Egypt: Battle for women judges half won
IPS, Ursula Lindsey
CAIRO, Apr 3, 2010 (IPS) - There are "no obstacles according to Islamic sharia, the constitution or the law" to women serving as judges, announced one of Egypt’s main courts, the State Council, last week. But "there are currently practical obstacles," it affirmed.
The court's recent ban on female judges caused a furore and was overturned by the country’s Constitutional Court on Mar. 15. The State Council subsequently postponed all new judicial appointments for three months. In that time, it is expected to reach a decision on whether and how to integrate women in the judiciary.
The Mar. 22 announcement has been greeted with cautious optimism by women's rights advocates. By postponing the appointment of male as well as female judges, says Mona Zulfikar, a member of the National Human Rights Council, the court "confirmed that there will be no discrimination… It does not mean that the battle is won. The battle is very much still on."
But, she says, "it’s a positive step in the right direction."
This series of events was precipitated by the submission of applications to join the State Council by a number of female law school graduates last month.
Currently, there are no women in Egypt’s State Council - an important court with jurisdiction over all cases that involve the government. This despite the fact that about half of all law students in Egypt are women, and there are many female lawyers and law professors.
Egypt only appointed its first female judge, Tahani El Gabali, in 2002; there are only 42 female judges out of a total of 12,000. Although it has begun to support the idea of women judges, "until now the government is afraid to open the door for the woman to be working as a judge before all the kinds of courts," says Nasser Amin, a judicial expert. Not only are there no women on the State Council, no women preside over criminal courts.
So far, the few female judges have been put in place by special government appointments, rather than rising through the ranks of the judiciary like their male colleagues.
This is a problem, says women's rights activist Amal Abdel Hedi. "The most important thing for mainstreaming women in the judiciary," she argues, "is to have them get into the system from the very beginning and then (build) their career as judges. Not just being appointed."
The female law school graduates who applied to the State Council would have hoped to make this progression. But while their applications were being reviewed by a special committee within the council the State Council membership held a meeting and voted - by an overwhelming 334 to 42 - not to allow women in.
Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif appealed to Egypt’s Constitutional Court to rule on the validity of the State Council’s ban.
Tahani El-Gabaly sits on the Constitutional Court. She found herself in the strange position of reading the State Council judges’ arguments for why women aren’t fit for the profession.
"The reasons were related to the fact that work in the State Council is difficult, a woman won’t be able to withstand this work, it will conflict with her duties as mother and wife," El-Gabaly recounts. "They were all arguments about the suitability of women to this hard work."
The State Council also noted that the six-month maternity leave assured by Egyptian law was incompatible with the requirements of judicial work.
The spirited public debate that erupted in newspaper columns and TV talk shows in Egypt during March indicates that Egyptians are divided on the issue. Most of the current arguments against women’s growing presence in the judiciary centre on women’s supposedly different temperament and social obligations.
Prominent judge Ahmad Mekki called a popular TV talk show to explain that judges are required to move between different regional courts.
"When you say a woman can relocate like a man, that’s a joke," he told the show’s host. Women can’t be expected to leave their families and husbands and travel all over the country on their own, he argued.
But columnist Gaber Asfour, writing in the state-owned Al Ahram newspaper, said "any positive social change must come about through pressure on the factions hostile to change.
"As for the idea," Asfour continued, "that Egyptian society hasn’t yet arrived at the degree of progress that allows for women judges, how can they say this at a time when Egyptian women have become ministers, ambassadors, university heads, doctors, engineers, lawyers and, actually, judges?"
With its recent announcement, the State Council has acknowledged the higher court’s verdict, but has also seemingly chosen to play for time.
The court’s leadership said it has decided to "postpone appointing male and female [candidates] to the position of judges until a committee is formed to study the matter in a deliberate manner and make the appropriate suggestions." That committee must finish its work in three months.
This decision is a compromise," says Nasser Amin. The State Council "will take a decision when the situation quiets down. We think they will decide to let women in then."
|Powered by Sigsiu.NET|