Egypt women fight for right to army combat posts

Amid recurrent calls to allow Egyptian women to join the army, some Egyptian experts say this is an inherent right, while others deem such calls to be illogical and against Sharia.

al-monitor Egyptian students and Air Force Academy graduates attend the graduation of 83 aviation and military science cadets at the Air Force Academy in Cairo, Egypt, July 20, 2016. Photo by The Egyptian Presidency/REUTERS.

Mar 29, 2018

CAIRO — While President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared 2017 to be the “Year of the Egyptian Woman,” it failed to empower women militarily. Still, Jihad el-Komy, founder of the Moganada Masriya (Female Egyptian Conscript) campaign has continued to seek to convince officials to accept Egyptian women as soldiers and officers in combat units of the armed forces. On March 11, Komy met with Maya Morsi, head of the National Council for Women, to ask her to bring up the campaign to other top government officials.

Morsi praised the campaign as a true reflection of Egyptian women's increasing awareness of the security threats facing the country. She promised to discuss the demands of the campaign with officials and pointed out that such strong determination will put the campaign's demands into force very soon. Morsi, however, has yet to take tangible steps in the matter.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Komy said the campaign was launched in June 2011 but failed to receive adequate media coverage due to the political situation in Egypt following the January 25 Revolution.

She said calls for Egyptian women to be recruited into the armed forces have been recurrent since Sisi praised the role of women in the Jan. 25 and June 30 revolutions and following the 2014 presidential elections, which prompted the wide use in December 2014 of a hashtag that translates as “Egyptian female soldier."

Komy said all this allowed her, in February 2015, to meet with then-Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb, who promised to consider allowing women in combat roles and come up with the necessary legal amendments. He raised the issue with the Cabinet and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. However, no progress was achieved as Mehleb’s term came to an end in September of the same year.

She said she then tried to raise the issue in September 2015 by asking many citizens from various provinces to sign a petition calling for allowing women to become soldiers and officers in the army's combat units, but her attempt was not met by any official response.

“We reiterated our calls for [including] young women in the armed forces in February 2018, concurrently with the comprehensive armed forces operation in the Sinai Peninsula against terrorism, as four young women went to volunteer in the Egyptian armed forces Feb. 15,” she added.

This year, Komy's repeated calls have received wide media coverage, especially after she met with Morsi. Several newspapers and media outlets interviewed Komy, most recently the Masrawy portal. During a March 13 interview with Masrawy, Komy reiterated her call for Minister of Defense Sedky Sobhy to consider the recruitment of young women, their participation in the war and arming them in emergency cases such as that of the comprehensive operation in Sinai. She said more than 20,000 young women are willing to join the army.

Komy noted that the campaign does not aim to impose conscription on women, as is the case with men, but rather to allow their voluntary recruitment into combat troop units, instead of having their role limited to being in the administrative and nursing departments, as is currently the case.

She said the current situation and the comprehensive operation in Sinai call for the recruitment of more soldiers and combat volunteers.

Asked why the campaign has failed to achieve its goals, she said some people with hard-line religious and social views rejected the campaign and put pressure on the state to prevent it from amending the Military and National Service Act No. 127 of 1980, which stipulates that combat roles in the military are for men only.

Abdel Moneim al-Saeed, former head of the armed forces operations commission, told Al-Monitor, “It is impossible for young men to join combat troops because they cannot put up with the difficulties that male fighters go through, and supposing there are women who can, these would be the exception rather than the rule. The armed forces already allow young women to join them as specialized officers and assistant civil servants.”

Currently, the armed forces only accept women as civil servants or specialized officers outside of combat missions. For example, women who have medical degrees can be medical officers in the army, or those with communications degrees can serve as press and media officers.

Abdel-Rafeh Darwish, a retired major general, told Al-Monitor that women’s desire to join the armed forces is an example of patriotism that must be rewarded and honored by allowing their recruitment into the armed forces and allowing them to join combat troops, should they prove physically fit for the task. He said in cases where women meet the required conditions, nothing should stop them from joining the armed forces.

On Nov. 1, 2016, the Supreme Council of Al-Azhar issued a fatwa asserting that the recruitment of women is against Sharia because the hardships of army recruitment can prove humiliating for women. The fatwa stated that women can bear hardships that are no less difficult, namely pregnancy and childbirth, but that when their husbands go to war, women are required to complete their role by raising their children, managing their homes and treating their husbands well once home.

Despite this fatwa, Mahmoud Ashour, former deputy sheikh of Al-Azhar, believes that Islam has no reason to prevent women from joining the army.

He told Al-Monitor, “The wives of the Sahaba [companions of the Prophet Muhammad] went with the men on the invasions against the polytheists, and they participated in the treatment of the injured. Also, Umm Amara [one of the female companions of the prophet] took up arms, defended Muhammad in the Battle of Uhud and showed more courage and strength than men.”

On the human rights level, Azza Karim, a researcher at the Egyptian National Center for Social and Criminological Research, told Al-Monitor that the calls to recruit women in the armed forces are half-baked because men can endure a greater deal of psychological and physical pressure, and females are only recruited in societies with low fertility rates.

“Calls to recruit females are meaningless because Egyptian society is capable of providing males in numbers that exceed the needs of the armed forces, and having women join the armed forces could cause psychological and physical harm for women given that they might get caught, tortured, raped or sexually harassed by terrorist organizations,” she added.

Nahal Omran, executive director of the Cairo Center for Development, told Al-Monitor that women have the right to join the army and take up positions they feel capable of assuming, be they medical or administrative positions or positions in combat units. Assuming that women are not qualified to do so is a “pre-judgment that deprives them of the right to try,” she said.

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