It is a fact on the ground in Egypt that women have access to a wide choice of careers. But even so, some work spheres are still closed to them. Among these is volunteering for military service which has always been an exclusively male domain. The times are changing, however, and some 11,019 young women have joined the Facebook group Mugannada Misriya (Female Egyptian Soldier) since it was formed in 2011, and the numbers are climbing.
The group founder, Gihad al-Komi, says the aim is to establish a military school for girls and a university level college to prepare women who wish to volunteer for military service.
Out of a sense of patriotism and eagerness to protect her country, Ms Komi aspired to join the army as a soldier. She found out first hand, however, that the army was open to women professionals such as doctors, nurses, and administrators, but not to women in combat duty.
Together with a number of other women, Komi collected signatures and sent a petition to the Northern Military Region management in Alexandria citing their wish to join the army as soldiers. The military administrators who received it flatly refused to deliver the petition to their superiors; so sure were they that it contradicted all Egyptian military norms. So far no one from the military leadership ever got back to Ms Komi and her friends.
The campaign for women in the Egyptian army has representatives in all Egypt’s governorates, and its many female supporters include former vice president of the Supreme Constitutional Court Tahany al-Gebali; Manal al-Damati, head of the Egyptian Women’s Assembly; Mervat al-Tallawi, head of the National Council for Women (NCW); Nahed Lasheen, one of the few mayors in Egypt; Rehab Abdel-Hameed, the first woman to achieve the rank of Captain in the army; Jihan al-Sadat, widow of the late president; and the actresses Soheir al-Morshedy and Samira Abdel-Aziz. Among the male supporters of the campaign are the former goalkeeper for the Ahly club and Egypt’s national football team Ahmed Shubeir, and the well-known Egyptian journalist and TV anchor Mahmoud Saad.
The campaign’s representative in Cairo and one of its prominent founders, Israa’ Muhammad, says: “We tried in every way to contact the military leadership; we even sent messages on the official Facebook page of the army, but got no feedback.”
The group has held rallies in Cairo, Ain Shams and Minya universities. The campaign’s first conference was led by Manal al-Damati under the sponsorship of Tahany al-Gebali and the campaign’s founders and was attended by many of its members. Dr Damati called the conference a message to the world that the young women of Egypt were a source of pride and honour to their country. Security expert General Muhammad Abu-Hussien, Colonel Hatem Saber and Father Boutros Daniel, head of the Catholic Egyptian Cinema Centre, also attended the conference as well as a number of public figures and their wives.
Women already there
Military expert General Talaat Musallam said he liked the idea of women in the military, and reminded that it was not new for Egyptian women. “They are already working for the military and police,” he says, “albeit in support roles.” When faced with the comparison Mugannada Misriya was holding with the women who were allowed to volunteer in the Soviet army in World War II, he replied that in the Egyptian case, more studies were needed before a decision could be taken to allow women in combat. “We must remember that when the Soviet Union did this it was in urgent need of huge numbers of soldiers. People must understand that military life is not easy for women, whether in war or peacetime. It is already not easy for men.” If a military leader is assigned to a hard mission and has to choose between a male and female soldier, General Musallam said, he would select the male to guarantee success of the mission. “This would definitely hurt the female,” he said.
Samia Khedr, professor of sociology at Ain Shams University, pointed out that women had been joining the army for more than 50 years as medics and in administration. “I propose making a section in the military department for women where they can study and plan for solving societal problems such as street children and garbage collection. In this case women can work under the strict discipline and ample facilities of the military, thereby securing a high success rate for their projects. We need them to solve such problems much more than to hold weapons and fight enemies.”
Dr Kedr added: “Egyptian people won’t easily accept the idea of a woman becoming a soldier, owing to our customs and traditions.”
Professor of sociology at Cairo University Gamal al-Reedi said he supported the Mugannada Misriya campaign and it was time to change the inherited but invalid social principles that held women’s role to be only in the home. “She must be given the chance to prove herself in military life, since women are quite capable of bearing harsh circumstances and in some cases they are better at it than men.” Dr Reedi believes women have skills that make them able to learn anything.
The Secretary-General of the NCW, Manal Omar, has given the council’s full backing to the campaign and said it was coordinating on the issue with State ministries. Council members believe a woman has an equal right to men in all occupations, and that if a woman thinks a specific job is hard she need not apply for it, but she should not be prevented by law from applying. The same applies to a man.
Dr Damati said the assembly had supported the campaign from its inception, since young women were able to tell the world that they were ready at any time to serve their country and were willing to die to protect it. She asked why there were no military training schools for girls. They did not have to go to the battle front, but they could do other jobs such as protecting government offices or fighting internal chaos and violence.
A step too far?
Watani decided to sound the public on the issue of women recruits.
A member of an older generation, Gamil Edward, 56, totally disagreed with the idea of women as soldiers. The idea was unrealistic, he said; he was concerned about the security of his daughters on the street, so how could he send them to live in the desert? It was sheer madness, he insisted. While not opposed to the concept of women serving their country and agreeing that women are equal to men, he considered this a step too far.
Another father of two young women in university, Mohsen Mahmoud, questioned the soundness of the idea. “You mean that during the phase in their lives when young women should marry and form families, they should instead become fighters in the army?” he said. “Why should the natural desire to have a family be pushed back in favour of becoming a soldier? Which of the two roles is more suited to a woman’s nature or to the needs of the community? God knows there are enough men out there to do the fighting.”
Muhammad Khaled, 60, called the gesture heroic but said it was neither easy nor simple. He praised the women who showed such initiative, but said they would need a long time to persuade the community and gain its support for their right to volunteer as soldiers. Many women are still fighting for equal opportunity in the workplace, he said.
How the young see it
The opinions of young people in this regard differed. Mirna Mourad, a 25-year-old female university graduate, thought the Mugannada Misriya campaign was a slap in the face of such non-patriotic individuals in the Egyptian community who call on young men to evade military service and, instead, use the time to ‘build their own future’. One such campaign was recently launched on Facebook under the name Ekhlaa (Escape). On the other hand Mina Essam, 22, thought female volunteers should only be given administrative jobs because “women’s nature is kind and sensitive and they can’t carry heavy weapons or even stay in the burning sun for long time.” Clearly he had not seen television footage of women fighting in Afghanistan.
Emmy Mohsen, also 22, said the campaign members were inspiring because they wanted to serve their country, even at the cost of their lives. She stressed, however, that one should see the difference between them and those women who attach themselves to violent terrorist groups. “The reason for this initiative should not be anything but love for the country. It is not easy for a woman to exchange her feminine style and clothing for fatigues and forget fear and weakness. Yet Egyptian women are no less than the Peshmerga women fighters who put to shame IS male fighters, nor than Israeli women recruits.”
Presenting a typical male view was Mahmoud Nasser, 30, who disagrees with the campaign. A woman could serve her country from her home, he said, by bringing up her children to be patriotic. He added that it was better to campaign for women to wear the hijab and teach mothers how to bring up their children. In a similar vein Rami al-Sawi, 21, said such campaigns were provocative and a great insult to Egyptian men. He wondered what had happened to them: had they all died and their place now had to be taken by women?
So will the young Egyptian woman succeed, as she has succeeded in so many fields of life, to become a soldier and hold her weapons ready to defend Egypt? Or will the country come up with enough obstacles to stop her?
4 February 2015