Op-Ed by Hibaaq Osman, Founder and Chair of Karama
Appeared 28 March 2010 in Bikya Masr
Last month saw a setback for integration of Arab women in the workforce when members of Egypt’s State Council, the country’s highest legal authority, voted overwhelmingly to ban female law graduates from joining their ranks. While women have served as judges in Egypt since 2002, this news is a stark reminder that the story of women’s full equality in Egypt’s professional sphere is often two steps forward, one step back.
Fortunately, more steps forward came earlier this month when Egypt’s High Constitutional Court overturned the ban, meaning that women will likely be joining the State Council sooner or later. Abdel Moati Bayoumy, a professor at Al-Azhar University also affirmed the ruling in a religious context, asserting that in Islam, “there is no categorical religious reference that alludes to women’s incapacity to become judges,” according to local press.
The arguments against women’s fitness for serving on the State Council were flimsy.
Members claimed that female colleagues would be unable to perform their duties travelling around the country on cases because of inadequate hotel facilities in rural areas. The judges also claimed that women were unfit to serve because they are exempted from military service and granted six years of maternity leave under Egyptian law.
Indeed, none of these arguments prevent Egypt’s 42 currently serving female judges from doing their jobs. Nor did they stand in the way of Amal Soliman from becoming Egypt’s first ma’zouna, or female marriage officer in 2007, a victory that took the mother several years of court battles to achieve. It should also be noted that Soliman is from the Delta town of Zagazig, where her work officiating marriages often requires her to travel to rural areas.
So where do we stand now? The past decade has registered many “firsts” for Egyptian professional women, but while these cases are inspiring, we must remember the vast structural imbalances facing women in the job market. Females currently make up half of Cairo University’s student body but only a quarter of Egypt’s workforce. This means, among other things, that a huge portion of brainpower and talent remains on the sidelines of the Egyptian economy; this holds back growth and lowers living standards for all Egyptians.
So yes, let’s celebrate that women are finally being given a chance at top spots in Egypt’s legal system, and, yes, let’s pressure the State Council to drop its illogical objections to working with female colleagues. But, we should not let signs of progress at the elite level distract from the vast and harmful gender disparities that exist throughout Egyptian society. Let’s not rest for one second from pressuring and persuading Cairo to fulfill the binding commitments it has made to achieving full gender equality as a signatory to the CEDAW treaty and the Millennium Development Goals.
Women judges on Egypt’s State Council will be an important breakthrough, but the real test will be if they help the government keep its promise that Egyptian women in all professions have an equal chance at success.