RAMALLAH — As the head of the Palestinian Civil Police Family and Juvenile Protection Unit, Lieut. Col. Wafa Muammar is the highest-ranking female officer in the Palestinian police force and a role model for women trying to find their own space in what has been considered a man’s profession here.
Among the first generation of women to join the Palestinian civil police after its establishment less than 20 years ago, Colonel Muammar, who is in her 40s, faced immense pressure to give up her dream to join the police. Palestine has one of the lowest rates of female participation in the labor force globally — just 17 percent — but Muammar, a wife and mother of four, built a successful career, leading the way for other women to become police officers. She has shown what women can achieve even amid intense conflict.
As civilian casualties mounted during an uprising that lasted about five years, from 2000 to 2005, determination became Muammar’s weapon as she persevered to complete her education. She earned her master’s degree while she was expecting her second child, walking through hilly roads and dangerous terrain to get to college until a week before giving birth. She began her training course immediately, refusing to let the challenges of living in a conflict zone deter her.
The turmoil amplified her concern to keep women and children safe from violence, especially in domestic disputes. Her job today allows her to ensure protection for many women and girls, and she instills this mission in her staff of police. In an interview with Women’s Feature Service, Muammar spoke about how her spirit has enabled her to change not only her life but also the lives of others.
Q: What have been the most important factors helping you get to be in the Palestinian police force?
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. That was not the case for me.
Q: How has being a woman affected your road to the police force today?
A: Society still believes in traditional jobs for women, like teaching, while the police service is perceived as a community of males, who represent power and strength, 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. They did not believe in our capacities to take action and responsibility. The police service is a sample of the larger society, its traditions and its understandings. We have proved that we are able to be successful in all walks of life, this profession included. Women are now being offered senior positions in the police.
Q: What has been your greatest contribution to Palestinian society and your community?
A: I am extremely proud to be at the head of the Family and Juvenile Protection Unit and that there is, in fact, such a unit in the police force. This [unit] 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 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. Many women avoided going to the police because lodging a complaint with the police could bring on a big loss — she could lose her children, her family and the respect of the people in society. With the [protection unit] we are changing perceptions and making combating violence against women a national cause.
Q: What can the younger generation of Palestinian women 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 to achieve what we pursue, be it access to justice or realizing our aim of building state institutions.
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. It remains the monopoly of men, but women have to be here and serve the women of the society, ensuring that they receive good service and access to justice.
This interview first appeared in UN Women’s Empowering Women-Empowering Humanity campaign in the lead-up to Beijing+20 commemorations in September 2015.
(© Women’s Feature Service)
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.