Women judges stir up old debate in Egypt

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CAIRO: When women tried to join the bench on Egypt’s top administrative court, the uproar from its judges was fierce. Women are too emotional, they insisted – and who will take care of the family if the mother is busy with the arduous tasks of the courtroom?

In internet chat rooms, the response from Egyptian men and women was even stronger. Women are too fragile, they’re not up for making life-changing rulings, and menstruation and pregnancy make them unfit to be judges.

It took a street protest, government intervention and a Constitutional Court ruling over the past weeks to get women appointed to Egypt’s State Council court for the first time. The final result was a victory, but many women’s rights advocates are dismayed that after decades of struggle it took such a fight, and that such views still run so deep, even among the country’s elite.

Especially given that women have already been judges for years on most Egyptian courts.

“I was surprised and confused – why are we going back to square one to discuss something that is our constitutional right? said Tahany El-Gebali, who in 2003 became Egypt’s first female judge when she was appointed to the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest judiciary body.

Egypt has a century-old women’s movement, and women have long served as government ministers and business executives, doctors and other professionals – not to mention the large numbers working in factories, small businesses and household industries.

But the dispute illustrated how so far, progress for women in the workplace has not soaked down in the public consciousness to create a widespread change in attitudes – particularly at a time when many popular Islamic clerics on television and other media promote a message that women’s roles are inherently different from men’s, and more centered around family and the home.

The judges dispute centered around the State Council, which is the judicial body that settles legal cases brought against the government.

Twenty-five women applied to become judges on the council, but the body’s general assembly voted in February to ban women from serving on the court.

Women’s groups picketed the State Council, defending their right for the position. They argued that the women had passed all the necessary standardized tests to become council judges.

“They say their decision to ban women from the bench is out of compassion for us, they want to spare women the tiring, difficult work, columnist Amal Abdel-Hadi wrote in the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm. “These judges have obviously not worked as a public school teacher, a nurse or a midwife.

“Thirty percent of homes in Egypt have women as heads of households, she wrote, “and the reality is that Egyptian women will even travel abroad, leaving their families behind, to find a way to feed them.

The council’s supervisory body overruled the assembly on Feb. 22, and council chief Mohamed Al-Husseini called the ban unconstitutional. That sparked legal action by the judges in the assembly to oust him.

Finally, the prime minister referred the question to the Constitutional Court. On March 14, it ruled that all citizens are equal before the law, and backed the State Council’s supervisory body’s jurisdiction over the issue.

The flap was similar to an uproar in 2007 when the head of the Supreme Judicial Council gave 31 women judge or chief judge positions. The women had been working for years as state prosecutors and passed special testing with high marks to qualify as judges. The nomination raised heavy opposition from many judges, but the women eventually attained their posts.

Egypt’s top Islamic cleric at the time – the late Sheikh Mohamed Tantawi – issued a religious ruling that nothing in Islam’s holy book, the Quran, bars women from becoming judges. As head of Al-Azhar, the leading Sunni Muslim center of religious thought, Tantawi’s rulings carried substantial weight in the Muslim world and his statement at the time lent legitimacy to feminist campaigns to get women on the bench.

This time, many opponents of women judges avoided religious arguments and instead warned of the dire social impact.

“A woman’s role in the family is vital, Judge Mahmoud Al-Khoudairy, former deputy head of Egypt’s Cassation Court, who also spoke out against women judges in 2007, said. “Who will take care of the family if they take on these other roles?

Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, warned that the victory in the State Council did not represent a societal change.

“I caution against portraying what is happening as a progressive enlightened situation, he said. He noted that President Hosni Mubarak has never appointed a female governor, for example, which might go further in changing the image of woman as unable to hold important decision-making posts.

Still, he said, the debate is good. “At least the tension inside the judicial community and the different schools and views in society is in fact a positive sign, Bahgat said.

There was a similar hysterical fear of social collapse in 2000, when Egyptian law changed to allow a woman to file for divorce if she agrees to forfeit her financial rights and repay any dowry. Before, only men were allowed to initiate divorce. The law also took steps toward ensuring payment of child support.

People said “that it’s going to break too many homes, that women are too emotional to take on such a decision as divorce, Baghat said. “But once women started to practice this right they proved they were as capable as men of taking on such an important decision, if not more.

Before that, a law that allowed women married to foreigners to pass their Egyptian citizenship to their children raised outcry among some that women would be used to bring foreigners into society.

“Patriarchy is still very much part of our culture, said El-Gebali, the first woman judge, noting that no sector of society is immune from the perception of women as lesser citizens with weaker natures. “Judges remain a product of their environments, and with the wave of extremism in religion in Egypt these days, women will always pay the price.

El-Gebali has long been a leader for women in the justice system. She was the first woman appointed to Egypt’s Lawyers Syndicate leadership in 1989. She and 24 other female lawyers applied for judges positions in 1998 – the first women to do so, and it took her five years to finally gain a post.

She says her experience is that, with time, men in the courtroom – from plaintiffs and defendants to lawyers to fellow judges – came to accept her presence and respect the knowledge she brings to her occupation.

“Now they know they have to be prepared when entering a court I preside over, she said. “They say, Watch out, El-Gebali is coming! You better be prepared!

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