Refusing to call herself a pioneer, the Senior Constable Maha Sukkar is inspiring other women of the Islamic faith to follow in her footsteps and set an example for police forces around the world.
Walking the beat in Dandenong, in Melbourne’s south-east, Leading Senior Constable Maha Sukkar is a familiar face.
Migrating to Australia from Lebanon in 2000, it was an act of global terrorism a year later that sparked her desire to join the force.
Leading Senior Constable Sukkar said after the September 11 terror attacks, the attitudes of society towards her changed, so she embarked on a mission to change them back.
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“After September 11 those same people started saying bad things to me, to my face. I thought: what has changed? I am the same person I was the day before. So I wanted to change people’s perspectives.”
And in 2004 she did, making history as the first hijab-wearing officer.
In November that year, Maha Sukkar held the Qu’ran high above her head as she swore an oath to Victoria Police and received her badge from then police commissioner Christine Nixon.
“It was the best day of my life, even better than my wedding day. I still smile when I think about it. It was really hard work physically and mentally to convince Victoria Police that I can be part of [them] even if I have a headscarf on. The only difference is I might look a bit different but I’ll do the same job.”
Melbourne, November 26, 2004. Islamic police recruit Maha Sukkar receives her badge from Police Commissioner Christine Nixon at the Victoria Police AcademyAAP
Over her 13-year career in blue, she’s seen a lot of changes, mostly – she says – for the better.
Leading Senior Constable Sukkar said she still gets the occasional question about her headwear, but she delights in every opportunity to disprove the stereotype of a subservient hijab-wearing Muslim wife.
“I’m happily divorced. I’m a police officer who works night shifts and afternoon shifts. If I’m oppressed, how could I do that? I chose to wear it. My parents actually didn’t want me to wear it, but I chose to wear it.”
Her diversity is an asset on the Multicultural Liaison Unit at the Dandenong Police Complex.
Acting Inspector Chris Edwards said Leading Senior Constable Sukkar has not just helped change the way the region’s newly-arrived community members see the police, but also how the police think about the communities.
“When I first came into this role, I wanted to get my head around the literature, tolerance of religions, tolerance of cultures. Maha said it’s not about tolerance. It’s about acceptance.”
Figures from the Victoria Police Muslim Association suggest, over the last decade, the number of officers in the state who identify as Muslim has risen to about 130.
But in a force of over 14,000, officers like Leading Senior Constable Sukkar are still a minority.
It’s something she said she’s working to change.
“As I always tell people, we are part of the community, and in order to be part of the community, we need to help the community we are a part of. At the same time, [we] help the police understand more about our community, the multicultural community in general but the Muslim community in particular, and that way it’s a win-win for both.”
She has assisted more than 10 women of diverse backgrounds to join Victoria Police, but some believe her influence reaches much further than state and even national borders.
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The Islamic Council of Victoria’s Nail Aykan said he believes Leading Senior Constable Sukkar is not just the first hijab-wearing officer in Victoria, but in Australia and in many English-speaking countries.
He said she’s an example globally of how well diversity in law enforcement can work, “in profiling and modelling the diversification of the police force, to say ‘look, if it works for Victoria, if it works for Australia, it can work for us’.”
But, despite her achievements, Leading Senior Constable Sukkar refuses to be called a pioneer.
“I’m just a normal human being doing a job.”