The Egyptian government’s appointment of the country’s first group of female judges is a welcome step toward ending discrimination against women in the judiciary, Human Rights Watch said today.
Before the Supreme Judicial Council appointed the 31 female judges on March 14, the only sitting female judge in Egypt was Tahani al-Gibali, who was appointed to the High Constitutional Court in 2003 by presidential decree. The new female judges are expected to be assigned to courts by the end of the month.
The government’s previous exclusion of women from the bench was not codified in Egyptian law. The Supreme Judicial Council, which is the government body tasked with appointing judges, had simply rejected the applications of all women applying to join the criminal department of the public prosecutor’s office, from which most junior judges are chosen. In some cases, the council explicitly cited the applicant’s gender as the reason for her rejection.
“Egypt’s appointment of female judges sends a strong message about including women’s voices in the judicial process,” said Farida Deif, women’s rights researcher for the Middle East at Human Rights Watch. “For this decision to have real bearing, the government must now follow up by removing other barriers to women’s participation at all levels of the judiciary.”
The apparent change of policy in regards to the appointment of women to the bench brings the Egyptian government closer to compliance with antidiscrimination provisions in international law and its constitutional guarantees of equality of opportunity to all Egyptians. In order to fully meet these obligations, the Egyptian government should ensure that female judges are not solely relegated to certain types of courts, such as family courts, and that there is no discrimination in the selection or training of these judges.
The government should also apply objective and clear procedures for the appointment of judges in line with international standards set out in the United Nations’ Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary.
The appointment of women to the bench comes as the result of a long campaign by a broad range of Egyptian civil society groups. Some senior judges had argued to exclude women from the bench on the grounds that they would have to spend time alone with men.
“This is a positive step, but it shouldn’t be the last,” Deif said. “We hope the government will select applicants to serve on a variety of courts, irrespective of their gender.”