The Muslim woman among the “boys in blue”

By Jennifer Little

Reading time: 13 minutes

Fitting in as one of the “boys in blue” felt like the only option for young Muslim migrant Naila Hassan when she pursued her dream of joining the New Zealand Police 33 years ago.

It was her choice to blend in but also a necessary compromise, she felt, given there were very few women in the police at that time. Revealing her Muslim identity was completely off the cards back then. “I had to just fit in. There were so few women both in my recruit wing and when I started working in Auckland City. That old saying of ‘be one of the boys’ - that was genuinely it - be like everyone else and don’t stand out. Don’t be different, don’t do things differently, just kind of meld in and be accepted as one of the boys,” she says.

By Jennifer Little

Reading time: 13 minutes

Fitting in as one of the “boys in blue” felt like the only option for young Muslim migrant Naila Hassan when she pursued her dream of joining the New Zealand Police 33 years ago.

It was her choice to blend in but also a necessary compromise, she felt, given there were very few women in the police at that time. Revealing her Muslim identity was completely off the cards back then. “I had to just fit in. There were so few women both in my recruit wing and when I started working in Auckland City. That old saying of ‘be one of the boys’ – that was genuinely it – be like everyone else and don’t stand out. Don’t be different, don’t do things differently, just kind of meld in and be accepted as one of the boys,” she says.

Superintendent Naila Hassan – District Commander Waitematā

These days, at age 52, Naila is a Superintendent and District Commander for Waitemata, the first ethnic woman to reach this high ranking. She is also publicly proud to own her Muslim identity. Doing so has contributed hugely to her personal journey and her success story over the past few years. And though she receives occasional adverse feedback towards her identity, the mostly positive response is an indication of how far Aotearoa has evolved in regard to increasing ethnic diversity, notably in a public service known for being male-dominated until recent times.

It took about 25 years before Naila felt able to share her faith with colleagues. The ensuing media attention helped propel her into the limelight as an empowering role model for diversity. Then, when the 15 March 2019 terror attacks in two Christchurch mosques occurred, her role took on a whole new significance. “I remember that day so clearly – I was off work when it happened. It just seemed impossible that that could happen to our community. Just shocking.”

Her emotional speech to thousands gathered at Aotea Square for a memorial the day after the tragedy, in which 51 people were killed and many more injured by a lone gunman, made it clear she was the ideal person to front such a ceremony at a pivotal moment in history. It was no surprise that the video capturing the compassion and empathy of her words, along with her unique status as a Muslim woman in a police uniform, went viral.

“That speech at Aotea Square was the day that Naila Hassan had to step up for our community,” she reflects. “I talk sometimes about being a reluctant leader, or reluctant role model – but that was my day to step up and I’m super proud of doing it. At the time I felt embarrassed to show my emotions across the world, but I think what it did was it really showed where my heart sat, both in our organisation and in our ethnic community and Muslim community.”

Humble and self-effacing, Naila’s constant refrain is that her unexpected high profile is serendipitous – a timely catalyst for social change, not merely a personal goal.

Being different and fitting in

Naila (on the right) in Pakistan with her two sisters.

When Naila was five, her British mother and Pakistani father moved the family from London, where she was born, to New Zealand with their four children to settle in Auckland’s Mt Roskill. “When we first came to New Zealand there were not many Hassans in the phone book,” she says.

“We were different, everyone at school knew we didn’t eat pork and we didn’t go to [Christian] religious classes. There were a couple of other Indian families.” But she says she felt welcome.

Being a lifeguared has been an important role in Naila’s life and contributed to her decision to become a police officer.

Naila had always wanted to join the police, a dream reinforced by being a lifeguard through high school. “It was that real sense of fulfilment – being a part of saving a life. Of achieving something for someone, of feeling you’ve made a difference and there’s some meaning in your life,” she says.

“Mum and I had spoken about the police too. She’d always thought she might like to join the police but never did.”

Most of her police career has been in Auckland. She spent six years in the Criminal Investigations Branch, and has also been a prosecutor, a district prosecutions manager, an area prevention manager, a policing development manager, and a youth and communities manager.

During her time working with the police, she’s completed three degrees – a Bachelor of Policing (Investigations) from Charles Sturt University in Sydney, a law degree from the University of Auckland, and a Master of Strategic Studies from Victoria University of Wellington.

When Naila was promoted to Inspector in 2012, the Māori Pacific and Ethnic Services leadership team wanted to celebrate because she was the first female and ethnic police officer to achieve this title. “My then District Commander, former Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement, was highly influential. I was encouraged, in a nice way, to step outside of sitting behind a curtain all the time and not wanting to be different to, ‘actually, you are different – be proud of that difference’.”

“I am ever grateful and thankful for that moment that made me really think ‘it’s no longer about what Naila wants’. I’ve just taken on a position of leadership and it’s my responsibility to lead and be a role model.”

It was in 2015 when she started working in Counties Manukau as area commander that she began to connect with the Muslim community, visiting mosques and getting to know community leaders as a fellow Muslim. Up until this point, she’d distanced herself. “As a woman, you can practice your faith in your home and have it as part of your life without necessarily having to regularly attend a mosque.”

When her private faith became public knowledge, a media story suggested she had “hidden” her Muslim identity, which was not how she saw it. Since then, the doors have opened in her engagement with Muslim communities, she says. Muslims make up just over one per cent of New Zealand’s population, or approximately 60,000 people.

Naila at her pōwhiri as incoming District Commander, Waitematā District at Hoani Waititi Marae, 10 December 2018. She wears a korowai made by a Waitemata Māori Advisory Board member in the colours of the NZ Police uniform. The main design represents the teeth of the taniwha. In Māori folklore, the taniwha is a guardian/kaitiaki which, when treated with respect, will look after you.

“Quite early on, you get seen as this individual that the Muslim community wants to connect with. What I did with the leadership teams of the various mosques was to say: ‘now you trust an individual who wears a blue uniform’. My goal was to step through that process so it’s no longer about the woman, the individual who happens to wear a blue uniform and who you trust – I wanted that to morph into ‘trust the uniform and trust the New Zealand Police’.”

A lack of trust among migrants towards police was a reality she’d faced – it’s partly cultural because many in ethnic communities have immigrated from Asian and Middle Eastern countries where corruption can be rife and there is less trust in police or even government, she says.

Champion for diversity and inclusion

Naila has observed that recent leaders – starting under Police Commissioner Mike Bush’s reign and continuing under current Police Commissioner Andrew Coster – have made a real effort to increase diversity within the police; not just age, gender, and ethnicity but also people from all walks of life, with different qualifications and life experiences. There are currently 591 ethnic police officers deployed across the country. “It’s about connecting and reflecting the community that you serve. It’s easier to connect with your community when you have a greater level of diversity in your organisation,” she says. “I think the more diverse we get as an organisation, the stronger we’ll be.”

Naila with staff at the northern border checkpoint on SH1 in December 2021.

“The biggest thing for me is ‘bring yourself to work’. The person you are at home – the mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister; the gardener, the animal lover, the surf lifesaver – bring those things to work because those qualities are what we as an organisation want to see.”

These words are truly underscored by what Naila achieved as a Muslim woman police officer in the aftermath of March 15. As well as her frontline work, every night after work she visited the family of a young girl injured in the mosque attacks who was transferred to Auckland’s Starship Children’s Hospital, and has remained close friends with the family.

Naila wearing a hijab on her trip to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, during the Hajj pilgrimage she attended with victims of the Christchurch terror attack, August 2019

In 2019, Naila was invited by the king of Saudi Arabia to lead a group of 200 pilgrims – survivors and widows of the March 15 terror attack – to perform Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

It was a momentous journey – one she’d hoped to make with her father who passed away a number of years before. That same year she received a highly prestigious award from the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation for her contribution to the world’s Muslim community. Only the third woman in the organisation’s 50-year history to be awarded, she flew to Saudi Arabia to receive it.

Naila (third from left) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, November 2019) receiving the award from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for her contribution to Muslims worldwide following the 15 March 2019 Christchurch terror attack. The award wording says: “In recognition of her endeavours in fulfilment of the OIC’s objectives.” It was the first award of its type in recognising a Western citizen.

Being and belonging

Naila and her partner, Pete Bruggeman on a cycling trip in France

Fitness for mental and physical wellbeing is vital for this police officer/multi-sport athlete. Naila’s up at 5am every morning, for her endorphin fix, to train in indoor cycling. On weekends, she loves to free dive with Pete, her partner of 20 years. They go on cycling holidays in Europe every few years. She’s done body building and competed internationally in bob sled racing and is the only woman who’s driven a bob sled for New Zealand in international competition.

Weekends are also for spending time with her twin sister, Samina, “my number one person in my world – we live close by, we speak every day; we spend our weekends together.”

For this superintendent super-woman, belonging and inclusion are nuanced and essential in policing success – personally, for fellow officers, and the communities they serve.

“I’ve really focussed on diversity as a step to inclusion. For many years in our organisation, I didn’t really feel like I belonged. I was living two lives – personal and professional.”

“Inclusion,” she explains, “is a step past diversity. It’s something I feel really strongly about – it means you feel like you belong. It’s one thing being different; it’s another thing feeling like you belong. Today in the organisation, I feel like I belong. This is me.”

Naila, an avid animal lover

To immerse yourself in more articles like this, Subscribe or Log in