The new veiled female police officers in Gaza had just begun to assume their duties last December when a concerted attack on 60 police facilities threw them into unexpected roles.
GAZA CITY, Gaza (WOMENSENEWS)--Every morning Mariam Al-Bursh prepares a bottle of milk for her 1-year-old baby. Then she gets her badge and gun.
In the Gaza strip, which is controlled by the Islamic resistance movement Hamas, a female police officer's day begins, in several ways, like that of many of her counterparts around the world.
But there are key differences.
There's the uniform, for instance, in a society where ultra-modest dress codes mean the typical female apparel is a long wide gown, or Jilbab, and head scarf. Sometimes it's even a face-covering veil with only a slit for the eyes.
The new female police force in Gaza--formed a year and a half ago, with about 1,000 police officers and growing--adapts by wearing a long, dark blue skirt, a blue tunic and a head scarf.
They also have their own special routine.
In addition to processing office paperwork, they undergo physical training to help police handle girls and women during raids and to break up altercations between women and female teens.
Thrust Into New Roles
But the new female forces in Gaza only had a year on the job before catastrophe struck. On December 27, 2008, more than 60 police stations and compounds were hit by Israeli missiles as part of the 23-day-long war. Many policewomen were thrust into the role of evacuating civilians from dangerous buildings.
One of them was Mariam Al-Bursh.
At one point during the concerted late-December attacks on the police facilities she was helping lead people from a police compound, Eman Hasan, a colleague of hers, said in a recent phone interview.
Hasan said Al-Bursh had to guide people past the dead body of her own husband, who had been killed in one of the air raids on the building.
"Mariam was the top leader among us," Hasan told Women's eNews. "Everything went crazy and hundreds of our policemen colleagues were killed, including her husband, but she held it together and evacuated us all."
Ghada Hassan, 30, a member of the police's legal division, helps to prepare cases for court.
"We are well trained on dealing with dangerous situations and defending ourselves and others, especially women," she said. "It's this sense of duty that keeps us going. Even when the attacks started we were able to handle it well, although no one had seen it coming since we are policewomen and policemen, not terrorists."
Little Family Support
Many of the policewomen say they get little encouragement or support for the path-breaking line of work they have chosen.
"My mother and brother didn't agree with the idea of a girl working as a police officer, or anything of that kind," Hanady Karso, 26, a recruit in the investigation division, said.
But she added that her mother and brother will probably understand one day. "I believe that my colleagues and I are doing a big favor for people in Gaza by protecting women and giving them more privacy. We also help our male colleagues when raiding houses of suspected drug dealers or criminals."
Aisha Abu Nada, 50, is an investigator in the new female division. The mother of seven said that unlike many of her colleagues, her family didn't offer any opposition.
She attributed that to her background as a practicing lawyer. She said she changed fields because she wanted a new experience and thought that she could help her community by serving in the police force. Nada said two of her daughters have joined the force, with her encouragement.
Nada, however, has had to give up her new line of work. Her house was badly damaged when an Israeli warplane shelled a neighbor's house. After that she decided to stay home to take care of her younger children, who were badly upset by the attack, and to help rebuild their home.
In an interview before he was killed in the police compound attack in late December, Tawfiq Jaber, director of police in Gaza, spoke highly of the progress the force had made in establishing its female forces and gaining surprisingly widespread social support. "In a very short time we have gone very far with the female division, which means we are on the right track."
Jaber was killed by an air raid during a graduation party held for police students about to become members of his police unit.
Women's eNEWS http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm?aid=3984