Ramallah (WFS) — As the head of the Palestinian Civil Police Family & Juvenile Protection Unit, Lieutenant Colonel Wafa Muammar, the highest-ranking female officer in the country’s police force, is a role model for women trying to find their own space in a “man’s profession”.
Among the first generation of women to enter the Palestinian Civil Police (PCP) right after its establishment less than 20 years ago, Wafa Khaleel Ayyad Muammar, 43, had to face immense societal pressure to give up her dream to serve the country by serving in the force.
Palestine, at just 17 per cent, has one of the lowest rates of female participation in the labour force globally, but Muammar, a proud wife and mother-of-four, has had the courage to build a successful career, especially leading the way for other women to join the police force. In fact, through her exemplary service record she has shown what women are capable of achieving even in the midst of intense conflict.
Even as civilian casualties kept mounting on a daily basis during the Second Infantida, an uprising that lasted over five years, from 2000 to 2005, determination was Muammar’s only weapon as she persevered to complete her education.
She earned her Master’s degree while she was expecting her second child, often walking through hilly roads and dangerous terrain to get to college, until one week of giving birth. Having cherished the dream of becoming a police officer, she began her training course right afterwards, never letting the challenges of living in a conflict zone deter her.
The turmoil around her only served to strengthen her goals and amplified her concern to keep women and children safe from violence, especially domestic disputes. Her job today allows her to ensure protection from violence for many women and girls, and she instills the same mission in her police staff.
In this one-on-one, Muammar speaks about her struggles and how her never-say-die spirit has enabled her to not just change her life but the lives of many others.
Q: What do you think have been the most important factors that have helped in getting you where you are today?
A: First and foremost, my family! As a mother of four, I would not be where I am today without my husband’s support. I also come from a very supportive [extended] family that has always felt pride in all my achievements. [A few other] women who had entered the police service around the same time as I did might have had to fight with their families to accept it. That was not the case for me. That is the reason why I kept and am called by my middle name, Muammar. After all they did for me, I do not want to forget where I come from. It all starts with the education you are given and how your personality is built and, thus, your family.
Q: How has being a woman affected your road to where you are today?
A: Society still believes in traditional jobs for women, like teaching, while the police service is perceived as a community of males, which represents power and strength and where a woman will have to give up some of her femininity to be able to fit in. When I started going out on the streets in uniform, it brought remarks, comments and even accusations. At work, the men tended to look down on us. They kept us in the office, doing clerical work, archiving. They did not trust or believe in our capacities to take action and responsibility. The police service is a sample of the larger society, its traditions and its understandings. Still, with time, we have proved that we are able to be successful in all walks of life, this profession included. This is reflected in the fact that women are now being offered high or senior positions in the police.
Q: What do you believe is your greatest contribution to society and the community?
A: I am extremely proud to be at the head of the Family & Juvenile Protection Unit (FJPU) and that there is, in fact, such a unit in the police force. The FJPU has really contributed to changing the perception of the police in society. The statistics speak for themselves. We went from 55 domestic violence cases reported to the FJPU in 2012 to 3,660 in 2013 [as reported by the Palestinian Civil Police]. Police are the reflection of society. Our society looks positively at a woman who endures her husband’s atrocities. If she speaks publicly about it she becomes an outcast. This way of thinking was also reflected in the police service. Many women avoided going to the police because lodging a complaint with the police could bring on a big loss for the woman – she could lose her children, her family and the respect of the people in society. With the FJPU, we are changing perceptions and making combating violence against women a national cause.
Q: What is your main message for the younger generation? What should they learn from your experience?
A: Palestinian society was and is still ruled by certain traditions and norms that are rather patriarchal. Whatever path a woman decides to take, she will have to exert double the effort as compared to men. Palestinian women have always had to prove themselves. That is why we as women must show solidarity with each other and help each other in order to achieve what we pursue, be it access to justice or realising our aim of building state institutions. Today, women in the police service are more accepted and even celebrated as leaders and I am proud to be one of those who led the way.
Q: What is your message for other women/girls, who may be inspired by your journey and achievements?
A: Things are changing and Palestinian society is more open. Many women had the courage to accept jobs with a lot of responsibilities. But you cannot take a position of utmost responsibility and decision-making, achieving your wishes and dreams, without sacrifices. I accepted it while at the same time being a wife and a mother. However, having successful women in high-level positions encourages more women to take the same path. I encourage other women to enter the police service as it is really important for the community and the society. It remains the monopoly of men but women police have to be here and serve the women of the society, ensuring that they receive good service and access to justice.
This article is part of U.N. Women’s Empowering Women — Empowering Humanity: Picture It! campaign in the lead-up to Beijing+20. (© Women's Feature Service)