After 50-year fight, women get the gavel
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.