Women Win Reform in Egypt's Judiciary

Her Honor is Historic

Simon Apiku, Cairo, Egypt, March 10, 2003

Tahany al-Gebaly became Egypt's first female judge in Jan. 2003. (photo: AFP)
Nearly 50 years after the first woman bid for the job, Tahany al-Gebaly, a 52-year-old lawyer with nearly 30 years of experience, has been appointed a judge of Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court, becoming the first woman in modern Egyptian history to sit on the bench.

On Jan. 5, Al-Gebaly was nominated by the Supreme Council of Judges, but her appointment had to be approved by President Hosni Mubarak. On Jan. 22, Mubarak formally appointed Al-Gebaly. Three days later, Egypt’s first lady and chairperson of the National Council for Women, Suzanne Mubarak, threw a party to celebrate the “historic moment.” Guests included prominent feminists from across Egypt and the Arab world.

Though nothing in Egypt's constitution—or Islam, for that matter—had prevented qualified and competent women from handling the gavel, resistance to the idea of female justices had long been ingrained. This was one area in which Egypt, a progressive, secular nation, had lagged behind other Muslim nations. Nearly a dozen other countries in the broader region, including Libya, Tunisia, Sudan, Syria, Morocco, Pakistan, Iran, Jordan, and Algeria have had female justices for some time.

The first lady, who has been an active campaigner for women’s rights, was widely credited for influencing the president’s decision. At the beginning of the year, Mrs. Muburak launched a nationwide campaign in support of women’s rights, and declared 2003 the year of the “Egyptian woman.” State television weighed in with programs championing the cause. When Al-Gebaly’s appointment was announced, few dissenting voices were heard, and women’s-rights activists hailed the move as an important development.

Egyptian women's bid for the bench is the latest battle in a cultural war that goes back 80 years. In early 1923, a group of veiled Egyptian women led by Hoda Sha’arawi traveled to Italy to attend an international women’s conference. When the women returned to Egypt, none of them was wearing her veil. Their act of defiance inspired other Egyptian women to follow suit, infuriating the country’s conservatives. By March of the same year, the Egyptian Feminist Union, the first organization of its kind in the country, was born with a mandate to combat prejudices against women and fight for their rights in all fields. Sha’arawi became its first leader.

Since then, the women’s movement’s victories have included winning the right to formal education for girls; securing employment rights; obtaining the right to vote, and winning the right to hold public office. As the years have passed, Egypt has come to count women among its leading artists, actresses, singers, writers, diplomats, and even government ministers.

But until Al-Gebaly’s appointment, the doors of the judiciary remained firmly closed to women, despite several attempts to open them. The first was in 1949, when a young lawyer named Aisha Rateb applied for a position as judge on Egypt’s highest administrative court, the State Council, and was turned down. There was another attempt in the 1960s, and in 1989, a young female attorney named Fatma Lasheen sought a judicial appointment and was denied. Lasheen subsequently brought a lawsuit alleging sexual discrimination against the appointment committee, and although she lost the case, the government appointed another female lawyer as head of the country’s administrative prosecution—a first in Egyptian history.

Neverthless, to the country’s high-profile women, the lack of a female judge was embarrassing. In one case, recounts Nasr Amin, executive director of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary (ACIJ), Suzanne Mubarak attended a women’s conference in Jordan and her counterparts gloated about the achievements of women in their countries, specifically—perhaps pointedly—mentioning their female judges. “It was very embarrassing,” says Nahed Abul Komsan of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR), an organization that lobbied hard for Al-Gebaly’s appointment.

Amin and Komsan have been at the forefront of the campaign to get a woman appointed to the bench in Egypt. Throughout the 1990s, they organized seminars on the subject and invited female judges from other Arab countries to address participants and share their experiences. Their campaign gained momentum in 1999 in Beirut, when the first Arab Conference on Justice issued the Beirut Declaration for Justice, which stated: “The position of judge should be open without discrimination to all who meet the requirements of the profession. No discrimination between qualified men and women should be permitted in the appointment of judges.”

Still, nothing was done for years. Activists singled out the Higher Judicial Council (HJC), which nominates judges for approval by the president, as being particularly conservative. Male judges were quoted in the Egyptian government-owned press as saying, “The natural place for a woman is the house, in the shadow of a man,” or, “A woman will be a woman till doomsday.”

In 1997, ACIJ conducted an opinion survey to find out people’s views on appointing female justices in Egypt. Surprisingly, the strongest opposition was registered among female respondents, who said that women were too sensitive and delicate to meet the taxing nature of a judge’s job.

Despite this, the state began moving slowly toward reform. Its first move was to rearrange the HJC. Entrenched conservatives were weeded out and replaced with moderates such as Fathi Neguib, president of the Constitutional Court. It was Neguib who later nominated Al-Gebaly to the bar.

Al-Gebaly’s background made the appointment all the more historic. She hails from Upper Egypt, a traditionally conservative part of the country that, until the late 1990s, was a breeding-ground for Islamic militants. She has been described as a card-carrying member of the opposition Nasserist Party, and is a prominent civil-rights activist. The fact that she sits on the board of trustees of the ACIJ is particularly significant given the state’s well documented contempt for civil-rights organizations.  

Her nomination would have meant little, however, without the president’s seal of approval. When this came in late January, it resolved the controversy conclusively, paving the way for the appointment of more women to the bench. Commenting on this last detail, Komsan said she hopes Al-Gebaly’s appointment “shows some change in dealing with human rights and civil society coming in the future.”

For her part, Al-Gebaly pledged to live up to expectations. “My success will bring success to other women and encourage them to demand for more rights,” she told Cairo’s government-owned weekly, Al-Mussawar. “We have to prove ourselves,” she added. “Failure is not an option… it would provide opponents with the ammunition they need to sabotage future progress for women. I promise that this will not happen.”

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