x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Protesters judge ruling as a setback for Egyptian women

The State Council's vote to bar female justices from serving in Egypt's administrative courts could be overturned by Supreme Council.

CAIRO // Demonstrators gathered in front of Egypt's State Council yesterday to protest a vote by council members to bar female justices from serving in administrative courts. Armed with signs that read "Who will judge the judges?" and "It's a black day for justice in Egypt", about 75 male and female demonstrators stood for more than an hour on the Council's steps.

"It's a very backward decision," said Azaa Kamal, one of the protesters. "The judges who took it forgot that they are judges and only remembered that they are men." The protest came several days after the vote on Monday by the Council's General Assembly, which overwhelmingly recommended to keep women from holding judicial positions within the Council. The justices' decision could still be overturned by a seven-member Special Council, which is expected to convene next month.

"We are still hopeful that the Special Council will overturn this policy," said Hossam Bahgat, the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, in an interview on Tuesday. "We didn't think this should have been put to a vote in the first place. We don't think that gender discrimination is a matter to vote about." Monday's General Assembly vote was a response to a decision last summer that would have allowed women to work in the State Council, a judicial body that is responsible for advising government ministries on legal matters and adjudicating cases between the Egyptian public and the government.

In an interview on Tuesday, a State Council judge touted the vote, which opposed last summer's decision, as evidence of an active political dialogue within Egypt's judicial system. But protesters yesterday said that if the Special Council decides to uphold the General Assembly's recommendation, it would contravene anti-discrimination clauses in Egypt's constitution. "We have Article 40 of the constitution which is talking about equality regardless of religion, race, gender or social origin. So the article is clear," said Samer Soliman, a professor of political economy at the American University in Cairo, who was standing with the protesters yesterday. "This decision of the judges is against not only the principle of equality but the principle of merit. Here you are deciding to give jobs according to gender, not according to merit."

Many of the protesters saw Monday's vote as a setback for women's rights in Egypt, a movement that has seen considerable momentum recently. Over the past 10 years, other bodies within Egypt's judiciary have incorporated female justices. A 2003 decision allowed women to serve on Egypt's Supreme Judicial Council. A woman, Tahani al Gibali, has also served on Egypt's Constitutional Court for the past decade.

"One week ago I read in Al Ahram [newspaper] that a judge said that women are not fit to work as judges," said Azima al Hosseini, one of the demonstrators and a co-founder of the opposition Tagammu Party. "I want to ask this judge: Now we have had a woman on the constitutional court for 10 years. Is Tahani al Gibali a failure?" Other demonstrators blamed the vote's outcome on rising religious conservatism in Egyptian culture and the growing influence of Wahabbi clerics from the Arabian Gulf. Wahabbi satellite programmes have amassed large audiences in this country, said Dina Maghraby, 25, who works for the New Woman Foundation, one of the groups that organised yesterday's protest.

"I think they're afraid of losing their power," said Ms Maghraby, of the State Council judges. Ms Maghraby "They're afraid of women competing with them and taking more rights." mbradley@thenational.ae