Gendered justice

There's an ongoing row these days over women judges in Egypt. 

The country's first female judge was appointed in 2002. Since then, 42 other women judges have joined the bench. But there are still no women overseeing Egypt's criminal courts, or in its State Council--a big court with jurisdiction over all disputes that involve the government. 

Female graduates of law school applied to the State Council, and its leadership (a Special Council of seven) was looking at their applications. The rank-and-file, however, revolted. They held a vote a few weeks back in which they banned women from joining--334 to 42.

The Prime Minister appealed to the High Constitutional Court to rule on whether this vote/ban was legal. On Sunday, they said no. Now the matter goes back to the State Council. It is expected that eventually they will have no choice but to let women in. 

This is just the latest confrontation in what I'm sure will be a long, fraught process of gradual integration.

There doesn't seem to be any legally valid arguments for banning women. And--somewhat to my surprise--few of the opponents of women judges engaged in religious arguments--perhaps because this strategy has already been tried, without success? So the arguments of those who oppose women judges tend to be a little thin

Council Adel Farghaly, president of The Administrative Courts of Justice, had another way to justify such decision:

The refusal to appoint women to senior judicial positions has always been based on the fact that Egyptian women don’t perform the military service and pay their blood as a price like men do. And women occupy judicial functions in Western countries because they perform military service, and run all the jobs held by men, including acts of physical labor.

And then he adds:

The judicial work in Egypt is not suitable for women, as they cannot pay attention to their family and social duties based on their nature and on the social traditions, unlike men.

Others say it takes times, and it's not that they're against women judges--society just isn't ready for them:

“We don’t want to make this an issue of fundamentalists not assigning women as judges because there are also Christians who are against assigning women as judges, so it’s not a problem of Islamic opinions,” Mr Abu Zid said. “Sooner or later, it’s a fact that women will be assigned in these courts. But I think it’s a matter of time.”

Mr Abu Zid said he is among those judges who might feel “shy” dealing with female colleagues, particularly given the justices’ long work hours and the judges’ need to adjudicate cases in more conservative governorates outside Cairo. 

The State Council functions as a sort of law office within the Egyptian government by assigning legal advisers to other ministries, Mr Abu Zid said. “It would make some obstacles in the places where they are assigned. It will not be suitable to let her have her job in Tanta, in Beni Suef, in Alexandria. They can’t send them to regions other than Cairo,” he said. “It’s not a matter of the quality of the work. It’s so easy to have a job in administrative judgment, It’s a matter of suitability.”

Apparently--as I report here--the State Council judges themselves chose to focus on the argument that work as a judge is just too hard, too demanding, for women. This argument has popped up again and again in different forms. There's a big emphasis, for example, on the fact that judges have to move between different courts in the provinces, and that this travel would conflict with women's duties as mothers and wives.

It's also been dispiriting to hear the very same judges who honorably lead the campaign for judicial independence and clean elections argue--like Ahmad Mekki did on TV talk show Al Qahera Al Youm recently--that women can't be judges because they can't travel without their husbands' permission; because even if they say there are willing to be transferred across the country, they can't be trusted to keep their word; and because there aren't rest houses and other facilities ready for them yet (!). 

More women judges doesn't necessarily mean that women will be able to assert their rights more easily. But needless to say, it makes a huge difference to equality at large when justice is only administered by one sex.

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.