The number of female applicants to the Abu Dhabi police has doubled after a recruitment drive started in October. Helena Frith Powell gets rare access to see the latest cadets at their training school.
Emirati women are perhaps not renowned for their love of flat shoes, drab clothes and severe discipline. But should you find yourself at the Abu Dhabi Police Women Training Section on any weekday between 8 and 9am, you will be greeted by the unusual sight of around 100 of them marching in time to a beat dictated by four female trainers. "This year for the first time we are allowed to go home after training," says Mona Alawad, who is 28 and from Abu Dhabi. "It would be tough to stay all week, especially if you are a mother." The cadets in khaki uniforms are the latest female recruits to the Abu Dhabi Police Department, a force that proportionally boasts more women than either London or New York and is doing its best to encourage more to join. The recruitment drive has proven so successful, according to the Ministry of Interior at Abu Dhabi Police General Headquarters, that the number of applicants had nearly doubled since efforts to attract Emirati women to the job began last October. The number of female applicants for the latest recruiting class had increased from the usual 50 to 60 to more than 100. In Abu Dhabi there are women represented across all departments; from the traffic police to dog training, the community police to the special tasks division responsible for security for visiting VIPs and major events, as well as anti-riot action. The most senior policewoman is a lieutenant-colonel. But in order to attract women, the Abu Dhabi police have had to change the regulations.
Alawad has two sons, one aged five and another who was only five months old when she started her training three months ago. Her five-year-old used to be scared of policemen. "But now he thinks they're OK because his mum is a policewoman," she laughs. "This country has given us a lot and the police is the best place for us to repay it. I was already working as a computer technician in the force before I came here but I will go back with a higher rank and more career prospects." It is strange to hear a young Emirati woman talking about rank. But this is very much a military place, even down to its slightly dingy buildings and sparse decor. When senior officers go past, the cadets stand up and salute them. They don't walk to their various training sessions, but run in short staccato bursts with purposeful looks on their faces. They are all immaculately turned out and alert, ready for the next order.
The academy is tucked away just off Airport Road, a short drive from the male police college, but unlike its counterpart it is hardly a landmark. In fact if you didn't know exactly where to look for it, you'd be hard pressed to find it. Over the entrance are faded paintings of three sheikhs. Once you go inside it looks a little like a school built in the 1970s. On the walls there are posters of policewomen in action but the images are so sun-damaged you can barely make them out. Once inside the classrooms, though, you realise that this is very much a 21st-century establishment for the 21st-century policewoman. There are top-of-the-range computer PowerPoint presentation materials. The rooms are light and airy and the desks are polished. There are two types of training at the Police Women Training Section; the basic training lasting 20 weeks and the full training, that goes on for a year. Which one a woman opts for will depend on what sort of rank she is trying to achieve and her educational level. To become an officer, a woman will need to have come from college or university and then complete the longer training.
Whereas in the past the female police college took on anyone who applied, the criteria have become stricter and applicants need to have reached at least Grade 10 at school to be considered for the basic training. Women police officers are nothing new in the UAE. The first training course was in 1978 and First Warrant Officer Lulwa Abdulla, who still works as a trainer at the female college, was on it. "We didn't have a female police college then, of course. We trained with the men at the men's police college," she says. "We were 23 women in total. I found the first two or three weeks very hard because I had no military training. And we were treated just like the men because they were not used to having women there, so we had to do exactly the same as them. But then I got used to it and I built up my physical endurance. I was amazed at how much I could push myself and I managed it." She says it was difficult to begin with to be accepted by her male colleagues.
"They would say, 'Why do you want to be in this field?' or, 'Why do you want to compete with us?' It was especially difficult for women with a higher rank than some of the men but as time has passed this has changed. It is amazing now you see men encouraging their wives and their daughters to join the military." One example of this is Mariam Hashmi. She is 26 years old and from Fujairah, and when she completes her year-long training in two months' time she will be a lieutenant. "My father is in the army and I was very happy to follow his advice to join the Abu Dhabi Police," she says. "I should mention that he is not that well educated but you see things are changing. He is the one who encouraged me and motivated me to join this environment." Hashmi, who could probably have been a model if she hadn't opted for a life in the military, worked for years as an office assistant at the Ministry of Interior. She wanted to become an police officer because, "I believe it is an environment where I can improve my educational level and personality, where I can be something special and learn to be disciplined, confident and to serve my country in a proper way."
Does she feel, despite her father's encouragement, that men find it difficult to accept women police officers? "In the past some people had difficulty. But now I can say that most people are educated and open-minded. They are accepting us and starting to recognise our achievements and our productivity. I am very glad to say that we have the respect and acceptance of most people if not all. It has changed because they gave us the chance to prove ourselves and we have repaid their confidence." One of the main things the women talk about is the confidence the training has given them. "Being a policewoman helps me to believe that there is no difference between men and women and that we are capable of doing the things they do," says Hashmi. "I am not saying I lacked confidence before but I am now confident in a different way; as a professional woman as well as a citizen. I am not afraid of anything." Najat Tarish Alili, aged 21 from Abu Dhabi, agrees. "Here we learn how to trust ourselves," she says. "We are not afraid. We know how to defend ourselves and take care of ourselves. They teach us how to catch criminals." Alili was also inspired to train as a policewoman because of her father. "He was a policeman but he is dead now, so my dream was to work in the police," she says. "My mother supported me in my wish." She is not sure what discipline within the police she will follow once her training is complete but says "Insh'Allah I will achieve a good rank." The woman in charge of nurturing and training the 200 or so female cadets that attend the college every year is First Lieutenant Shamma al Muhairy. Al Muhairy is an extremely elegant woman who, in addition to her other achievements, is captain of the UAE Olympic shooting team. She became the first Emirati woman to win gold in the Pan Arab Games in Cairo in 2007. She looks like an older version of Hashmi; she is impeccably turned out, not just her sky-blue uniform but her lipgloss, clear skin and perfectly-shaped eyebrows.
"I trained as a policewoman in 1990," she tells me, while surveying the marching in the courtyard. "I wanted to be an independent woman and my father encouraged me to do it. I did my training with the men. We were the fifth ever course and we lived there for 10 months. I really liked it. It teaches you discipline but it was, well, a little bit challenging. We were only 19 girls at the time and it was a new experience, especially training with the men, but they accepted it. It even made them push themselves harder so as not to seem lazy next to us." Al Muhairy is in a good mood. She has just heard from a male training officer who is watching the marching that the men training in Al Ain are not as advanced as her girls. "Watch this," she says. "They do 14 steps exactly." She counts the steps as the cadets march in perfect time. "Fourteen. There. The boys have not yet learnt that. I am very proud." Al Muhairy is confident her cadets will all be an important asset to the police department. "We are female and there is a female touch that is important," she says. "Women can be more patient than men in many ways. They will also do things perfectly, leaving no detail unturned." Does she think there will one day be a female chief of police in Abu Dhabi? "I hope so. We already have around four women who are lieutenant colonels and I think it is more about who is doing the best job, not about who is a man and who is a woman."
In terms of which woman does what job within the police force, there are several guidelines they follow. "We tend to choose the stronger and taller girls for the female prisons," says al Muhairy. "The more educated ones go into training." Other roles that women are traditionally earmarked for are airport security and basically anything where a woman could be needed - for example, in a traffic accident where a woman is involved and prefers to deal with another woman. Hanan Katheer who has been in training for three months and plans to teach English at the female academy when she graduates says there are seven criteria they are judged on. These are communications, problem solving, teamwork, knowledge, community skills, honesty and duty. "They see where our skills work the best," says the 24-year-old from Al Ain. "A lot of women are put off by the idea of the training because they think they will have a hard time and people will shout at them. When I joined I realised this was not the case. It is hard but they are nice people who encourage us and train us."
One of the trainers is Mahara al Ali, from Ras al Khaimah, who has been a trainer for three months. Prior to that she was on the force for four years. "It is very, very easy. If you love it, you will be OK," she laughs when I ask her how tough the training is. "I loved it. I used to march when I went shopping with my friends. They would say 'Mahara what are you doing? Stop it now!' The girls are getting to much higher levels now and Insh'Allah they will get even better. I like everything about my job, especially the training and development, but there are some students who could be more disciplined. Some days they don't show up." It is a gruelling schedule. The day for the female cadets begins at around 6.15am when they assemble in the main courtyard. By 6.30, the instructors are sure of the numbers and they go off to exercise classes such as aerobics or tae-kwon do. This is followed by 45 minutes of marching, which is when, according to al Muhairy, cadets get accustomed to the "change from civilian life".
After that, they have academic classes until around 2pm: law, English and lessons on how to strip down and reassemble a gun, among other things. They are also sent out to the various police departments to see how they would fit in there. After 2.30pm they are free to go, and the majority of students live close enough to go home. Thirty-eight of them stay in the immaculate dorms. Amina el Belushi drives back to Al Ain so she can be with her young daughter. She has to get up at 4am to make it back in time for the early start but feels it is all worth it. "I decided to come here because I like the field; my father and brother and sister are in the military, too. Also Abu Dhabi is encouraging women to enter the police force." Once she graduates she will work in Al Ain, she hopes with the community police. She says the most important thing you need to be a policewoman is to be "well organised and have good time-management skills".
Mona Alawad agrees and adds that you need "to know how to communicate with people, how to be responsible and how to respect human rights". Which department within the force the cadets end up in is not entirely their decision. They have to submit a first, second and third choice and then the relevant departments and trainers will evaluate their suitability, although most of them, like el Belushi, have not yet decided what those choices will be. "Every time I go to another department I think I want to work there," she laughs. "I don't know where to apply to yet; first I thought I would go the airport, then I thought the community police, then a prison and then accident and emergency. Every day a different one. They are all very exciting departments." Hashmi would like to work in cyber security because she is interested in the new challenges being thrown up by cyber crime.
"Nowadays it is often the case that you go into a crime scene and there are no clues left. There is nothing to see. Also I like to try things others tend to avoid and this is new, like an adventure." She is certain she will make her career within the police. "My ambition is to reach the highest level I can because they are giving us the chance now. So why not? There are no borders." Al Muhairy agrees that there is no reason a woman cannot go to the top, but stresses that they have to be prepared. "I cannot say it is getting easier to be a policewoman," she says. "The world is changing and we have to train on all levels, the academic and the physical." She tells the story of a young cadet just out of training who was accompanying a female prisoner to hospital. As soon as the nurse took off her handcuffs she lunged at the policewoman with a pair of scissors, aiming for her heart. The policewoman crossed her arms to defend herself and managed to get the scissors off the prisoner. "I remember her," says Al Muhairy. "She was the most feminine girl in that group, but still strong." What advice would one of the first policewoman in the UAE give to potential cadets? Abdulla smiles. "The best thing is that I am 52 and I feel like I am 20. I feel like I just graduated. What is amazing is that throughout the years I have been doing this job I keep physically fit and my mind is always challenged so I am constantly kept young in mind and body." She laughs. "I would advise each and every person to join the military because it keeps you young."