Militaries in the region have gradually expanded their ranks to women, but few serve in combat roles
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
Women have served in all of the Middle East’s modern wars, but Arab armies have been slow to incorporate women in their ranks compared to their Western counterparts. For instance, the United States recently opened combat roles to women. Israel is one of the most expansive in the world in how it recruits, extending mandatory conscription to both genders.
But Arab militaries are changing … albeit slowly.
In North Africa, activists have confronted entrenched military establishments with calls to open recruitment for women. The United Arab Emirates recently opened fighter pilot roles to women. There has even been a shift in Saudi Arabia — one of the world’s most patriarchal societies — which imposes strict gender segregation and does not allow women to drive.
The trend is partly due to practical reasons, with Saudi women now serving as border guards who must regularly interact with members of the civilian population. More pronounced is Syria, where the Syrian Arab Army is recruiting women to serve on the front lines — and sees women as making for particularly effective snipers.
OE Watch, a newsletter from the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office, describes several developments.
Two years ago an Egyptian woman challenged her exclusion from the army on the grounds that it violated Egypt’s constitutional protection of equality between men and women. Though her appeal was denied, the constitutional argument for allowing women to volunteer is being made with growing frequency in both Egypt and Tunisia. When the Tunisian military launched a major volunteer recruitment drive in mid-February 2016, the director of its recruitment branch hinted at a similar campaign directed specifically at women.
In March 2016 controversy erupted after Egyptian soldiers were accused of regularly asking women in the Sinai to remove garments at a checkpoint in the flashpoint town of Shaykh Zuwaid. Having women available to conduct physical searches of other women has proven to be strategically smart in areas where gender mixing is restricted by traditional social practices. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has begun incorporating women into its security institutions for this very purpose. The Saudi Border Guard has used women in this capacity since 2013, and … Saudi Arabia’s Facilities’ Security Forces are seeking to follow suit.
Women have been especially active in the Syrian battlefield, including as part of the national military forces.
OE Watch notes that the Syrian army fields an all-female battalion which has fought in the urban battlegrounds of eastern Damascus. Syria’s ruling secular Ba’ath Party has included women in military ranks for decades, although with limitations.
The unit is made up of 800 women particularly skilled as sharpshooters. Their impact on the battlefield may be inflated for propagandistic reasons, but this should not detract from the fact that women are playing a role in the Syrian army’s surprising resilience.
- The Coalition Just Formed a Fighting Unit of 120 Kurdish Women
- The Pentagon Is Finally Designing Combat Gear for Women
- Women Pilots, Who Flew During World War II, Denied Rest at Arlington National Cemetery