems in Gaza?
“Because we are a Muslim society, crime in general is not a major phenomenon, but mainly what we do have is theft, followed by drugs.
First I was working in drug enforcement, by the way, today is the International day against drugs. There are not a lot of bad addicts here in Gaza, there used to be a small amount of drugs but the problem has got bigger because of the tunnels at Rafah and Erez, people are smuggling them in. Most of the drug smugglers are also users, but they mainly have it under control. Because we have good surveillance, we have the drug problem pretty well under control. A new treatment centre opened 8 months ago, and it has treated 80 people already.
One of the things we try to prevent is young people taking up drugs. Often the smugglers use their children as runners to deliver it, and the kids get tempted to use it. If they are caught, they are assessed as to whether they need treatment in the centre, and if not they are referred to the child protection services. We also co-operate with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education, and try to get them back onto a straight path.”
Do policewomen do specific jobs, and policemen other jobs?
“It depends. If we are going to raid a house, for instance, for stolen property or drugs, the policewomen enter first and make the women present put on their Hijabs because men will be entering, and the policemen surround the property so no-one can escape or get rid of the stolen property or drugs while this is happening. Women will often hide drugs in their bodies, so policewomen have to do that work. We often get assaulted by women in the house, they try to rip off our Hijabs so we will have to leave, so now we have two Hijabs, one underneath that they can’t get off!
When a crime is reported, men are usually contacted first but if the crime involves a woman in any way, then they contact the ‘responsibles’ in that area, and they will deal with it.
How is child protection managed?
“If there is no threat of immediate danger, then we refer them for assessment by the Ministry of Social Affairs. We only act if the child is in physical danger. If it is because the family is under stress, we also refer them to the Ministry of Social Affairs so they can get assistance, for example if it is financial stress, they may receive extra money. We also guide the parents about how to deal with their children.
All police do child protection – this is usually managed by one man and one woman teams, in each area. If it is a child less than 18 years old then policewomen deal with them, and policewomen deal with women victims of crime, while the policemen deal with the male perpetrators. They are dealt with by the nearest service to where the crime was committed.
In the five years I have been a policewoman, only two children have been killed, so it is not a big problem in Gaza – because we are Muslim, we treasure our children.”
What about sexual assaults against women?
“Rape is very rare because Muslim men behave very respectfully towards women, they fear Allah if they do not. However, if a girl or woman is raped, then it is dealt with very quietly so as to protect the victim. She is given counselling, and she does not have to go to court, her evidence is given there but she does not have to attend in person. The perpetrator faces the same legal process as in any other country, but he has a gag order preventing him from ever identifying her. This is because of the effect it would have on the woman if she was widely identified and known.”
Have any policewomen ever been killed, or badly injured in the course of duty?
“None have ever been killed and there have been no serious physical injuries since I have been a policewoman, but we get a lot of verbal abuse, and we are sometimes shot at – they are not shooting at us particularly, just shooting at the police in general. We have been lucky so far.”
I left the interview marvelling at how a country with such stressors – and such an obviously undeserved reputation for violence – could have such incredibly low rates of non-accidental childhood deaths and injuries, and of sexual assaults. And wondering what we in New Zealand could learn from them….
It might make the job of our ‘girls in blue’ a lot easier.