ABU DHABI // Eman al Jaberi dropped out of school 37 years ago after she was slapped by a teacher. It was 12 years before she went back into a classroom.
Now 50, she is Lt Col al Jaberi. With a doctorate in law, she is the first and only female lecturer at the Abu Dhabi Police College and was the country's first female investigation officer. "It was a very harsh journey [but] I've always had unlimited ambition," she said. "People used to tell me being ambitious causes the person to fall and break his neck, but the time has not come for me to stop."
She pointed to her education as an example. It took her more than a decade to return to school because of the emotional trauma of being slapped in the face by her maths teacher in front of the class. But when she did go back, she stuck with it, going to night school for adults until she finished secondary school and earned her bachelor's and master's degrees, and her doctorate, in 17 years. "It was a big challenge, but the whole time I was picturing my graduation day in front of me," she said. "I had the will to continue because I wanted to make up for the years I missed of my life."
Proving herself at work was much harder, she said. In many police fields, she was the first woman. "My wish was to join the faculty of the police college because it was considered as a place for men only, and this misconception spread because there weren't any women who tried to join," she said. Experts say her actions, and those of women like her, are key to bringing gender equality to society. According to Dr Suaad al Orimi, a professor of sociology at UAE University who specialises in gender development, the lack of women in some fields is down to two factors - sometimes society does not trust women in certain fields, or they think it is not women's place.
But she said society's progress in acknowledging women's role in the workforce had led to more women occupying fields that were once dominated by men. "No Emirati man favours his daughter or sister becoming a policewoman, because he is afraid that she might face difficult situations, so he prefers her to be a teacher or a doctor, but not a policewoman," she said. "If you look back 20 years ago, Emirati women did not occupy public jobs, most of them worked at schools. But now you find them everywhere."
Lt Col al Jaberi became a faculty member of the police college during Ramadan 2004. "To my bad luck, my first lecture was about sex, rape and homosexuals, and the students were big, grown-up guys," she said. "I felt very nervous being the only woman in the room talking about such issues." Before delivering the lecture, she said, she voiced her concerns to a male colleague. "He said, 'If I were you, I would've pulled out.' But my reply was there is no way I will just step away, because stepping away means failure and I'm not used to failing," she said. So she gathered her courage, entered the classroom and started explaining the topic. The students' initial reaction was a buzz that rippled around the room. But Lt Col al Jaberi said her military background helped her to control the situation. She spoke in a strict, firm tone and threatened that any disrespectful behaviour would lead to punishment.
"They immediately stopped and realised that who was standing in front of them was not a weak woman, but a military figure as adequate as any of my male counterparts," she said. "After that, I started using a motherly approach with them, so they turned to obedience out of love. "I treat them like my own children and guide them to success. I used to have one son, but now I feel that the thousands that graduate each year are all my children. During graduation they address me as 'my mother'."
The lieutenant colonel also found herself the only woman among a group of men at a two-month police camp in Britain in 2005. "I was sent with a group of 12 officers," she said. "The camp was in the forest, and it was the first time they sent a woman there. There were no women in the other teams either." Lt Col al Jaberi was the head of academia and vice principal of the Women's Police School in Abu Dhabi for four years before joining the Abu Dhabi Police College.
"The toughest job I ever had was dealing with other women," she said. "Females do not like to be supervised by another female - they prefer men. It was a maze. If I were kind to them, they would consider me weak, and if I tried to be smart or strict they would rebel." Gender stereotypes drove Lt Col al Jaberi to ask to be assigned as an investigator after graduating from law school in 1996. "After five months' probation, I proved myself as an investigation officer and I became the first Emirati woman to work in that field," she said.
She stayed there for four years and opened the door for other women to join the section. One of the most significant situations she encountered - which proved to her that police work has nothing to do with gender - was when two male trainees investigated the body of someone who had died of a heart attack. "They both fainted and could not continue," she said. "However, I felt I was obliged to continue the task so I collected myself and did not have any problems. I had nightmares for a few nights afterwards, but then I got used to it and it became routine."
Brig Gen Mohammed Beddah, the acting director of relations and moral guidance department at the Ministry of Interior, said the addition of women to the police force had created competition between the two genders, which led to better performance. "Also, the security sector deals with all members of society, men and women, so in some situations women are needed to deal with other women," he said. "For example, during questioning, females would understand each other and interact better than when a man questions a woman.
"There are five women working in my department, and there are many situations when they performed better than their male colleagues." Lt Col al Jaberi now holds the highest rank achieved by a female police officer in the UAE. She aims to become the first female colonel. "I would like to continue in being the first female in everything," she said. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org