Beirut: Although several thousand women serve in Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces, General Security [Amn Al Am] and the Armed Forces, few venture into municipal policing because of the very nature of the tasks involved: maintain a street presence, ensure law and order and, occasionally, settle family disputes in a country where misogyny is prevalent.
When Mardig Boghossian was elected in May 2016 as the mayor of Burj Hammoud, a north-east district of Beirut, he embarked on a fascinating new experiment to change mentalities when he added 30 female officers to the 130-strong municipal police force.
Burj Hammoud is predominantly populated by Lebanese-Armenians, although a slew of foreign workers from India, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, along with Syrian-Armenians who escaped the war in their country, now call it home.
Last year, there was a serious degradation of security, exacerbated by the presence of so many foreign nationals and he needed to hire more officers, he told Gulf News.
The idea to employ women officers came after he observed how people reacted to female security officers at the airport. Men, who interacted with women officers, tended to not lose their tempers or get angry as much as with their male counterparts.
Often, men felt the need to display macho behaviour when interacting with male officers. Women officers were also more capable of defusing tension as they deployed persuasive yet calming tactics in their dealings. It took them six months to train and they officially graduated in September 2016.
They can now be seen alongside their male counterparts patrolling the streets.
Several were assigned traffic management duties, which attracted a good deal of attention in the largely conservative neighbourhoods of Burj Hammoud.
Boghossian could not be more pleased.
“Female officers have calmed down volatile situations with ease,” he said.
“I have settled disputes and defused tensions just because of my gender,” Talar Kouyoumjian, 25, told Gulf News. “I am gratified that such situations are defused especially when there are children around for we really do not want trouble in our neighbourhoods,” now that so many different nationalities intermingle that, inevitably, create problematic conditions.
“There were a few problems, of course,” Boghossian said, as some men catcall or whistle at the female officers, “though by and large Burj Hammoud residents, Armenians and non-Armenians alike, accepted the policewomen”.
At first, unaware residents seemed apprehensive about the women officers, though most adapted.
Antranik Baghdasarian, a local shopkeeper, acknowledged that it took him several weeks to get used to seeing policewomen patrolling the streets, “since we are not used to this”.
“But I am happy to see smiling faces,” he added.
Pranay Chandra from Mumbai, who has lived in Burj Hammoud for two years, was philosophical: “Women police officers are good,” he said.
The affable mayor is determined to make the experiment a full success and though he hears the occasional rude remark, he instructs his officers to be firm.
Jessica Maldossian, one of the 30 on the force, said that a stern look is usually all it takes to guard against an impolite remark.
“This could happen anywhere in the world, but for the most part people are welcoming,” she said.