CAIRO — The chief justice in ancient Egypt was a goddess named Maat, but modern Egyptian women haven't fared so well. They've been warming the bench, not presiding over it, more than 50 years after the first woman sued for the right to become judge.
The law of the land, and not the laws on the books, has barred women from ruling Egypt's courts. But thanks to a push by First Lady Suzanne Mubarak, the unofficial cultural capital of the Middle East may soon appoint its first female justices, according to the National Council of Women, established by the president in 2000.
The Council won't say who's up for the post, but a court official told The Associated Press that Tahany el Gebaly was nominated last week by the Supreme Constitutional Court.
During her 30-year career el Gebaly became the first woman to join the official lawyer's association of Egypt, and in 1998 she sued for the right to become judge. When reached on her cell phone in between incessant busy signals, she was breathless with happiness and pride over the news. "I never thought it would happen," she said.
A court official told her the appointment is a done deal, but President Hosni Mubarak won't make the official announcement until Jan. 23.
Another front-runner is Fatma Lashene, a popular, hard-working lawyer who avoided the roles of wife and mother to devote herself to law. She and other women lawyers have been arguing for years that nothing in the Constitution or in other laws bars them from the bench.
"My first dream was to become a doctor. Now, instead of curing sick people, I'll cure the traditions," Ms. Lashene says.
Aside from the conservative Gulf states, almost all Arab nations have women judges. Even undeveloped nations like Morocco and Yemen appointed women to the bench more than a decade ago. Egypt's neighbor Sudan installed women judges back in 1965, but Islamic conservatives barred them from such posts in 1989.
In Egypt, about 20 percent of lawyers are women, and women have served as ambassadors and cabinet ministers. But the judiciary has remained off-limits.
Egypt gave birth to the women's movement in the Middle East back in 1924 when feminist Hoda Sharaawi tore off her veil. But 30 years ago, when US women began demanding more rights, an Islamic fundamentalist movement was building in Egypt that may have crested only now. The militant groups declared a ceasefire in 1997, and since then the tone has softened.
The lawyer's syndicate was a notorious Islamist stronghold, and was temporarily disbanded in 1995 to curb radical religious influence from the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and other groups. At the time, el Gebaly was attacked by her colleagues as being too "emotional" for the job, but now that she is likely to become Egypt's first woman judge her former critics are calling with congratulations.
These days, the Brotherhood is sponsoring female candidates for parliament, as long as they're veiled, and Egyptians are using Islam to argue for the expansion of women's rights, citing role models like the woman appointed judge by the second Caliph Omar Ibn Khattab.
"We are an Islamic country, and there is nothing in sharia [Islamic law] that prevents a woman from being a judge," says Mahmoud Yassien Talat, a lawyer representing his daughter Amaany in her bid to begin the track to judgeship.
In 1998, when Egyptian women seemed on the brink of breaking into the judiciary, prominent judges like Mohammed Magdi Murgan panned the idea in the semiofficial press, saying: "The natural place for a woman is the house, in the shadow of a man." Judge Murgan still doesn't think women are suitable to rule on criminal cases, but he says he's no longer categorically against women justices.
"We will be happy to see women judges in family courts, in business and property disputes. Women are more honest than men, and they've worked well as judges in many Arabic countries," he says.
Middle Easterners appear to be at a turning point, realizing how far behind they have fallen regarding women's rights even as they take significant steps forward.
The recent Arab Human Development Report, whose lead author is Egyptian, says Arab women have the lowest level of political and economic participation in the world and adds that sidelining women is bad for democracy, and bad for the economy. "Society as a whole suffers" because of it, the report concludes.
This year, the Middle East garnered international applause when Bahraini women voted for the first time, and through affirmative action, Moroccan women won 35 seats in Parliament.
In Egypt, women have long played a significant role in society, but attitudes dating from the pre-Islamic era and beyond are proving difficult to snuff out. "There's been a lot of talk, but most people here still think it will be very difficult for women to be judges," says Murgan.
Egypt's most famous feminist, Nawal el Saadawi, is refraining from weighing in on whether the new judges will be able to right the imbalance in rights for women. After all, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she says, contributed to a backlash against women's rights.
"Of course it is a good thing that women are pushing their way up. But it's not just a matter of women judges. You have to look at her mind. Will she rule on behalf of women's rights, or will she perpetuate polygamy and other backwards ways of thinking?" el Saadawi asks.
In the international press this week, el Saadawi argues that Muslim women are in a crisis, caught in a trench between the pressures of modernization and the power of the fundamentalists. Successful career women like el Gebaly and Lashene, for instance, are among the small percentage of Arab women who are childless.
"I am not convinced that women are going forward in Egypt; we are going backward," says el Saadawi, who once fled the country after Islamists declared her an apostate, attempted to dissolve her marriage, and threatened to kill her.
This isn't the end of the struggle for women's rights in Egypt, concedes el Gebaly. "We still have far to go. But now our society is saying it won't tolerate discrimination against women."
Opinions vary on whether women are advancing their position in society. But if Egypt appoints its first female judges this month, they will at last be able to deliver their own verdict.