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Policewoman battling for other women

Rita Superman profile

‘I’ve seen many things that make us wonder about the human race’ says the head of the police Anti-Trafficking Unit. THEO PANAYIDES meets a driven, cheery officer

John Kerry didn’t ask about the name. He was too tactful, assumes Rita Superman (née Theodorou), or didn’t want to ask personal questions during what was, after all, an official ceremony; or maybe he just took it for granted that ‘Superman’ must be a common Cypriot surname. This was in Washington DC a few weeks ago, when Rita stood beside eight other ‘Heroes’ from all over the world – a top official from Barbados, two human-rights activists from Mauritania – receiving an award from the US Secretary of State for her work in combating TIP, Trafficking in Persons. She’s been the head of the Cyprus police’s Anti-Trafficking Unit since 2005, based in a smallish office tucked away discreetly to the side of the main Police Headquarters so that women who’ve been victims of trafficking can come in and out without being seen.

John Kerry didn’t ask about the name – but a few other US officials did, once they’d gotten to know her better and made sure she wouldn’t be offended. What’s the story behind it? The Man of Steel in question was apparently her father-in-law, a fireman in colonial days as well as a big man with an authoritative presence. At one point, he’d distinguished himself in a daring rescue from a burning cinema – then, some days or weeks later, he was among a group of firefighters getting their identity cards issued. The British official in charge of ID cards recognised the big guy from the fire in the cinema – and, when Mr Chrysanthou gave his name to the clerk, the waggish Brit interjected: “No, no! Put him down as ‘Superman’”. “And so they did, and it stuck,” concludes Rita, with the air of an oft-told story.

She herself met the younger Mr Superman – her husband George – at Governor’s Beach when they were both in their teens; she’s been married since the age of 20 (she’ll be 50 in December) and they have three children, a son and two daughters. George is also a cop, indeed he’s the head of the Crime Prevention Squad and offers invaluable support to Rita in the operations carried out by her Unit. Did his unusual name make her hesitate at all, when it came to getting hitched? Not at all, she replies with a smile: besides, “I kept my maiden name as well – because of my principles generally, on gender equality and so on”.

I suppose you’d call her a feminist. She was, after all, among the very first policewomen in Cyprus, rising above a wave of male-chauvinist resistance. She’s looked out for victims of trafficking – primarily foreign women brought here as sex workers against their will – for many years, and was such a thorn in the side of cabaret owners that one of them hired a hitman to assassinate her (more on this later). Yet it’s hard to view her in those terms, because she’s so – well, nice. It sounds banal to say so, yet she really comes across as a good person: big smile, reddish hair, green eyes, unpretentious, soft-spoken. “Theo? I’m Rita,” she says, extending her hand. The walls of her office are bare, except for some pamphlets on trafficking; no awards, no diplomas, nothing to show she’s a member of GRETA, the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. She does plan to put up the certificate she got from John Kerry at some point – seems a shame not to – but that’s about it.

To say that she’s likeable and unthreatening isn’t just an idle observation – because coming across as a good person is a major asset in this job. The Anti-Trafficking Unit has 11 officers now (its upgrade was a big reason why the Americans moved Cyprus to coveted Tier 1 status) and Rita’s role is mostly supervisory – but for years she was actively involved in interviewing scared, tight-lipped women who didn’t trust the police and assumed that telling the truth about their work conditions would get them thrown in jail. It was Rita’s job to gain their trust, put herself in their shoes and convince them that she wanted to help. “I tell them, look, we’re all women,” she explains. “The circumstances of your life brought you here, my own circumstances happened to be better – but I could’ve ended up in your position. I don’t act like ‘I’m a cop and I’ll put you in jail, I have power and you’re nothing, you’re a prostitute’. No, we’d never play it like that.”

Take, for instance, Sylvia. She sat right where you’re sitting now, says Rita, pointing to my chair. Sylvia paved the way for the Unit’s first conviction, a pimp who was sentenced to eight years in prison – but Sylvia, a Bulgarian street hooker plying her trade in Nicosia, was initially reluctant to say anything at all. She just sat there sulkily, replying in monosyllables – but Rita broke her resistance, just by being candid and friendly and sensible.

“I asked her ‘Do you like what you do?’,” she recalls. “She said ‘No’. ‘Do you have kids?’ ‘Two daughters.’ ‘Do your daughters know what you do?’ ‘No.’ ‘Would you like it if they found out?’ ‘No.’ ‘Would you want your daughters to do what you’re doing, when they grow up?’ ‘No.’ ‘So then why do it?’ ‘To make money. So I can buy a flat for my daughters, then I’ll stop’.”

In fact, she was making almost nothing, notes Rita; the pimp was taking all her earnings, supposedly for safekeeping. You won’t ever stop, Rita told her, even if you buy the flat you’ll just move on to something else. I will stop, replied Sylvia stubbornly. Rita pointed out that street prostitutes make up a disproportionate number of murder victims. “‘Do you realise that you’re in danger from the clients? How can you trust some random man who stops his car, that he’s not sick or crazy or holding a knife?’ She looked at me, didn’t say anything. I said to her: ‘You’re a beautiful girl. You’re clever. You could be doing something else in your life. Why are you a prostitute?’. She thought for a while – I wasn’t expecting her reaction – then she said to me: ‘No-one’s ever talked to me like that before’. That little conversation with Sylvia was enough to make her co-operate”. Sylvia ended up in a women’s shelter, testified in court against her pimp, then, with the help of various NGOs, went to the UK and back to Bulgaria, where she’s now off the streets and doing fine.

The case of Sylvia isn’t entirely typical. For a start, she was out in the open, so it was easy enough to find her and bring her in. Most victims of trafficking aren’t on the streets, but hidden in bars or ensconced in apartments. In the old days, when cabarets exploited the so-called ‘artist’s visa’ to bring in women, ostensibly as dancers (the rules were later tightened, leading to the closure of most cabarets), the girls were effectively prisoners, under constant guard and only allowed to go down the road to the kiosk for a few minutes. These days the criminals are smarter, running escort services and allowing the girls to live semi-normally; “I don’t even know if we can talk about ‘trafficking’ anymore,” notes Rita ruefully (though of course living off the proceeds from prostitution, i.e. being a pimp, is also a crime). Women are often bought online, behind closed doors, as indeed – reportedly – are children. Recently they received a tip that young boys were being kept for sale in a Limassol hotel, she says, “but we weren’t able to corroborate it”.

The case of the Moroccan woman gang-raped by 10 men at a party. The case of the rich old man in Limassol who paid a monthly fee of €1,000 to a brothel to inform him every time a new virgin arrived. Traffickers bringing in pregnant women (quite often Roma, i.e. dirt-poor) so they can sell their babies for adoption. Arranged marriages gone wrong. Beggars employed by criminal gangs. “[I’ve seen] many things which have made us – how can I put it, made us wonder about human nature,” says Rita. “How far a person will go in debasing the human dignity of another person, just to satisfy his own instincts, his urges.”

Yet she seems so calm, so jolly. Isn’t she affected by the bad stuff she sees?

“It does affect you,” she replies. “I think it makes you a little more severe, as a person”. Being so close to others’ problems “doesn’t allow you to be sidetracked in your own life, to goof off, to let your hair down. You’re always a little bit reserved.”

Shouldn’t it be the opposite? Shouldn’t it make you enjoy and appreciate your own life?

“No, because you empathise,” she sighs. Maybe it’s unconscious, but you somehow become more grounded: when she sees people showing off, being snobbish, paying attention to what car they’re driving or what brand-name bag they’ve just bought – she doesn’t care about any of that, says Rita. “You start to realise where true value lies.”

Where does it lie?

“In human relationships”. In making people happy, being close to them. In growing as a person yourself. This is what she’s always told her daughters, she affirms: this is how she’s always tried to raise them, “to be confident in themselves, to have goals and dreams – not just marriage – to develop their personalities and try to become better people. Not just think about doing their nails, and making themselves beautiful for men.”

Maybe that’s the final piece in the Rita Superman puzzle – that in fact her name is doubly misleading, because (if anything) it should be ‘Superwoman’. She may not come across as an activist, but she’s spent most of her professional life as a woman battling for women. For all her mildness, she insists on equality. It drives her nuts when men and women retreat to separate tables at a dinner party, and it makes her angry when a woman joins the police force and her friends and family invariably try to pull strings to get her an office job, so she can go home at a reasonable hour to watch the kids and do housework.

She herself was uncompromising (it may have helped that her father was also a cop), always polite but refusing to be silenced. She was the first-ever woman in the Crime Intelligence Bureau, attending crime scenes and autopsies and getting into downright surreal arguments with her superior, who didn’t want a woman on the team. (“What if you have to climb a ladder to get fingerprints from a window after a burglary, could you do it?” he demanded when all other arguments had failed.) Maybe that was also partly why a cabaret owner loathed her enough to order her murder a few years ago – because a mere woman had dared to disrupt his business and take away ‘his’ girls. The assassin staked out his victim, and even planned out where he was going to do the deed – by the little bridge on Rita’s way home – but fortunately he was also an ex-cop who’d once worked with her husband, and found himself unable to go through with it. Had the hit been commissioned today, when hired killers come from abroad and have no sentimental attachments, we might not be having this conversation.

So much to talk about, so little time. Do I even dare ask what she does for fun? ‘Art’ is the rather surprising answer. She used to paint, and even make religious icons – but now she’s too busy, so she mostly helps her elder daughter Stavrina (who studied Fine Art in Florence) with her own creative projects. Does she ever regret that she joined the police force so young – she was one of the “children of the invasion”, desperate for steady employment – and never gave herself a chance to do anything else, maybe something artistic? Rita shakes her head.

“The police, for me, has been one big university,” she tells me. She’s learned so much, not just about police work but also about human nature – and about the women she’s devoted herself to protecting. “When I came to this job, I had the same attitudes to trafficking as the average Cypriot,” she admits. That these women were asking for it, “why don’t they become cleaners instead, why don’t they go to the cops, why don’t they go back home?”. Above all, perhaps, that this was a problem affecting foreigners – therefore not as vital as the problems affecting Cypriots. All these years later, just a few months from her own half-century, Rita Superman has stood beside Barbadians and Mauritanians and concluded – or confirmed – that we’re all the same, men and women, Cypriots or not, the Sylvias of the world and the cops across the desk from them. Empathy is what makes us human. The lack of it, you might say, is our kryptonite.

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