Palestine: Hamas recruits women into police force as 'proof' of progressive thinking

"Females can't be touched by a man, therefore we need women police. That's proof we are a lawful country and not an Islamic state. It doesn't violate Shariah law either."
Susan Aqal is a tightly veiled Palestinian mother who has a baby boy. But she has abandoned traditional domestic life to interrogate suspected drug addicts, thieves and murderers in the volatile Gaza Strip. A university graduate who worked as a lawyer for various organizations, she leapt at the chance to fulfill her dream of becoming a police officer after the radical Islamist movement Hamas seized the territory in June.
"This is my field. This is what I studied. I wanted a job in security and used to work in other organizations, but when I got the chance I didn't hesitate to join the police force," says the 28-year-old wife of a Hamas paramilitary officer. Shrouded in a loose-fitting black coat, wearing a purple headscarf and white cotton underpiece designed to hide all of her hair, and with her face clean of make-up, Aqal is one of 50 women working with Hamas paramilitaries in Gaza City.

While most are secretaries, she is one of 10 policewomen based at the Saraya Prison in a nascent force set up by Hamas last month as "proof" of its progressive thinking.

"I know that this job needs a strong personality and someone who is courageous. I'm not scared. I just feel that the guilty need to be punished," she says, reeling off a list of crimes she interrogates suspects for - murder, drugs, theft and moral vice. "We're treated very well within our brotherhood. I work here in the compound and deal with criminals directly. I interrogate men as well as women. At the moment I'm assisting our officers because we haven't finished our training yet," she says.

Amin Nawfal, a commander in the self-styled "man's police" - the Executive Force that supervises the women - says they will eventually be given firearms training, take part in arrest operations and be fully integrated. "Females can't be touched by a man, therefore we need women police. That's proof we are a lawful country and not an Islamic state. It doesn't violate Shariah law either," Nawfal says.

Women work as police across the Muslim world, including in Hamas' patron Iran, where women clad in black chadors are taught how to use guns, rappel down buildings, chase cars and disable bombs. "Having women in security jobs shows how democratic we are and that we have equality between men and women," says Nawfal, dressed in military fatigues and sitting at an enormous desk, Hamas television flickering in the background.

But despite his lofty comments, he silences the suggestion that Aqal talk in private, saying he should be present because she might not know the answers to all the questions.

All the women administrators milling about outside opt for the conventional hijab as favored by Aqal, or the Saudi Arabian-style niqab that drapes the entire head in black, with just a slit for the eyes.

"My mother looks after my baby and my husband is a lawyer and in the force, so he is totally supportive," Aqal says. "All the women in my family are working, so they encourage me. This is no problem in our community and we don't face any discrimination." At the moment, she earns $300 a month working from 8:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. six days a week, but after a six-month trial period she expects to nearly double her salary. She proudly shows off her large office - standard issue for women recruits - complete with a desk, computer and mobile phone. Her only complaint is the lack of uniform.

"The women's force is asking for a uniform to differentiate them from the other women working in administration. I'm wearing what I normally wear at the moment but we would like it to be dark blue or black, patterned the same as the men's." The Executive Force wears blue and grey camouflage. Hamas will have no talk of shirts and trousers for women - it will be a cloak down to the ground. "In time there will be a women's uniform in keeping with Islamic Sharia, so it won't be a shirt or a T-shirt. It'll be the same as she's wearing," says Nawfal, gesturing in Aqal's direction. "We hope it will be the same color and look as the men's uniform."

For the moment, Nawfal recognizes that women's recruitment is a controversial issue, and that few outside Hamas are even aware of it. Nawfal says that some people are scared to join, worried about losing salaries paid by the Western-backed government in the West Bank should they cast their lot in with Hamas after the bloody takeover. Others worry that working for the Hamas-run government will cause them to be branded terrorists by the United States and the European Union, both of which consider Hamas a terror organization.

"There are women police?" asks Talat Abdo, an award-winning hairdresser with dyed locks. His salon is deserted, a casualty of the economic meltdown that followed the formation of the first Hamas-led government in 2006. "I thought they were religious. They control the Gaza Strip without anything, so why do they need women? I don't think they do. We're already a conservative community and not a lot of women break the law," he says.

Abdo says business over the past 18 months, roughly since Hamas formed its first government and the international community responded with an economic blockade, has never been worse in the 35 years he has owned a salon. "Now it's about 25-30 women a week. During the good days of Abu Ammar [Yasser Arafat] and the Palestinian Authority, there was a lot of work. The shop was crowded and people had to book before they came," he says. But not any more, Abdo adds, before going back to watching an Egyptian film.

19 September 2007