Women in Defense and Security Programs in Conflict Zones: The Iraq Example

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23 July 2007, Female police officers receive pistol belts at the Forsan Police Station in Ar Ramadi, Iraq. Female Iraqi Police officers received their initial gear issue, conducted basic weapon handling techniques and escalation of force drills provided by Marines with 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines [2-5], 3rd Infantry Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force. 2-5 is deployed with Multi National Forces-West in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in the Al Anbar province of Iraq to develop Iraqi Security Forces, facilitate the development of official rule of law through democratic reforms, and continue the development of a market based economy centered on Iraqi reconstruction.

In the deserts of the Middle East, in the Bedouin culture of Jordan and some Gulf countries, there are many impressive women serving in the Ministries of Interior. However, that is not the case in countries of armed conflicts and instabilities. This article sheds light on some of the major challenges of female integration programs in defense and security organizations in a conflict zone, and Iraq is a prime example.

By May 2003 Paul Bremer, the U.S. head of the US mission in Iraq, had dismantled the security forces in Iraq. The local defense and security systems collapsed and the result was a state of chaos. In order to restore peace and stabilize the country, there was an “urgent” need for programs that would glue the shattered systems back together by recruiting men and women for the law enforcement and national guards’ services.

The program of female integration in law enforcement was particularly challenging for three main reasons. First, Iraqi society had already descended into a primitive tribal system for over a decade. Second, there were inherent flaws in the program design and processes of recruiting personnel. Finally, the newly formed government brought political religious factions and militias to the top of national leadership and they did not agree with the equality of women in the society. As a result, the role of Iraqi women in law enforcement was not highly regarded.

When men were engaged in the pointless Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein, realized that women were essential to fill the gaps in all aspects of the society and government institutions. He bestowed women with an honourable title “Glorious Iraqi Women.” By which, he empowered women to assume leadership in the civil and military services. Iraqi women were given ranks as officers and they were fully respected by the society at that time. However, that “privilege” was not a right and it was short lived, and Saddam changed his views on women in the 1990s after the Desert Storm War and during the UN sanctions and the civil unrest in the country. The president switched his secular vision to a religious and a tribal one. The revision of his views had reset the role of women to a traditional position in order to “win the hearts and minds” of the tribal and religious leaders that he needed to restrain the opposition, up until the fall of Saddam’s regime on April 9, 2003.

In the aftermath of the 2003 war the urgency to recruit law enforcement agents of both genders meant there were significant flaws in the processes; flaws that could be improved in future programs in similar contexts. The first issue was the qualification requirements of recruits. Since the early twentieth century, there were two major military and police academies in Iraq. For more than a century the standards of recruitments, education and trainings were very well developed for service members. Unfortunately, in 2003 the security crisis in Iraq meant it was impossible to wait three years for recruits to complete the required preparations for these vital roles. As a result, poorly-vetted, uneducated and those who were desperate for a source of income were the first to sign up for the services. These hapless trainees assumed power of security matters, yet, they were not trained to work with female colleagues and certainly no policies were developed in that regard. It seemed that program success measures were based on head counts, equipment provided, and ensuring that the budget was spent on schedule.

What made the matter worse was that the political and religious leadership of Iraq, which was and still is, fragile and too divided to carry out its responsibility to ensure stability and the security of the country. The government demonstrated the lack of interest and buy-in to assess, evaluate, or to shape the programs to engage women in law enforcement. As a result, women in security forces were thought of as “comfort” for the men in the service. There was no proper culture, policy, or guidelines of any form to address the role of women in law enforcement. In addition, the background of the police women at that time was not promising as well. For instance, a large number of women who signed up for these programs, were never educated (many barely knew how to write their names), most of them lived in the slums in the outskirt of Baghdad. Many were assaulted, raped and beaten by their male colleagues. Sadly, high ranking officers had different priorities than dealing with “women issues.”

The role of women in defense and security organizations requires a great deal of improvement. Governments and stakeholders should demonstrate that this role is a women’s right and not a privilege to be suspended or overlooked. Finally, the security programs should be designed based on good understanding of the contexts, and have the buy-in of leadership to set up the vision, culture and policies.

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Raghad Al Saadi
Raghad Al Saadi is a Principal of Polar Lights Prime, LLC. (www.polarlightsprimellc.com).  Expert on WPS, Provided consultancy services to the UNOCHA-Turkey on strategic planning and effective engagement with local councils, training to NGOs on conflict analysis and resolution, Ms. Al Saadi was a Delegate of the Nobel Peace Prize Forum (NPPF) 2017 presented “MistBit™ – Empowering Women and Children to Combat Sexual & Gender-Based Violence and Human Trafficking in Refugee Camps and Disaster Zones”.  A public speaker at the Initiatives of Change (IofC), Caux, Switzerland.  A panelist for the Global Policy Dialogue on WPS in Doha, Qatar.  A SME on Climate Conflict & Security in Paris Peace Forum. She has extensive experience in conflict zones in the MENA region as well as a professional program management with the Federal Government in Washington.  Ms. Al Saadi holds a Master of Science in Peace Operations form George Mason University and a publisher at IEEE-Global Humanitarian Technology Conference and International Policy Digest.