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Mideast edition, Sunday, September 23, 2007

RAMADI, Iraq — Their pictures, with their faces uncovered in a newspaper article, are pasted all over Fallujah, they said, like wanted posters at a Wild West post office.

Their crime? Becoming Iraqi police officers.

Unlike their male colleagues, female IPs in Ramadi wear full face coverings and keep their identities secret on the job. Sometimes they don’t even tell their families what they do for a living, they said.

“I tell people I sew clothes for the police station,” said Fatima, a 35-year-old mother of two.

As with the other women mentioned in this article, her name has been changed for her protection.

She doesn’t want to put anyone in her family, including herself, in danger. She and other female IPs have received death threats over their new roles in the South Ramadi police force.

Maysur, 27, and also married with two children, explained why.

“Women are not supposed to hold this kind of job in Iraq,” she said.

Chief among the problems is that they carry guns and work in close quarters in a male-dominated police force, she said. Also, they were trained by Americans, which makes them traitors in the eyes of some.

“To be trained by the Americans, [the insurgents] think we’ve betrayed our people,” she said.

She had several reasons for joining the police, she said.

First and foremost, it is because females are a threat to security, she said.

That said, she also wants to protect women from abuse at checkpoints at the hands of male guards, she said.

She is also in it for the money.

“Honestly, I wanted to earn some money and make a living to help my family,” she said. “I hate being away from my children and family, too, but I’m doing this to protect them.”

Haled, is 16 and single, which garners her plenty of attention within the male ranks. Her mother and older sister are police officers with her, she said, but her stepbrothers tried to stop her from taking the job.

Because her family in Fallujah has seen the posters of her, she is forbidden to take “one step” in the neighboring city lest she put them at risk.

At least her mother stood up for her, Haled said.

“People have no right to judge,” Haledshe said, getting angry in the retelling. “I am just trying to work for our security and help the household.”

It didn’t used to be this way, they said. Maysur and Fatima remember times when women could wear what they wanted and travel freely.

According to the Human Rights Watch organization, conditions for Iraqi women and girls have deteriorated rapidly since the early 1990s.

“In the years following the 1991 Gulf War, many of the positive steps that had been taken to advance women’s and girls’ status in Iraqi society were reversed due to a combination of legal, economic, and political factors,” the organization’s Web site said.

“The most significant political factor was Saddam Hussein’s decision to embrace Islamic and tribal traditions as a political tool in orderto consolidate power. In addition, U.N. sanctions imposed after the war have had a disproportionate impact on women and children (especially girls).”

But while bucking the system is a risky business, the women are pretty tough, they said.

“We know we’re in danger every minute and we accept that,” Maysur said. “We put ourselves in danger to protect our Iraqi brothers and sisters.”

All the same, they are petitioning to take their weapons home with them at night for personal protection instead of leaving their firearmsm at the station.

As for the critics, let them talk, they say.

“People will talk, but we don’t care, as long as it’s not our family saying it,” Maysur said.

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