CAIRO: The State Council’s decision on July 12 to indefinitely postpone the appointment of women to its bench has sparked criticism and controversy among rights activists and legal experts.
But counselor Noha Al-Zeiny wasn’t surprised by the court’s decision.
"Unfortunately, the dominant judicial culture in Egypt is a male culture that continues to deny women their rights."
In February, the General Assembly of the State Council voted on the issue, with a majority of 334 judges rejecting the appointment of females in judicial posts in the State Council, 42 accepting the motion, and four abstaining.
The decision sparked outrage among women activists. Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif interfered and requested a clarification on the legislation governing the appointment of members to the State Council.
The Supreme Constitutional Court said there’s no gender discrimination in the constitution with regards to appointing female judges. Yet, the court left the final decision to the Special Council for Administrative Affairs, which oversees the State Council.
The Special Council in turn deferred its decision pending the recommendations of the tripartite committee of judges who were to prepare a report on the issue.
The tripartite committee was assigned by former President of the State Council, Mohamed Al-Husseini and headed by Judge Adel Farghaly.
Not the right time
According to a report presented to the court by the tripartite committee, there is nothing in the constitution or law that prevents a woman from being a judge, but the current religious and social atmosphere in Egypt does not condone it.
The Dean of the faculty of law at Cairo University, Ahmed Belal, told Daily News Egypt, “There are no legal grounds that prevent a woman from being appointed as judge (in the State Council), but there are social and religious considerations that prevent people from accepting this idea at the current time.”
The director of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary, Nasser Amin, and Fouad Riyadh, member of the National Council for Human Rights and former judge in the International War Crimes Tribunal, held a joint press conference at the headquarters of the Arab Center on Thursday, condemning that court’s decision.
Amin described the court’s verdict as “unconstitutional” and “a clear discrimination against women.”
According to article 40 of the Egyptian constitution, “All citizens are equal before the law. They have equal public rights and duties without discrimination between them due to gender, ethnic origin, language, religion or creed.”
“We will file a complaint to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) against the State Council’s decision,” Amin said.
According to the tripartite committee’s report, one of the main obstacles that prevent women from being appointed as judges are the grueling travel obligations that might include traveling to remote provinces.
The report states that these provinces aren’t equipped with appropriate facilities to meet female judges’ needs.
“Women already travel to remote districts to work as doctors, lawyers and judges in regular courts [criminal and civil courts], so this isn’t anything new,” Al-Zeiny said.
“Providing female and male judges with appropriate facilities to accommodate their needs while they’re traveling on work assignments is the state’s duty,” she added.
Riyadh believes that Egyptian society, including women themselves, is divided on the issue of women’s rights.
According to Riyadh, there are those who believe that there should be no discrimination between men and women except on the basis of efficiency and competence. “One of the main objections cited by the State Council to the appointment of women is that women aren’t yet equipped to assume this function. This argument is self-defeating,” he said.
“The only way to enhance their [the women’s] capacity is to introduce them to this profession and give them the chance to gain all practical capabilities which can only be acquired through practice,” he added.
“The other group encourages women to stay home and wear the niqab [full face covering] and that’s what the State Council did,” Riyadh said.
Another main objection cited by the report is that Egyptian women lean towards more conservative lifestyles that include wearing the niqab and becoming isolated.
“I agree with the court on this point. A woman won’t be able to sit on the bench and communicate with her peers and the people while her face hides all her expressions,” said Riyadh.
“The state should interfere and settle this issue by rendering a law that prohibits women from wearing the niqab in public office including courts and schools,” he added.
Egypt’s Supreme Judicial Council, which has jurisdiction over criminal and civil courts, selected 31 female judges in 2007, who were later appointed by presidential decree, rather than rising through the ranks of the Judiciary like their male peers.
The State Council, a court with jurisdiction over the cases that involve the government, has refused to follow the same path as the criminal and civil courts.
Riyadh and Amin demanded the government set a quota for women to be appointed in all civil and government positions “to give them the chance to prove their capabilities.”
Al-Zeiny argued that "women should get into the judicial system from the very beginning, starting with the Public Prosecutor’s office and then build their career as judges, just as men do, instead of just being appointed.”
“A man or woman should be appointed for public office based only on their efficiency and competence, being forced to appoint women through governmental decrees won’t solve anything,” she added.