A recent decision by Egypt's Ministry of Social Solidarity mandating all youth to complete at least a year's worth of community service has caused a stir among Egyptians, with some even describing it as compulsory civil conscription for women.
The decision is the first to impact women in 2017, a year that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has labeled the "Year of Women." According to ministry officials, many companies will require a certificate of completion of public service upon hiring. The decision, which is based on the 1973 Public Service Act No. 76, will go into effect in February.
However, many university students rejected the decision due to its compulsory nature.
“I will be forced to spend a whole year doing unpaid work just to get a certificate at the end,” said Rasha Mohamed, a university student. “We were not keen on performing public service because the companies that we apply for don’t ask about it, but I think this decision will put more restrictions.”
Unlike Mohamed, Sara Hassan, also a student, welcomed the decision as a way for her to serve her country.
“I support this decision because it’s an honor serving my country,” Hassan told Al-Monitor.
The ministry decision represents a government attempt to harness the energy of Egyptian young people, including young women, who represent 49% of Egypt's population. However, several campaigns that have called for women's inclusion in the military were disheartened by the decision, which they described as not living up to their ambitions.
Jihad el-Komy, 20, the founder of Mognda Masria (A Female Conscript) campaign, has been calling for females to be allowed to join the military since 2011, but she rejected the ministry’s decision because it is limited to civil service.
“It’s like a civil conscription, and that’s not our demand. We want an optional military [enrollment],” Komy told Al-Monitor.
Egypt has a mandatory military service program for males starting at age 18, though enrollment is regularly postponed for students until the end of their university studies, so long as they enroll before they turn 28. A male with no male siblings, or a male who supports his parents, is exempt from military service.
Military service is not required for females, although they do work in administrative and medical posts. Yet Komy’s dream is to join the army and receive military training.
“We demand military training for women to raise their national awareness and sense of belonging. We also want to establish a separate training center for women to train them in martial arts. This will also allow women to protect themselves against harassment,” she told Al-Monitor.
Two years ago, Komy, a sociology student at Alexandria University, met then-Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb to discuss her campaign.
“After he left his post, no one called us, and we still want to be heard,” said Komy, who has obtained 500,000 signatures from females across the country who support her campaign. Jihad said she has held a number of silent protests to express her demands.
“Our next step is to meet some of the members of parliament to discuss our idea with them,” she added.
Moganada Masreya is not the only campaign that calls for military conscription for women. Several similar campaigns have appeared recently on social media.
Hajar Khaled, 18, the founder of the Jnedona (Conscript Us) campaign, based in Sharqia governorate, is also calling for military service for females, especially those who study vocational education.
“Public service is for university and high institute graduates. But we need to work in the military police in the security field. We also call for military training [for females], as we want to be ready to participate in any event and to confront violent acts against women and harassment,” said Hajar, who studies in a secondary commercial school in Sharqia.
“Female graduates of secondary commercial schools can volunteer in the military police and work as secretaries, while girls who studied in health or nursing institutes can volunteer in medical services,” Hajar explained.
Mainly inspired by Kurdish female fighters in Syria, Hajar’s dream is to fight "the enemies of the country."
“In Syria, there are female conscripts who are only 18 or 19 years old, and they are on the front lines fighting the Islamic State. We are no less than they are,” she said. Jnedona has around 15,800 supporters on Facebook. She has not yet received a reply to the several letters she has sent to the president seeking support.
Amany Ghoneim, head of the Central Department for Social Development at the Ministry of Social Solidarity, said that the desire of young women to serve in the army is much appreciated, but that the ministry's recent decision does not extend to the military.
“If it is a decision about ‘conscription,' it won’t be issued by the Ministry of Social Solidarity. The ministry’s decision states that all university and higher institute graduates who are not eligible or exempt from army conscription are tasked to perform public service for a year,” Ghoneim told Al-Monitor. She also said the word "conscription" was not accurate and described it as “public service.”
“Public service is compulsory for females and males who want to apply for work in the companies that require the certificate of public service, and many companies in the public and private sectors will require it,” she said.
According to Ghoneim, public service has several benefits. It is a national duty that allows young people to help develop their society, and it also helps them gain professional experience and enables them to engage with people of all social classes.
The graduates can perform public service in more than 35 fields. They can teach literacy classes, monitor orphanages and participate in family planning campaigns, said Ghoneim.
“We don’t force the graduates to perform their public service in a specific field, we let them choose the field they want,” she said.
Ghoneim said the government offers a monthly remuneration of 4 Egyptian pound (less than 25 cents) for their public service, but that many institutions offer up to 200 or 600 Egyptian pound ($10-$30) a month. She also added that a proposal is in the works to amend some articles of the 1973 law to increase remuneration.
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