By Abigail Fredrickson
To have courage is to stand up to not only those who actively oppose you, but also to the cultural and societal traditions that may stand in the way of progress. Courage is pursuing your goals not without fear, but in spite of it. This year marks the 13th Annual International Women of Courage Award. The International Women of Courage Award was instated by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2007 to highlight and honor the work of women from around the globe who have demonstrated incredible courage and leadership in upholding human rights, women’s equality, and social progress, even while putting themselves at risk. Each year, U.S. Embassies around the world recommend women as candidates for this prestigious award.
One woman who exemplifies these qualities and more is Moumina Houssein Darar. Ms. Darar was born in Djibouti City, Djibouti, in 1990 and is the oldest of nine siblings. At 23, she joined the Djiboutian National Police Force (DNP) and quickly rose through the ranks in a male dominated profession. As a female officer, Ms. Darar trail blazed her way to the exclusive specialty of anti-terrorism investigations where she routinely serves as the lead investigator for high-profile investigations. Her investigative efforts have led to the conviction and deportation of numerous Al-Shabaab terrorists, and she has enabled the DNP to thwart several attempted terrorist attacks after the 2014 La Chaumiere bombing in Djibouti City. Ms. Darar has faced challenges and threats to her personal safety since joining the Police Force. Criminals she detained or convicted have verbally abuse her when they were eventually released, and children have thrown rocks at her in the street, simply because she is a woman in uniform. Despite the abuse, she has persevered and remains committed to helping her entire community. Besides her passion for bettering the community through her law enforcement efforts, Ms. Darar has been a leader in community service. Four years ago, Ms. Darar helped start a charitable neighborhood organization that assists children in need and provides services and assistance to the local community.
The International Women of Courage Award programming began in Washington D.C. on March 7, 2019. Ms. Darar along with nine other awardees from around the world were honored in a ceremony presented by U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and the First Lady Melania Trump. After the ceremony, the ten awardees traveled separately to different cities across the United States for tailored professional exchange programs.
During her time in Seattle, Ms. Darar visited Seattle Girls’ School and spoke with Global Studies students in 7th and 8th grade. In her home country of Djibouti, only 35% of women are literate due to the custom of young women marrying early and having children rather than staying in school. Ms. Darar credits her drive to finish her education and go on to become one of only 30 women officers in a force of 40,000 to the support she received from her family and community. Her family had initially been unsure when Ms. Darar first expressed the desire to go into the Police Force, but after seeing her flourish they now support her fully. Her advice to students? “Keep going through education, for your rights and the rights of women.”
In addition to visiting Seattle Girls’ School, Ms. Darar had a private conversation with Chief of Police Carmen Best. Chief Best has had a long career in local law enforcement throughout which she has garnered the strong support of the community. Strong leadership is a skill that both Chief Best and Ms. Darar have cultivated from their extensive experience in the field.
In her career in the National Police Force of Djibouti, Ms. Darar has shown incredible commitment to enforcing the law and ensuring public safety through her counter-terrorism work; defying cultural and social norms and even working undercover in Somalia disguised as a man. The work that she and her female colleagues have done in the Police Force has started to shift cultural attitudes and the effectiveness of women police officers is being recognized as an invaluable asset to the Police Force. The police chief now stations at least two women to work in every department. The increasing number of women in the Police Force and the support from their male colleagues and police chief demonstrate that the status quo can change; someone just has to be willing to fight for it.
I was fortunate to be able to attend a public speaking event arranged by the World Affairs Council featuring Ms. Darar. Hearing her speak was truly inspiring. Her reserved manner is juxtaposed against her impressive feats of courage and steadfast attitude in the face of great adversity and personal risk. Thinking about the adversity I’ve faced in my own life – although it is very different from the adversity faced by Ms. Darar or the other International Women of Courage Awardees – it is inspiring to hear their stories of success despite facing barriers of gender, race, and cultural norms. I have found that building the confidence to be bold and assured of my experience and skills as a young woman working towards a career in International Education takes no small amount of courage. Ms. Darar’s story of struggle and success is a reminder that pursuing your passion is not an easy journey – it takes courage and determination to forge your own path, but the struggle makes the success all the more worth it.
About the author: Abigail Fredrickson is an intern with the International Visitor Program and will be starting graduate school this summer at the SIT Graduate Institute.