KARIN LAUB and MOHAMMED DARAGHMEH
Palestinian women in combat fatigues and headscarves rappelled down a six-storey tower, fired assault rifles at imaginary terrorists and, in a drill straight out of the movies, bundled a would-be VIP into a car and sped off after a shooting.
The 22 commandos are trailblazers in a largely male-dominated society. They are the first woman members of the Presidential Guards, a Palestinian elite force of 2,600 men. Their inclusion is the result of gradual changes in the West Bank in recent years. Some gender barriers have fallen, with a few women assuming posts as mayors, judges and Cabinet ministers or starting their businesses. Simultaneously, unemployment is on the rise; families are open to women entering non-traditional jobs if it means another paycheque.
Women make up just 3 per cent of 30,000 members of the Palestinian police and other security agencies in the West Bank, but there’s a push to recruit more, said Brig Rashideh Mughrabi, in charge of gender issues in the National Security Forces.
The women Presidential Guards recruits were picked from last year’s graduating class of Independence University, a four-year security academy in Jericho that trains future officers.
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For graduate Kurum Saad, the appeal was immediate. As an officer, her traditional role would have been in administration, but she wanted adventure. “I didn’t want to sit in an office,” the 23-year-old said. “Since I was a little girl, I loved shooting and sports.” This month, Saad and others in her group put on black combat boots, camouflage uniforms and pulled black ski masks over the headscarves to show journalists what they’d learned in their training.
Several women, including non-swimmers, were asked to jump into a pool as a show of courage. They dove in full uniform, including boots, and one had to be pulled out by a lifeguard. Six women, including Saad, rappelled down the six-storey tower in pairs. Saad said she excels at sharp shooting but for months was terrified of heights. She said that during training in Jordan with local commandos, she overcame her fear. Saad said she relishes her role of opening doors for other women. Her father is proud of her and her sister is eager to join the Guards, she said.
All but two of the women Guards, including Saad, wore black headscarves, reflecting a growing trend among Palestinian women to cover their hair because of Muslim religious observance.
As the women performed their drills at the walled Presidential Guards training complex in Jericho, hundreds of young men waited in line outside. They had responded to ads announcing the Guards wanted recruits, but faced a tough selection process, with only a few of the tallest and fittest being chosen.
The Presidential Guards were established under Yasser Arafat. Under Arafat’s successor, President Mahmoud Abbas, the Guards are engaged in personal protection. The women Guards are only being drawn from the West Bank. In the Gaza Strip, which is not under Abbas’ control and is ruled by the Islamist militant group Hamas, 400 women serve in the 16,000-strong security forces.