From 1970s TV cops Cagney and Lacey to sassy X-Files FBI agent Scully, women have been kicking ass in a domain traditionally reserved for men. But is the reality as glamorous as the books and films would have us believe?
An imposing soviet-era building in Mladost on the outskirts of Sofia houses the Academy of the Interior Ministry where Bulgaria's next generation of police, security and firefighters are being trained.
Every year, hundreds of hopefuls undergo rigorous tests to gain a place here. Candidates are attracted not only by the perceived kudos that a badge and a uniform represent (Sofia's "housewife's choice" mayor and general hardman Boyko Borisov graduated the Academy as a firefighter), but also by the job security the Academy offers. In an uncertain job market, graduates of the Academy are guaranteed a diploma and a job in their chosen area. Twenty percent of the places in the police department are allocated to females. Competition is fierce, with 10-15 girls competing for each place every year.
To make the grade, would-be cops and firefighters must pass demanding physical, intelligence and psychological assessments on top of the usual entrance exams that Bulgarian students must take in order to gain a university place.Raya Georgieva Stoyanova, (21), Bozhidara Alexandra Milanova, (20), and Margarita Raycheva Velikinska, (22), were three of the lucky ones who successfully made it through the tough selection process to earn themselves some of the coveted places at the Academy.
Like most of the academy's students, the girls live in dorms on campus. These are shared, "but bedrooms are girls or boys only!" Margarita points out. As a state university, students are funded by the government and receive performance-related stipends of 140-260 leva a month. Out of this, students pay "rent" of 20-40 leva which covers utilities such as electricity and heating.
A typical weekday begins at 7am. The girls shower and get dressed into their "everyday" - as opposed to "official" - uniforms, which they wear for class. Classes are from 8am-4pm from Monday to Friday and lunch is usually taken in the canteen, where meals are cheap at around two leva. The timetable is different every day, with studies covering four main areas: law, which makes up 25 percent of the overall curriculum, physical training and self-defence (13 percent), languages (14 percent), and "specialised" police training (48 percent), which includes everything from criminal psychology and criminal profiling, to hand to hand combat, finger printing, crime prevention and shooting. "I like the shooting best," says Bozhidara.
The academy has two indoor shooting ranges as well as an outdoor range at a nearby village. Here, students are taught to shoot automatic and semi-automatic weapons and Makarovs, the Hungarian-made guns which have been the standard sidearm of the Eastern Bloc forces since shortly after the Second World War and are now the weapon commonly used by the Bulgarian police force.
The girls take part in all aspects of their education alongside their male classmates and say that being in the minority isn't a problem; they are on "friendly terms" and are treated as equals by their male peers. Raya is a class monitor, so the guys in her class have to answer to her. Bozhidara even feels that the male to female ratio (80:20), along with the variety of classes, helps to make the academy more dynamic than other universities.
It's an intensive study programme, but the strict entry requirements mean that only serious, dedicated students make it onto the course and the drop-out rate is very low. This means that study takes up most of their time, but when the girls get time off, they like to relax like any other students: visiting their families at weekends, hanging out with friends in cafes, bars and clubs and going to the theatre and the cinema. There are no curfews on when they have to be in, even on weeknights, and no obligation to stay in their dorms, as long as they attend their lessons.
"I don't get much time to read, but when I do, I like Stephen King novels," says Raya. Bozhidara likes "action films with a message". "The last film I saw was Deja vu with Denzel Washington. I also like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie." Margarita's favourite film is Message in a Bottle. She's a big Kevin Costner fan and also likes Harrison Ford. She enjoys reading The Godfather novels.
Training to be in the police, it seems, also has added benefits outside the classroom. "A lot of the time guys don't believe me at first when I tell them what I do, but when they accept it they usually admire what I'm doing," says Margarita. Raya met her boyfriend at the Academy, where he's also studying. The couple want to work together when they graduate, but haven't decided where yet. Graduates usually request to work in their hometowns or in Sofia, but Raya is from Pernik, near Sofia, and her boyfriend is from Pleven in northern Bulgaria. "Maybe we'll choose a town in between where we can work together."
Bozhidara's boyfriend, however, a Mathematics and Physics student from her hometown of Plovdiv, had concerns about her career choice. "He shares all the emotions, including all the way through the application process. He worries a lot, but I know what I want to do and he supports all my decisions." Despite some initial reservations and worries about the danger involved in their chosen career, the girls' families are very supportive and proud of their daughters. "My father is a policeman," says Raya, "so it didn't come as much of a surprise."
After deciding that her early ambitions to be an astronaut were a little unrealistic, Raya became interested in pursuing a career in law. She decided that studying for the police force would be more interesting than doing a straight law degree, and graduates of the Academy have the option of going on to study a Masters in Law. Bozhidara also wanted to be a lawyer, but decided that being in the police was more hands-on and a better way to help people. Margarita trained in volleyball for five years. "If I wasn't in the police, I'd be doing something in sport." She made her decision to come to the academy three years before leaving school. "I wanted to be close to people and help them.
I had lots of friends in the police when I was growing up who told me stories which made me want to join." She is now the captain of the girls' football team at the academy.
They admit that their choices may have been influenced to some extent by the romantic portrayal of female cops in films and books, but the over-riding factor was a desire to help people and to do something interesting and useful. Their job prospects, which used to be fairly limited for women in the police force in Bulgaria, with most women being assigned to desk jobs or to work in juvenile detention centres, are now on a par with those of their male colleagues. It is not unusual now to have female sergeants and inspectors.
"When I graduate I don't want to be working behind a desk, I want to be out on the streets doing something useful," says Bozhidara. And there is nothing stopping her.
Policing in Bulgaria
Establishment of the Interior Ministry
Law on Police set the groundwork for professional training of police officers
First police training school was opened
Legal Decree on State Police established the State Police School
Central School was reorganised into the Higher School of the Interior Ministry two-year training programme
Establishment of the Higher School of the Interior Ministry four-year training programme
Introduction of the five-year training programme awarding an additional degree in law 1990 First female police on the street in Bulgaria
Reorganisation of the Higher School of the Interior Ministry into a university under the name of Academy of the Interior Ministry
Academy Entry Requirements for Bachelor's Degree:
• Bulgarian citizenship
• High school diploma
• No previous convictions
• Over 18 years old
• Clinically healthy, physically fit, min. height 1.68 m (5' 5") for males, min. height 1.6 m (5' 2") for females
• Mentally healthy and psychologically fit for service in the Interior Ministry