Egypt's project of slowly adding women to the judiciary suffered a setback in February when the State Council for Administrative Judges voted overwhelmingly against admitting female judges.
Egypt's prime minister ordered a review of the decision, and the state's Constitutional Court said there is no constitutional or legal restriction to women serving as judges.
The decision now rests with the council's all-male executive board. Human rights advocates are calling for a dialogue to convince the board to reverse longstanding prejudices against having women judge legal cases.
"To be honest, this [was] the position of all judiciary bodies in Egypt until 2003," says Hafez Abu Seada, president of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, noting that 2003 was the year President Hosni Mubarak appointed the country's first female judge.
"Now, we're asking for a dialogue — not blaming or condemning," Seada says. "We ask for dialogue to convince them that this is a right for women in [the] 21st century."
Slowly Changing Old Stereotypes
After February's vote against female judges, the council's vice president was quoted by Egyptian media as saying he didn't think women could handle the workload of cases. Another top official added that having female judges could violate Islamic proscriptions against meetings between unrelated men and women. The state-run Al-Ahram newspaper reported that female judges could require lengthy maternity leaves, hampering the court's efficiency.
Such stereotypical arguments are familiar to Egyptian jurist Osama Attaweya, a supporter of female judges who currently serves as an assistant to the justice minister. Attaweya says the administrative council that voted against women handles only a limited number of cases — those brought against the government.
Meanwhile, he says, over the past three years, dozens of pioneering female judges — out of more than 9,000 total judges — have been quietly building an unassailable record of performance in other courtrooms across Egypt.
"These 42 women are judging civil, criminal, family and economic cases, in all parts of the country," Attaweya says. "Their performance is absolutely on a par with their male colleagues. They have proved that they're perfectly capable of handling the job."
Changing Views Through Competence
One reason these women have moved smoothly into their new role is that they came from the ranks of state prosecutors, which have included women for years.
Hana Dahroug, chief judge of the Cairo Economic Court, says after 15 years as a prosecutor, she wasn't worried about handling a judge's duties. But she did encounter some surprised stares as she joined her male colleagues on the bench.
"I remember very well the first day," Dahroug recalls with a laugh. "The other judges were quite surprised to see me sitting next to them. And I saw the startled looks from the lawyers and their clients. But gradually they got over it."
"At the end of the day, what's important for any lawyer or plaintiff or defendant is having a competent judge. Whether it's a man or a woman makes no difference," she says.
But Dahroug also knows the history of the administrative council. She knows that a very talented woman, Aisha Rateb, who would later become an ambassador, was the first to apply for a judgeship there, only to be rejected on the basis of her gender — in 1949.
More than six decades later, Dahroug and her colleagues are hoping this year's vote against female judges will be the last.