JERICHO (AFP) — Instructors bark orders to a column of Palestinian women recruited to an anti-riot unit, part of an effort to tackle problems caused by conservative attitudes in the West Bank force.
Decked out with helmets, assault boots, batons and shields, the students at the Jericho police school weather a barrage from stone throwers, before rushing to arrest the “troublemakers.”
“There is no difference between the training for men and women for combat abilities and searching cars and houses,” said one of the instructors, Lieutenant Naama Shalalfat.
“Law enforcement is not reserved for men,” she told AFP.
The recruits, who are taking classroom lessons to supplement the training exercises, belong to a new all-female anti-riot unit, which will be made up of 220 members and will be deployed across the West Bank when it is operational.
Colonel Ramadan Awad, deputy police chief for the West Bank, says the unit was formed in response to problems caused by old attitudes towards women in the territory.
“The idea behind training this unit goes back to 2009, when a women’s demonstration in the streets of Hebron degenerated into acts of vandalism, while the police couldn’t intervene because we live in a conservative society,” Awad said.
Lieutenant Osama Awda, 28, says he is “training police officers of both sexes in martial arts and self-defense before moving on to law enforcement.”
He says that with his three colleagues, two men and a woman, he trains 500 female recruits every year.
Rashida Brahma, a 22-year-old recruit at the Jericho school, says she wanted to be one of the first to work in a profession long seen as off-limits to women.
“My main reason for joining the police after school was to serve the homeland and to get a job that only men had been able to do until then,” she says, just after practicing how to disarm an attacker.
Only three percent of the Palestinian police force’s 8,000 members are women, but other branches of the security forces are making tentative steps to boost women’s numbers in their ranks.
This week, a group of 23 women finished their training to join the presidential guard, which protects key figures and carries out special operations.
But despite signs of limited progress, the level of women’s participation in the Palestinian labor force remains low, at about 17.3 percent compared with 69.3 percent for men, according to figures from the Central Statistics Office published ahead of International Women’s Day on Saturday.
The ratio is a little more balanced in the public sector, where 40.6 percent of employees were women and 59.4 percent men in 2012, according to the same source.
But in 2013 there was a marked rise in violence against women in the Palestinian territories: 27 women were killed, 15 in the West Bank and 12 in the Gaza Strip, compared with 13 killings in the two territories in 2012, the statistics office said, quoting a women’s rights group.