Egyptian council defends ban on female justices

The State Council, the body that recommended barring women from sitting on one of Egypt's highest judicial bodies, say its only a matter of time before women take positions.

Judges preside over a court case in an Egyptian courtroom. Victoria Hazou

CAIRO // The state body that recommended barring women from sitting on one of Egypt's highest judicial bodies defended the decision yesterday, saying it is only a matter of time before women take positions on the council. Human-rights activists reacted with condemnation. The State Council is an administrative court that provides legal expertise to government ministries and rules on disputes between the public and the government. Of the 380 justices in its general assembly, 334 voted on Monday to bar female justices from holding judicial posts within the council. The final decision is expected to come next month when the seven members of the State Council's special council convene to discuss the issue.

Human rights activists said yesterday the vote flies in the face of recent advances by female lawyers and judges in Egypt's judiciary. The State Council and criminal courts remain the only judicial bodies without female justices. "This is a very bad indicator for justice in Egypt. It's a black day for justice in Egypt," said Nehad Abu al Komsan, the chairwoman of the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights. "The State Council is supposed to set the criteria for justice in Egypt. If a woman goes to the State Council asking for equality in other places, what is their response going to be? They will tell her it's not her right as a woman."

Monday's vote amounts to a popular rejection by the council's rank-and-file of a decision last summer to admit female law graduates. Moataz Abu Zid, a member of the technical office of the State Council presidency, said yesterday the closed vote in the general assembly pointed to the spirit of debate among judicial authorities. Although the overwhelming majority of justices voted to overturn last summer's decision, Mr Abu Zid said, the admittance of female judges is inevitable even if the special council decides to side with the recommendation of the general assembly.

The problem with admitting female judges is not one of conservative Islamic sensibilities, said Mr Abu Zid, but of working conditions for both male and female court members. "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."

Such arguments regarding the "suitability" of working conditions for women are a well-worn fig leaf to cover persistent sexism within some government sectors, Ms al Komsan said. Similar arguments were used generations ago to prevent women from enrolling in universities. Other bodies within Egypt's judiciary have incorporated female adjudicators over the past 10 years. A decision in 2003 allowed women to serve on Egypt's Supreme Judicial Council.

Women also serve in the Constitutional Court. "The government has been following a gradual approach of introducing women to the judiciary," said Hossam Bahgat, the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. "The judges seem to resent this gradual approach. But also there are many judges who simply don't think that women are fit to work in the judiciary."