This morning I ran into some of my oldest friends. We chatted as old friends do, hugged, commented on new looks, graying hair, weight gained and lost as friends always do. We met on the steps of Egypt’s State Council (Majgis el Dawla)*; a grand building in a very busy part of greater Cairo. Upon these steps stood a hundred or so men and women who, like myself, had been alerted by text and e-mail messages to the decision by feminist advocacy groups to stage a protest against the near unanimous decision taken by the general assembly of the highest level of state council judges to ban women from entering the administrative judiciary as judges.
For the past year the wrangling over the suitability and possibility of women assuming the administrative bench has continued despite a brave decision by the ministry of justice to break a thousand year old taboo that has barred women from the bench. Proponents of women’s rights have argued that this step must be part of an overall transformation and therefore warned against tokenism and mere lip service to women’s equality. Most of the nominees for the state council courts are related to sitting judges or to other high level policy makers and this was noted as testimony to the timidity of the initiative.
On the other hand, hard-line conservatives viewed this innovation as a scandalous slaughter of a sacred cow! Judges can only be men, as women lack the ability and capability to judge. One judge was quoted as saying that a woman cannot be pregnant and sit on the bench! Another said that women lack rationality at ‘certain times of the month’. A third noted that women have chores and social responsibilities that distract them from their professional lives and that can detract from their ability to reflect on complicated cases and make hard decisions.
Such anecdotal and sadly eccentric points of view were considered water under the bridge and iterations of hard headed ‘outliers’ until the 300 or so highest and most senior judges and members of the state council general assembly took their decision to veto the appointment of women in their revered institution.
I dare say that most protestors standing on those steps today know that this decision will somehow be overturned. It is such a blatant challenge to the forces of change and equality, and that one way or another, these women will assume the bench dressed in their robes and despite their busy personal lives and their child rearing and home making responsibilities will be able to deliberate and judge. Times have changed and whether some approve or not, gender justice will loom large in the future.
Despite the relatively small numbers of protestors, media coverage was tremendous. The protest was on the front page of the national newspapers, and on the TV. The letter delivered by some of the organisers received an immediate and rather defensive response from the state court. Meanwhile state women’s machinery members were also quick to condemn the decision and plead with the administrative judiciary to reconsider.
This modicum of respect and success implies that gender justice is no longer a figment of a radical imagination but has become mainstreamed as common sense and as a matter of course. Protesting the courts decision was not a difficult or dangerous thing to do. Standing up for equal rights was neither ridiculed by the media nor condemned by officialdom. There may be no overwhelming popular sympathy for the plight of female judges; but neither is there any empathy towards the conservatism of patriarchs!
This may mean that feminism has lost its edge, but it has gained a body and a voice. Like my friends and I, gender justice has aged and matured, but has not lost its ability to protest against injustice or participate actively in shaping public policy and opinion.
On this international women’s day, we mark this confidence and maturity. Women’s empowerment does not mean catching up with men or to gloat when we do. Women’s power is the ability to transform society, economy and polity to realise more justice, humanity and humility in a better world. Our warm and friendly protest lacked hesitation or fear; it enjoined men and women, and had clear purpose and design. As a participant not organiser I write this note to salute the feminists advocates who have shepherded this process and continue to do so with the spirit that is the mark of a woman.
* Egypt has a judicial system inspired by the French legal system in which all administrative matters are settled in a separate court called the state council
In June 2009, the Egyptian parliament passed a new quota law adding 64 additional seats, for which only women can compete in the 454-seat parliament. This project looked at the various instruments to support women's political participation in Egypt, including the National Council for Women’s political empowerment training programme, and asked how effective these have been in challenging power hierarchies and empowering women politically? …