RUKSHANA Begum is, without question, one of a kind. This week, the 23-year-old will become the first police officer ever to wear the Muslim hijab, or headscarf, on duty in Cambridgeshire. And she can't wait.
"I've struggled to get where I am," she admits. "But I feel that my generation is the one which is going to break barriers. I hope that people will look at me and think, 'If she can do it, so can I'."
When they discovered she was planning to join the police force, Rukshana's parents went mad. Such a thing was, she explains, unheard of for a young Muslim woman. But, aged just 19, Rukshana herself had no doubts about what she wanted to do.
"I'd always been interested in the police," she explains. "And while I was at Cambridge Regional College I studied public services. The more I learned, the more I thought 'This is really good, I wouldn't mind doing it myself '.
"When I left college and was applying to university, I decided I may as well apply for a job with the police too - keep my options open. But when the letter arrived, saying I'd passed the application stage, my sister opened it by mistake - we have the same initials.
"She showed my parents, and they were really shocked, mostly because I hadn't mentioned it to them. They were disappointed, because they've always been very pro education and wanted me to continue my studies.
"But I didn't want to give up on policing, so we came to a compromise:
I'd go to university and do a degree, like they wanted, but I'd also join the specials, so I could be a part of the police force in my spare time."
One of eight children, Rukshana stuck to her word. And, during her training, her parents seemed to come round to the idea. But when she started going out on duty, for four hours each and every week, her mum and dad quickly voiced their disapproval.
"I think their reservations had a lot to do with me being the first, it just wasn't expected," she adds. "And it happened to coincide with a regular officer's arm being slashed. That made them take a step back.
"My dad said 'Are you sure you want to do this? There's so much risk
* you could end up getting killed'. But the way I see it, there's risk in every job - my dad's a taxi driver, and any weirdo could get into his cab. At least in the police you're trained to deal with it."
Along with their fears for her safety, Rukshana thinks her parents had a negative perception of the British police. Hailing from Bangladesh, Rukshana's family once had to call officers to their Cambridge home after a group of youths threw stones at their window.
"The police came but said they couldn't do anything, and my dad took it quite personally," she explains.
"Whatever the police force might have been like in the past, I've found it to be very inclusive."
Despite her family's reservations, Rukshana was determined to carry on policing - and even resorted to keeping some of her shifts a secret.
"One of the reasons I didn't want to stop, despite the pressure from family, was how welcoming the force had been," she explains.
"They really look after you. And whenever anything big's going on, like a festival, they give me a ring and ask if I want to do it. That makes you feel really involved and appreciated."
Rukshana has just completed a degree in criminology at Anglia Ruskin. And she admits it's not always been easy to fit in her shifts as a special.
"Once or twice I had to cancel a duty when family came over," she confesses. "They'd say 'Is your daughter a police?', like it was something shameful. It did wind me up. It's such a respectable thing to do, it's not like I was dossing in my spare time."
Since those early days, Rukshana's family and friends have got used to her being a special. A handful of relations, thinking of signing up themselves have even asked for application forms.
Raised a devout Muslim, who learned how to pray and read the Qur'an at Cambridge's Abu Bakar Siddiq Mosque on Mawson Road, Rukshana recently came to another big decision: from now on, she's going to wear hijab - even when she's on police duty.
"Our parents never forced us to wear it," explains Rukshana. "But I'm a practising Muslim: I pray, I read the Qur'an, I fast during Ramadan . . . I thought 'If I can do all that, I want to take the next step forward to show my devotion to my faith'.
"And so I decided to wear a headscarf. You can't cherry pick when and where to wear it. That would be hypocritical, wouldn't it?"
Rukshana contacted Cambridgeshire Specials Co-ordinator Shahina Ahmed, herself a Muslim. At the time, last autumn, hijab was not issued as part of standard uniform. So the constabulary set about getting a scarf designed and made specially for Rukshana.
Sourcing various examples, from the few UK forces which provide hijab, they came up with the finished design earlier this year - with safety in mind. While most headscarves are held in place with pins, Rukshana's is fastened with a strip of poppers.
Should an assailant grab her hijab, while on duty, it will simply pull apart. Made to order by a tailor in Yorkshire, from a special stretchy material, the scarves cost £15 each to buy.
"I think it's a very positive thing," says Shahina. "The Chief Constable, Julie Spence, has been supportive from day one. But we did have some resistance from members of the force, asking 'Do you want to put your officer at risk?' I don't see it that way
* people have to accept you for who you are."
After four years as a special (the only Muslim in her station), Rukshana has done everything from directing traffic to dealing with public disorder offences. And she's never encountered any violence or racism.
"People have always looked at me and known I was from an ethnic minority," she explains.
"Wearing a headscarf will narrow down my identity - people will know I'm a Muslim.
"And I see that as a really positive thing; it feels right for me, and I'm not expecting any negative impact.
"Since 9/11, the whole terrorism thing, people think all Muslims must be members of al Qaeda. But my family is from Bangladesh, which is nowhere near the Middle East.
"Hopefully, when people see me out on the street in my police uniform, it will make them think again."
Supporting her choice
RUKSHANA'S move to wear hijab has received the backing of Cambridgeshire Constabulary's top brass.
"Our staff represent the many communities we serve, and we respect and always try to accommodate any adaptation staff with particular beliefs may want to make to their uniform," says Deputy Chief Constable John Feavyour.
"Uniform is obviously there to serve a purpose in terms of identity and safety, and all changes to uniform are made in line with guidelines that ensure the officer or staff member is able to conduct their normal policing or other duties safely and effectively."
Her efforts have also been welcomed by the wider Muslim community in Cambridge. Abdul Arain is coordinator of Cambridge Muslims Online and a leading member of the Abu Bakar Siddiq Mosque on Mawson Road in the city. He says: "Muslims in the UK are active supporters of and instigators in the positive progress of British society.
They should be able to fully integrate with every section of that society, including the armed forces, the police force and all the other institutions which exist. So this is definitely a step in the right direction."
Father is proud of policing career choice
RUKSHANA'S father, Asgor Ali, has told the Newshow much he admires his daughter's determination.
"I am a very proud father," he says. "I wasn't sure to start with, I'll admit that. You only have to look at a newspaper or turn on the TV to hear about incidents involving police officers, so that was on my mind.
"But an officer from the force came to visit me in my home to explain more about the job, and now I'm pretty happy with what Rukshana is doing.
"She's the only police officer in Cambridgeshire wearing a hijab, and I'm very happy she's chosen to wear it. It's very much in our religion. I think it's a very positive thing.
"Rukshana is a very strong character and very determined - she said 'Yes, this is what I want to do' and she stuck to it. I'm very happy she wants to do something with her life.
"I know she'll be dealing with all sorts of people, sometimes good and sometimes not. But life is about challenges, isn't it?"
Forces gear up for hijab wearers
AT THE moment, Rukshana is very much in the minority - among both regular and special police officers. A spokesman for the national Police Federation says it is almost impossible to quantify the number of Muslims nationwide who elect to wear hijab on duty, because it is very much a personal choice and, as yet, the headscarf isn't issued as uniform across many forces.
Ibrar Hamed, of the Association of Muslim Police in London, says the Met are currently in the process of introducing hijab as a standard uniform option.
While Rukshana will wear a protective bowler hat on top of her hijab when necessary, to protect her head from potential blows, the Met's aim is to provide a special skull cap instead, which can slot under the scarf.
"In brief, the policy states there is a need to risk assess the officer's tasking," adds Ibrar. "If the risk assessment indicates a bowler hat would normally be required, then the officer can obtain a protective insert for her hijab from clothing stores.
She should not normally be forced to wear a bowler hat over her hijab but has the choice to do so."
Source: Cambridge News (English)
See also: London: Row over handshaking