Friday, February 26, 2010

Egypt Wrangles Over Female Judges

Egypt wrangles over whether women should be judges
Jailan Zayan, in Cairo for AFP
25 Feb 2010

A row over the appointment of female judges to an influential court that governs administrative law in Egypt has highlighted a general malaise over women holding top jobs.

A row over the appointment of female judges to an influential court that governs administrative law in Egypt has highlighted a general malaise over women holding top jobs.

On Monday Mohammed al-Husseini, the head of the Egyptian state council, overturned a decision by its general assembly which voted by overwhelming majority last week against appointing women judges to the council.

The state council or Maglis al-Dawla is the court authorised to settle administrative disputes concerning the exercise of public power.

Husseini, who said his ruling was supported by the constitution, has since faced a barrage of criticism from fellow judges who want an emergency meeting to overturn his decision.

Some have even sought legal proceedings to have him removed from his post.

The decision to bar women from sitting on the state council is "unconstitutional," said Judge Noha al-Zeini of the administrative prosecution authority, one of only 42 women judges out of the country's 12,000 in total.

She said she was "shocked" by the ban on women sitting on the bench, but conceded that it was a reflection of society's unease with women holding positions of power.

"It shows society's rejection of women's progress. But the decision strips women of their rights," she said.

Despite steps to avoid gender-based discrimination, the idea that a woman's place is in the home is deeply rooted.

"The circumstances are currently unsuitable for women to be judges," said Judge Mahmud al-Khodeiri. "It's a difficult job, we work in difficult conditions," he said.

Khodeiri said judges are not allowed to preside over courts in their place of residence, "so how is a woman supposed to abandon her husband and her children and go and work somewhere else?

"Motherhood is something that carries all of society - it can't be ignored."

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the state council general assembly's decision and urged the government to end discrimination against women in judicial positions.

"The continuing discrimination insults the many Egyptian women who are fully qualified to serve as judges," Nadya Khalife, women's rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa at HRW, said.

Currently, only three women serve as ministers in Egypt's 27-member cabinet.

A quota was imposed by law in 2009 requiring women to hold at least 12 per cent of the seats in the lower house of parliament, or 64 seats.

Khodeiri, who resigned last year as deputy chief justice of the Court of Cassation in protest at the lack of judicial independence, said priorities needed to be revised.

"It is a bad time for judges in general right now. Let us first fix that, then we can look into the position of women," he said.

"In Egypt, judges' rulings are not respected. I used to hand out a ruling and then a police officer would throw that decision into the bin. We have a lot of work to do, and now is not the time for the women."

But Zeini, who waged an unprecedented public campaign against electoral fraud after witnessing vote rigging in the polling station she supervised in 2005 parliamentary elections, said the two ideas were not mutually exclusive.

"There is no reason why the reform of the judiciary and appointing female judges cannot go hand in hand," she said.

But she said the concept of women's rights is often perceived as an imported idea in Egypt's conservative society. "By opposing it, the judges feel they are maintaining their independence."

Last week, 380 judges took part in the state council general assembly - and 334 rejected the appointment of females to judicial posts.

Until 2007, when 31 female judges were appointed by presidential decree, only one woman was a judge in Egypt, a country of more than 80 million people.

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