Women judges under threat in Egypt

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MARCO WERMAN: Egypt used to be a leader on women's rights in the Arab world, but of late, it's lagged behind on a number of issues, including the appointment of female judges. Egyptian law doesn't ban women from the bench, but its judiciary remains almost entirely male. The government has made some efforts in the past few years to appoint women, but it's met resistance. Recently, the members of one of Egypt's most influential courts did vote to ban women from their ranks. But this week, Egypt's highest court struck down the ban. Ursula Lindsey reports from Cairo.

URSULA LINDSEY: When Tahani El Gabali was appointed Egypt's first female judge in 2002, she says people were watching to see if she'd succeed or fail. Now, she says, that's not an issue.

TRANSLATOR: [FOR TAHANI EL GABALI, SPEAKING IN ARABIC] No one mentions anymore that there's a woman in the middle of men. No one remembers anymore that this is something strange. Culture always changes through practicing our rights, not talking about them.

LINDSEY: Since El Gabali became a judge, about forty other women have joined the bench. But they've done so through special government appointments. None has worked her way up through the ranks of the judiciary. Women's rights advocate Amal Abdel Hadi says this is a problem.

AMAL ABDEL HADI: The most important thing for mainstreaming women in the judiciary is to have them get into the system from the very beginning and then get their career on as judges, not just being appointed.

LINDSEY: No women preside over Egypt's criminal courts. And there are no women on the country's powerful State Council. That court has jurisdiction over disputes that involve the government. Recently, several female law school graduates applied to join the State Council. But the Council's judges � all men � voted overwhelmingly against letting women in. That decision was appealed to Egypt's High Constitutional Court. One of the judges sitting on that bench is Tahani El Gabali. She says that when the State Council judges presented their arguments, she wound up reading a litany of reasons why women couldn't do the job.

TRANSLATOR: [FOR TAHANI EL GABALI, SPEAKING IN ARABIC] The reasons were related to the fact that work in the State Council is difficult, a woman won't be able to withstand this work, it will conflict with her duties as mother and wife. They were all arguments about the suitability of women to this hard work.

LINDSEY: It wasn't just legal arguments. The debate has played out on TV as well.

[MALE VOICE � ARABIC]

LINDSEY: On one of Egypt's most popular TV talk shows, a high ranking judge called in to say that judges must be prepared to work in different courts across the country, and women can't do that. He argued they can't leave their homes and travel without their husbands' permission. But in the end, the High Court struck down the Council's ban. It ruled that there's no basis in Egyptian law for excluding women from the bench. Women's advocate Abdel Hadi says the ruling affects all Egyptian women, not just those who want to be judges.

HADI: Women getting into the different arenas of life is very important for the concept of equality. It's not just enough to have this article in the Constitution, that all Egyptians are equal in front of the Constitution or the law. It's not enough to have texts. We want it [SOUNDS LIKE] to be practiced.

LINDSEY: Next week, the State Council meets to decide how to proceed. El Gabali says she doesn't expect things to change for women overnight.

TRANSLATOR: [FOR TAHANI EL GABALI, SPEAKING IN ARABIC] We don't want to take men's place. We just want to share this responsibility with them. It's clear we have a long road ahead of us before we can establish a culture of equality.

LINDSEY: In the meantime, she says, she encourages female law students to aim to become judges, as well as lawyers and professors. For The World, I'm Ursula Lindsey in Cairo.