CAIRO: Egyptian society is in the grip of a moral crisis and nothing proves it more than the situation of women. It’s always one step forward and ten steps back.
As the world celebrated International Women’s Day this week, a battle has been raging within Egypt’s judicial circles and spilling into the wider society over a vote rejecting the appointment of female judges in the State Council, the body that hears cases brought by individuals against the state.
Last month, 334 out of a general assembly of 380 judges voted against the appointment of women in the Council, while 42 supported the motion and four abstained.
It’s been a little over seven years since the first female judge, Tahani El-Gebali, was appointed to the Supreme Constitutional Court in a move that was then hailed as not only a milestone in women’s rights, but more specifically as a move that would finally open wide the gates of the judiciary to Egyptian women once and for all.
But seven years on and very little has been achieved in that respect. The latest State Council debacle has seriously undermined the meager steps forward that Egyptian women have been able to make in a struggle that began back in 1949 when Aisha Rateb, lawyer and former minister of social affairs, then a young graduate of the Faculty of Law, was rejected after applying for the position of judge at the State Council, on social and political grounds.
It took four years after El-Gebali’s appointment – incidentally by presidential decree – for the Egyptian government to appoint 31 female judges, mostly in family courts.
Even though the Egyptian constitution guarantees equality between men and women, generations of female law graduates have been denied appointment as deputies to the prosecutor-general’s office, the starting point in the career of any judge. If it had not been for the super-imposed appointments, according to the whims and moods of the powers that be, there would still not exist a single woman on the bench today.
The numbers speak for themselves. The Egyptian population is almost equally divided between men and women, but only 31 law female graduates out of an annual number of enrolled law students nation-wide that exceeds 400,000 at the most conservative estimate have been “appointed as judges. Around 1.53 million students enroll in government universities in all fields every year, of which approximately one third are women, according to the Egypt profile in the Center for International Higher Education.
Even if it is impossible to get exact statistics on the gender ratios of law graduates, it’s crystal clear that discrimination against women in this field has been systemic and despite the small breakthrough in 2003, seven years on and this State Council issue seems to have catapulted us back to 1949, when Rateb’s rejection was “only natural .
That said, one cannot deny that Egyptian women have been able to penetrate nearly all fields with various levels of success.
However, the same cannot be said about the realignment of women’s position in society as a whole.
There’s an almost schizophrenic gap between what women have achieved professionally and how they are perceived socially, which the staggering report on sexual harassment published in 2008 by the Egyptian Center of Women’s Rights revealed.
Of the 2,000 Egyptian women polled and the nearly 100 foreigners, 83 percent of the Egyptians and 98 percent of the foreign women said that they experience sexual harassment, including explicit comments, groping, men exposing themselves and assault. What’s worse, the vast majority of them (97 percent of Egyptians, and 87 percent of foreigners) don’t alert the police.
It’s been two years since the report has surfaced, but the draft law specifically aimed at curbing sexual harassment that was proposed in 2008, was never voted on. Apart from a booklet (“Sexual Harassment: Causes and Solutions ) distributed across the country’s mosques in mid-2009 by Egypt’s Ministry of Endowments, the government division responsible for the administration of mosques, there have been no serious government responses to the chronic problem.
As Madiha El-Safty, a sociology professor at the American University, is was widely quoted as saying, “Changes for women are surface improvements. There is a deeper cultural problem: male hostility toward women who want to do more than stay at home.
There seems to be an innate rejection of the necessary inclusion of women in the workforce in Egypt’s blatantly patriarchal society, where men often feel that women are taking their jobs, when the reality is that 25 percent of households are headed by women whose husbands mostly do not even seek jobs but still behave as though they are the bread-winners, wielding absolute authority over the wives who support them and the children.
It took 15 years for the government and the People’s Assembly to finally approve the organ transplant law. Let’s just hope we won’t have to wait another 15 years before a legislation that protects and empowers women sees the light.
Rania Al Malkyis the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.