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Egyptian Women Struggle to Be Heard

The battle for equal rights is a slow process in Egypt, but the tides are changing.

[Cairo, Egypt] The police arrive to disperse the crowd of women stationed outside the State Council building. A dozen or so women look on and hold firm to their posts; the protest will continue.

A few passersby stop and ask what is going on.

“What are you doing here?” one man asks the women, who are holding placards and chanting against discrimination. Salma Yussif responds, telling the man they are there to protest the State Council’s decision to bar women from the top advisory council.


The question almost shocks Yussif, a recent law graduate concerned for her future. She does not know how to respond, except to tell the man that women deserve equal rights to men in Egypt. He doesn’t appear convinced, but nods his head slowly and saunters off, back to the daily grind.

For Yussif and thousands of other future lawyers and judges in the country, the back-and-forth rulings over female participation in the government’s State Council – which advises the government on legal rulings and decisions, and is authorized to settle administrative disputes – have left a sour taste in their mouths.

“What are we supposed to do? Should we just sit here and do nothing?” she asks as the protest dwindles and the women dejectedly make their way home. “I think this is part of a larger problem facing Egypt, where men believe they can pull us back to the Stone Age and silence our voices,” she tells The Media Line.

The frustration and angst among women activists and lawyers began after a February vote by the State Council to ban women from serving on the court passed by an overwhelming majority.

The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) was outraged; saying the decision revealed the ongoing struggle women in Egypt must go through merely to have their rights and status affirmed by men.

“Does a lack of organized procedures for entering the judiciary mean that we violate the rights of women indefinitely by preventing them from entering judiciary positions?” an ECWR statement asked after the initial ruling.

Nehad Abu Komsan, the ECWR’s director, said the ruling runs deeper than simply pushing women away from the courts. She argued it is “typical” of the current sentiments facing Egypt in terms of women’s rights.

“What they are afraid of is women gaining any positions of power in the country and so they are trying to protect themselves,” she began. “It won’t work, as women are organized and will fight for their rights and against the discrimination that happens on a daily basis, whether it is in the workplace, sexual harassment on the streets or the way we are thought of by men.”

Under Egyptian law, the nomination of new judges to the State Council is by presidential decree following the approval of candidates by the administrative committee.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the February decision and called on the Egyptian government to end judicial discrimination toward women.

“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 at the time.

Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif intervened in early March, calling on the council to review its decision to bar women, saying the matter must be reviewed by “an administrative committee.”

Then, the top Constitutional Court – where Tahani El-Gabali sits as the first female judge in the country – stepped in and argued the council could not bar women from the advisory council. They ruled it was unconstitutional and discriminatory towards women.

But, despite what appears to be a resolution of the issue – and although the council will meet in April to “review” the decision on women’s participation – the ordeal hits home for women in Egypt.

Studies have shown that discrimination and harassment are almost daily occurrences across Egypt’s professions. A report by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) in March revealed that Egyptian female journalists continued to “suffer from discrimination against their access to positions of leadership.”

The report, entitled “Female Journalists: Partners in Press Unions Leaders,” stated that only 2,400 women are members of the press syndicate out of a total 7,000 members and that the percentage of representation in the Syndicate’s Council drops to only 7.7 percent, or 13 members.

For Yussif, this is proof that the ‘judges’ case goes beyond that single issue. She points to the “overall feeling that women are looked down upon and need to force their way into leading roles.”

El-Gabali, the first female judge in Egyptian history – appointed by President Hosni Mubarak – says she understands her role in creating “space for Egyptian women” to follow in her footsteps.

“I am not an activist,” she said. “But I do believe in equal rights for women and that is why it is so important to establish the rule of law to end discrimination against women in this country.”

Most women’s advocates, including Yussif, Abu Komsan and even El-Gabali, say times are changing.

“It is a long road to travel, especially as we must fight against the everyday perception that says it’s okay to beat your wife and control women’s actions,” Abu Komsan said in an interview with The Media Line in between telephone calls from local journalists who wanted her opinion on women’s empowerment in Egypt. “But things are moving forward and we are hopeful that when all these issues are publicized, we will get to the point where this debate won’t even be necessary.”
“A few years ago, we had to call them, but now they are calling us for our opinion,” she continued. “That’s a start.”

As the debate meanders on, the ECWR has demanded the immediate issuing of a law to combat discrimination in the country in order to secure “equality, citizenship and efficiency for all Egyptians.”

Abu Komsan said that while changing public perception is a vital and major part of the work women’s advocates must look into, “policy and legal measures are extremely important if women are to move forward on equal ground. This call for new legislation is key to the success.”

Yussif couldn’t agree more. While slipping into her car, readying to head off to a meeting of local women’s leaders, she said, “Men in this country, for the most part, live in a world where they think they can do whatever they want. This is based on religion and other factors, but we have to change the attitudes and an anti-discrimination law will make this happen quicker.”