A movement championing the right of women to enlist in the military is taking on conservative gender politics, the military status quo and religious doctrine.
CAIRO — The two large banners being held by a group of 15 young women outside Cairo University read: "We have given up our feminine clothes for the military uniform."
They chant, "Listen to me: I'm not awra," referring to the parts of the body that must be covered according to Islam. "I carried the revolution on my shoulders. Our president, our president, let our girls join our army."
The women are members of the Moganada Masriya campaign, which champions female conscription, and are making one of their first public appearances. Some are wearing camouflage pants and combat boots with camouflage-print caps mounted atop high buns covered in beige-colored headscarves.
Not all of them look the part, but they are all calling for the same thing: to allow women to join Egypt's Armed Forces.
Photo: Jihad Elkomy/Facebook
The campaign was first born out of the military frenzy that accompanied the July 3, 2013, toppling of former President Mohamed Morsi under the leadership of then-Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. But it has recently picked up steam again as group members intensify their efforts and continue to garner support from state institutions.
"The events of July 3, 2013, fueled all of us," says member Shahd Hussein.
Similarly, her colleague Shahinaz Gamal explains that "the recent events are the biggest motivator. Our lives are for Egypt, and we are all hoping for martyrdom."
Love for the country and the military is also the main motive for campaign founder Jihad al-Komy, though she also cites frustration with the gender segregation that excludes her and other women from the front lines.
A lifelong dream
Komy is a serious-looking young woman in her early twenties with long, black hair who, unlike the majority of the campaign's members, wears it uncovered.
"The reason for founding the campaign was out of my love for the nation and my deep belonging to the military,"she says. "I have always hoped to earn the honor of conscription from when I was young."
Komy believes that women need to join the fight. "The current circumstances are the biggest motivation for conscription, especially in light of terrorist groups using women in their operations," she says. "The same way there are male terrorists, there are also female terrorists, and therefore there should be female conscripts."
But there is also some gender equality logic in the campaign. Komy doesn't understand why she's unable to fulfill her lifelong dream, even though several other countries around the world allow women to enlist. "The Egyptian woman has proven herself throughout history — from the days of the Prophet until the French occupation," she argues.
Hussein, who has been a campaign member for six months, also says that it has been a long-held dream to join the military. "I was so happy to learn of this campaign, and it was the happiest day of my life when I joined," she says. "I feel as though the dream and the goal are so near."
Gamal even attempted to apply for a position in the army, but was rejected, she says, because it only accepts women from fields such as nursing, nutrition and psychology.
The campaign has enjoyed initial support from various state institutions. For one, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb called on the group's leader in Gharbiya to join him on a tour of the governorate, Komy says.
It's the second time the prime minister has reached out to the campaign. In February, a small number of members were invited to meet with Mehleb, then-Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim and Armed Forces Recruitment Director Mohie al-Din Abdel Alim. The meeting was arranged by order of the president himself after he had received several letters from the campaign, whose ultimate goal is to meet with their idol, Sisi. Even before his ascent to the presidency, he repeatedly sought to express his special regard for thewomen of Egypt.
Komy says the group has only accomplished 70% of its goals by meeting with government officials and getting their support. It has yet to organize a sit-down meeting with Sisi himself. But she stresses that Mehleb reassured her that her group's file is on the president's desk.
Mainstream nods, detractors too
The campaign also recently received an endorsement from the National Council for Women. Council head Mervat al-Talawy announced May 15 that she supports the movement, and is working toward helping its members achieve their goal.
Thanks to publicity on its Facebook page as well as public outreach, the campaign has obtained 20,000 signatures on a petition to allow female conscripts, to allow women in the military to receive weapons training, and to establish military academies for women. The campaign is also in the process of negotiating a protocol with the Education Ministry to allow for it to organize awareness-raising campaigns.
But despite the state's endorsement, the campaign has its fair share of conservative detractors, which has forced the issue of marginalized gender dynamics into the conversation.
According to campaign member Hussein, the group often receives insults taunting them with sexist statements. These messages have even escalated to death threats, she says, particularly against the group's founder. Komy says she receives threats against her and her family, and has had her phone number and address shared publicly.
One thread on the campaign's Facebook page has a first lieutenant from the Armed Forces arguing that the military should remain for men only, accusing these women of trying to ruin the country. A campaign member fired back by saying that men often dread their military conscription and hope for any excuse to be exempt and that therefore women are more worthy. The comment points to the numerous violations Egyptian conscripts face during their service, which many soldiers have cited, but the campaign's enthusiastic women overlook these injustices.
Dalia Abdel Hameed, a gender and women's rights officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), poses a different kind of critique. She finds their desire to enlist paradoxical, given the rise of gender-based violence amid the country's increased militarization. She also points to the military's gendered violence such as the virginity tests conducted on female protesters in March 2011.
"The majority of military organizations are male-dominated and patriarchal, and encourage violence, which are all anti-feminist values," Hameed says. She finds it "frightening" that a large group of women are calling for the conscription of female soldiers rather than for ending forced conscription in general.
"There is a direction among feminists for demilitarization," Hameed adds.
But despite these criticisms, Komy remains optimistic. "Once they see a female conscript, they will be proud of her."