CAIRO — Women have gained access to some judicial posts in Egypt over the years, but they have yet to breach the all-powerful State Council. The decadeslong battle pits certain interpretations of the Egyptian Constitution against the council and centuries of tradition dictating that a woman's place is in the home.
The National Council for Women and others are continuing their uphill effort, pointing out that there are no constitutional or religious restrictions that prevent women from working in a specific field.
Opponents note, however, that while the constitution doesn't specify that women can't be judges, there's also nothing in the document requiring that women be allowed to serve; that would take a constitutional amendment. But the constitution calls for Egypt to commit to achieving equality between women and men in all rights, grants women the right to hold public posts and states that appointments to judicial bodies and entities be made without discrimination.
Minister of Justice Hossam Abdel Rahim said April 23 during a parliament session that he has asked members of the State Council to work toward appointing female judges, although the State Council is an independent judiciary body not under his jurisdiction.
In Egypt, the State Council encompasses all administrative courts. According to the constitution, the council is the exclusive authority over administrative disputes, disciplinary cases and appeals, and challenges to its decisions. It also is the only body that issues certain legal opinions; reviews and drafts law-related bills and resolutions; and reviews draft contracts for the state or any public entity.
National Council for Women head Maya Morsi has emphasized that women should be appointed to judicial bodies, especially considering that the constitution has granted them that right.
The dispute plaguing state institutions over the appointment of women dates back to 1951, when a judicial ruling refused the appointment of women in the State Council on the grounds that the nature of the work doesn't suit women and also because the decision is left to the council's discretion.
Also, in 2010, the absolute majority of the State Council’s General Assembly rejected the appointment of female judges to the council, based on Article 186 of the State Council’s regulations. This article stipulates that no measures related to the appointment of State Council members shall contradict the views of the council’s General Assembly.
Some State Council advisers reject the council’s stance against appointing women. Said Barghash, the former deputy head of the council, told Al-Monitor, “Keeping women away from judicial work [should be] rejected altogether, especially considering that the constitution grants women the right to join such work. The constitution is more important than any other law that might stipulate otherwise.”
Barghash added, "Women can keep up with the nature of judicial work in the State Council, which is bureaucratic work that does not require physical effort. Such work is even easier than working as lawyers. This is why there should be no intransigence when it comes to the appointment of women.”
The State Council's own regulations stipulate that priority for appointments should be given to Egyptians who enjoy a good reputation and have a law degree.
Parliament is also involved in the dispute. On Jan. 8, parliament referred to its Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee a draft law that stipulates the need to appoint women across judicial bodies. The most prominent articles of this draft law stipulate that judicial bodies shall appoint women under the same admission terms as male judges, and any law that stipulates otherwise shall be repealed.
The International Council of Jurists has called on parliament to adopt the draft law.
But Gamal Jebril, a constitutional law professor at Halwan University, told Al-Monitor, “State Council regulations do not prevent the appointment of female judges, but the problem lies in the application of these regulations.”
He said the draft law won't pass because it's unconstitutional in that it basically calls for reverse discrimination.
"The constitution guarantees equality between women and men without discrimination,” he added. “Parliament cannot force the State Council or any other judicial body to appoint women, because these are independent bodies."
Jebril criticized the State Council, however, noting it doesn't even provide women with job applications to fill out. “This is deemed discriminatory and unconstitutional, and the State Council should refrain from so doing.”
One such example involved Umniyah Gadallah, who has a master of law degree from Ain Shams University. In 2014, she went to apply for a judicial position at the State Council and couldn't obtain a job application to fill out, she told Al-Monitor recently.
“The State Council denied me the right to apply for the job, in violation of [its own] regulations, which do not stipulate the exclusion of women, and in violation of the constitution, which stipulates the need to achieve equality between men and women in all rights,” she said.
“Women can perfectly work at the State Council, especially considering that they already work as judges in other judicial bodies such as the Administrative Prosecution and the Supreme Constitutional Court, among others,” Gadallah added.
Proponents of women being appointed to the State Council hope the current push underway will serve as a lever to strengthen their cause, even if the executive and legislative branches find it difficult to force the State Council to change its stance.