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Women’s rights in Egypt: One step forward, two steps back

Women’s rights in Egypt are continually causing controversy, writes Jordan Terrell.

Nasser Amin, director of the Arab Centre for the Independent of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession (ACIJLP), caught some flack from the chairmen of the State Council Judges Club over his stance on women's rights.

Amin rejected the decision of the General Assembly of the Egyptian State Council to bar women from the bench. The chairmen of the State Council filed a communiqué against the human rights activist. The communiqué was over a statement Amin gave media about the State Council's stance on women judges.

Amin and the ACIJLP support women's right to assume judicial posts at the State Council, but it remains one right denied by the council. The General Assembly voted 334 out of the 380 members and with four abstentions to bar women from being appointed to the court. Amin told the Al-Shorfa – an online newspaper sponsored by USCENTCOM – that their decision contradicts previous decisions to hire women judges in 1952.

"There is nothing in the legislation or Islamic law that prohibits women from being appointed as judges," said Amin to Al-Shorfa. "This should be left to the discretionary authority to decide on. There is no doubt that the decision of the General Assembly is a clear step backwards and a contravention of the recent amendment to the constitution, especially regarding the first article, which guarantees complete citizenship to everyone holding Egyptian nationality."

Taking another step backwards

It is another step backwards in the women's rights dance in Egypt. The controversy has sparked protests within human rights and Women rights advocacy groups.

Marwa Rakha, a relationships writer, author, and human rights advocate, said: "Egypt's female population is literally half of this society and we are still wondering if they [women] are mentally capable of being rational – what a shame.

"If a person – male or female, heterosexual or homosexual, HIV infected or not, dark-skinned or fair-skinned – has passed their exams and assessments for any position in the state then they are fully entitled to assume that position with pride," Rakha, added.

She believes that State Council bars women from the benches because of fear.

"The same people who still discuss – today – if a woman belongs at home or in the office, the same people who were enraged by the law penalizing FGM. The same people who think of women as lesser beings, the same people who want to cover her up, lock her up, or shut her up – those people are hurdles in the path of women's rights. They certainly do not want to see her behind the bench.”

Women fight back

Marwa is one of many women who continually fight to highlight the plight of the Muslim woman and of women throughout the world. Marwa’s Facebook page has a quote, stating she is about to strike again ... and again ... and again. So she does. She regularly highlights women’s issues on her blog and has over 5,000 followers on Facebook.

She is not afraid to address contentious issues within her home country of Egypt. Her book  ‘The poison tree, grown and planted in Egypt’ has sold over 3,000 copies and 18,000 more have been downloaded online. Marwa vows never to give up highlighting women’s issues on her blog. Her own awakening to the inequality shown to women in her own country is what spurs her on.

Born and raised in Egypt, I was brought up to be a good middle class Egyptian girl, but somehow being good did not suit my notions. Deep down I have rejected the heavy heritage of traditions and norms that made no sense to my inquisitive mind. I could not understand why girls were killed, committed suicide, or lived in eternal shame when they lost their virginity.

“I failed to comprehend why such a rule applied only to girls and their male counterparts were spared. After my grand mother passed away we stopped celebrating Christmas, New Year's Eve, Halloween, and Thanksgiving ... does being a Muslim forbid me from all my childhood memories?

“Why do I have to get married? Why can't I date? Why do men cheat? Why do I have to accept it? Why? Why? Why? And many more unanswered questions. I have come a long way from the scared little girl that I once was ... I found my passion in writing, my voice in teaching & training, and my strength in marketing ... I took off my mask ... and I decided to speak up and loud.”

Taking a step forward

The history of women's rights in Egypt has been a dramatic dance for decades. In 1949, Aisha Rateb a law graduate applied to be a prosecutor – the first step to becoming a judge. She was then declined and responded with a lawsuit.

Rateb sued the government in a highly publicized case, in which she lost. Even though she lost, she brought to light the happenings of the Council and their reasoning why women should not be judges.

Then, the president of the State Council, Abdel-Razeq El-Sanhoury Pasha, stated, "There's nothing in the Constitution, Egyptian law or Islamic jurisprudence that prevents women from rising to the bench. It is just not in accordance with social norms and traditions."

One step forward was in 2003, when President Hosni Mubarak appointed Justice Tahani El-Gebali as the first female judge at the Supreme Constitutional Court – the highest court in Egypt.

Even though some saw it as a political move to improve Egypt's image with other countries and not really sincere, it was still a win for women's rights. Then another step, in 2007, Egypt Supreme Judicial Council, which has jurisdiction over criminal and civil courts, selected 31 women to be judges.

They were later appointed by presidential decree. This decision angered the conservatives who believe women were not suited for the role. In August 2009, the State Council declared that beginning with the class of 2008-09, it would consider candidates for deputy assistant, the first professional step towards being appointed as a judge at the State Council, without regard to gender.

After being interviewed and tested for a career path that would see them study for at least two years for two advanced diplomas while gaining on-the job experience, 10 women eventually were approved for the position.

Then the Special Committee of the State Council – the body's highest committee and responsible for hiring policies and had previously voted to allow women to be hired – voted 4-3 to freeze the appointments of female graduates.

The Committee also asked the General Assembly of the State Council for its opinion on the matter. The assembly, which had once favoured appointing women, jumped on their political bandwagon, with 334 of the 380 members with four abstentions voting to freeze the hiring of women.

This back and forth drama has been going on for quite some time. The "norms and traditions" of the nearly 6 decades ago are still prevalent with the State Council today. Even though there are currently 42 female civil court judges in Egypt, the State Council sees them not fit enough to sit on their benches.

Egyptian women hope to end the dance sooner rather than later.

Additional reporting by Lynda Renham-Cook.

Jordan Terrell is a freelance writer. This article first appeared in Biya Masr magazine.
Lynda Renham-Cook is associate editor at The Scavenger.

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