Egypt names first female judges

Thursday, March 15, 2007

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) -- Egypt's judiciary chief has named the country's first female judges despite opposition from conservative Muslims, according to a decree published Wednesday.

Mukbil Shakir, the head of the Supreme Judicial Council, appointed 31 women to judge or chief judge positions in Egypt's courts, the official Middle East News Agency said, quoting Shakir's decree.

The move is expected to give a boost to President Hosni Mubarak's political and social reforms that have been widely criticized as too restricted. But others said the announcement still falls short of providing women equal opportunities.

The decree said the women, who previously were state prosecutors, passed a special test before being named to their new posts.

Women's rights advocates have been pushing for female judges for decades, but the government had refused, fearing angry reaction from conservative Muslims opposed to a move they consider un-Islamic.

In 2003, Mubarak named a female lawyer, Tahany el-Gebaly, as a judge in the nation's constitutional tribunal, a post which does not include overseeing civil or criminal court cases. It was not immediately clear what courts the 31 women would preside over.

Some hard-line critics said Shakir's decree contradicts an article in the constitution that states the principal source of legislation is Islamic law. They base their argument on a Quranic tenet that holds that two women are equal to one man if they are called as witnesses in a court. A woman, they argue, cannot be a judge if she cannot be a sole witness.

Yahia Ragheb Daqruri, president of the judges' syndicate, has vehemently opposed appointing women to be judges.

"Women must not sit as judges because it would be against Sharia (Islamic law) as they would have to spend time alone with men," he was quoted as saying in a recent interview in the independent al-Masri al-Youm daily.

Others argue that female judges might become pregnant while serving on the bench and that would affect the judiciary's prestige.

But a leading Egyptian cleric, Sheik Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, has ruled that there is nothing in Islam's holy book, the Quran, that bans women from becoming judges. Tantawi is head of Al-Azhar, the leading Sunni Muslim center of religious thought. His rulings carry substantial weight in the Muslim world, and his statement may have lent legitimacy to campaigns by feminist activists to get women on the bench.

But others said the decree did not go far enough. Fatima Lashin, a lawyer whose request to join the judiciary was turned down solely on the grounds she is a woman, called the move cosmetic because the women who were named were chosen from among state prosecutors and excluded defense lawyers and civil servants. She also contended the government intends to send the female judges to family status tribunals and not criminal courts.

"The government should open the post for all women, not those of its choice," Lashin told the Associated Press.

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