Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 February 2003
Issue No. 625
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Tahani El-Gebali:

No winding pathways for Egypt's first woman judge

A question of judgement

Profile by Amina Elbendary
Tahani El-Gebali

Landing on the third floor of a nondescript apartment building in Garden City it is not difficult to guess which is Tahani El-Gebali's home; it must be the one behind the door plastered with Palestinian paper flags, symbols of the solidarity movement. There are more of them inside as well. El-Gebali is a long time activist. And now she has just entered history from a wider gate, as Egypt's first woman judge.

She is the first judge I have met face to face, and the initial impression is of someone surprisingly unassuming. You let your guard down, though you do so consciously, much in the way you might with a school teacher met years after leaving school: it remains impossible to forget that in this relationship she has the authority. And she is adept at presenting herself -- the legacy of a life of public debate and legal performance. In times of trouble, though, one feels confident that she will be there. People who have dealt with her, professionally and as an activist over the years, make the same remark: Tahani is gada'a; she stands her ground on the tough issues.

Throughout her working life El-Gebali has been "El- Ustaza Tahani." For some she is "Tante Tahani", loved, respected and perhaps even slightly feared. Whatever the role, she is clearly the matriarch. But how will she carry the new title, Siyadat Al-Mustashara? She will, no doubt, redefine that title and that role as she has redefined others. No problem. She is not worried, though perhaps a little anxious; she knows her life will not be the same sitting behind the bench before which she stood for much of her adult life. She knows she will have to give up some things, her membership in a dozen or so civic institutions, including the Lawyers' Syndicate.

"But I just couldn't for a minute contemplate not taking the job on the Supreme Constitutional Court [SCC]," she says.

Nominated by the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), her appointment was endorsed by President Mubarak on 23 January. "It is the surprise of a lifetime. I could never have dreamt of anything more glorious."

Tahani was born in 1950, in Tanta, capital of Al-Gharbiya province. Her father worked as a public health inspector with the Red Cross, her mother taught Arabic language and religious studies and eventually became headmistress and a deputy minister of education. She was a formidable woman, her mother: she went to school in the 1930s, one of the earliest generations of women to receive a formal education. It was unusual for women of her mother's generation to seek employment outside the house, particularly in the provinces. But her mother did. When her husband died, leaving seven children, Tahani's mother continued working, finding time for public works as well. During the 1956 War she volunteered for the National Guard.

Her father's family were landowners, adversely affected by the land redistribution laws passed under the revolutionary regime. Yet this, and the family's traditional Wafdist affiliation, didn't inhibit Tahani El-Gebali's support for the ideals of the 23 July Revolution. Until her appointment to the SCC she remained a member of the Nasserist Party although, she explains, she had frozen her membership several years ago due to differences with party leadership. "But I remain committed to the ideals of 23 July."

Now that she is a judge El-Gebali has, as required, suspended all political activity. But this, she points out, does not stop her from being concerned with the fate of the nation, from having an opinion and voicing it on, for example, the pages of newspapers. Nevertheless, her long association with "the opposition" raised eye brows following the news of her SCC appointment. That, however, is testimony to the way in which she crosses such restrictive boundaries as political affiliation.

When I timidly relate some of the objections of her detractors, those who are not quite enthusiastic about the idea of women judges, and who claim that even if it works in Cairo it will never be accepted in the provinces, she brushes away the criticism like she would crumbs from the dinner table.

"These people don't know what they're talking about," she says emphatically. "There are many capable women lawyers working, not just in any province, but in Upper Egypt, people like Abla El-Hawwari in Sohag, for example. There are women whom the state appoints to handle reconciliation in crimes of revenge. So if they're accepted by the community to handle such sensitive cases, there is no reason they won't be accepted as judges. Society is not sufficiently in touch with its own realities," she patiently explains.

Tahani first heard of the news that the SJC was discussing a motion to appoint her to the SCC through Mona Zulfiqar, a friend, fellow lawyer activist and someone "quite capable of serving as judge herself". Later Counselor Fathi Naguib, president of the SCC, requested a meeting with El-Gebali and informed her of the decision.

Acceptance, she knows, "will only come by women proving themselves".

"Everything new is at first resented. When women first went out to learn, people said it was the end of time, when they went out to work they said it would be the end of the world. But it wasn't. And women have proven themselves in all fields."

Not everyone within the legal establishment is quite as welcoming of the idea, though. The issue has been debated for decades, since Aisha Rateb was barred from the State Council in 1949. It is a debate that gained momentum in the 1990s -- as an activist lawyer El-Gebali was involved in the campaign for women judges. And as she is herself aware, the final decision was heatedly debated within the SCC for two months before it was endorsed. "There are many within the legal field who welcome women judges and feel that Egypt has been lagging behind other Arab and Islamic countries in this domain. Others are reserved, fearing for the judiciary and its aura. The judiciary, by its very nature in any society, is a conservative institution that doesn't handle new things easily. But this doesn't mean that proving oneself isn't in the end met with respect. We faced the same experience when women first practiced law, it was difficult to accept a successful woman lawyer and have judges listen seriously and respectfully to her defence. That was temporary, until we had well-established women lawyers. And it will be the same with judges. There are many women who can serve as judges. I expect women judges will be appointed to the proposed Family Court. And I expect that women will soon be allowed into the State Prosecutor's Bureau as well. Do you know that over 51 per cent of legal academics in Egypt are women? These women teach the men who become judges: how can anyone claim that they are less qualified than their students? Most of today's judges were taught by professors like Fawziya Abdel-Sattar and Samiha El-Qalyoubi. There are many women who work as legal arbitrators in commercial cases involving billions of dollars. Surely lawyers who can handle such complex cases can act as judges on commercial cases."

Others argue with the jurisprudence that allows for women judges. And, again, El-Gebali is quick with fiqhi refutations (she has a diploma in Islamic Shari'a as well, something that has been useful against conservative religious opponents in her battles for civil liberties). "Today's judge is an institution, not an individual. He or she doesn't rule alone but is supported by institutions. A judge is no longer both faqih (jurist) and qadi (judge). He no longer carries out fiqh (jurisprudence), but issues rulings based on codified laws. A judge's role today is separated from an academic's. And there are precedents of women judges when the qadi was also a faqih; the Caliph Omar Ibn Al-Khattab appointed a woman, Shifaa, as qadi hisba in the market. Shifaa used to issue fatwas in religious matters as well... If it was religiously permissible in Omar's times, how could it not be now, when the role of a judge itself has altered?"

For El-Gebali the fact that the decision to appoint a woman judge came from the SCC, the highest court, suggests a determination to redress some of the injustices that kept women out of the judiciary.

It may seem a long road from Tanta to Maadi, where the neo-Pharaonic building that houses the SCC stands facing the Nile, but for Tahani the route seems perfectly natural. She grew up in a family atmosphere that treasured and encouraged patriotic sentiments.

"That's where I learned the concept of citizenship, not tolerance but thinking of others as equal citizens. Our neighbourhood in Tanta is predominantly Coptic. When my mother became headmistress she decided to make the students attend both Muslim and Christian religious classes instead of the segregation that is commonly practiced. She wanted all students to respect the other religion. Every Ramadan we used to invite all our Christian neighbours for iftar and my mother often fasted with them during the Virgin's Fast. When the Mar Girguis Cathedral was inaugurated, Pope Kirolos VI came to Tanta and all of us -- boys, girls, Copts, Muslims -- we were all excited and went out to greet him."

Their house, too, was a scene for interfaith interaction. Tahani's father was friends with both Sheikh Mustafa Ismail, the celebrated Qur'anic reciter, and Anba Youannas, bishop for scientific research. "Sheikh Mustafa would play the oud, Anba Youannas the nay and my father would sing. He had a beautiful voice."

Clearly her family served as the wind beneath her wings. When Tahani graduated from high school, with high scores, she chose to study law and not a subject with more cache. Among her father's relatives was Mustafa El-Baradie, one- time president of the Lawyers Syndicate.

"He was glorified within the family and greatly respected by all. He was a role model. I first felt the importance of lawyers through the family's respect of Mustafa El- Baradie. To be a lawyer was always my dream."

Given her illustrious career -- she was the first woman elected to the board of the Syndicate in 1989 and to the permanent board of the Union of Arab Lawyers -- it would have been a logical step had Tahani succeeded Mustafa El- Baradie as president of the Bar. But fate had it otherwise. The current president, Sameh Ashour, is a lifetime friend.

Law was an unusual choice for a woman to begin with and there were no law schools in Tanta in the late 1960s, so she joined Cairo University.

"The first year of university I lived in the women's dorms. My father was shocked at the rules and regulations that were in place there. He thought it sounded like a military prison not a dormitory. He wanted me to go out in the world and enjoy the experience of university to the maximum. He met the president of the university to object against the stifling rules and even signed a letter giving me freedom to come and go as I wished regardless of the hours of the dorms. But the following years I lived on my own. My parents were trusting and respecting of me."

She joined the Faculty of Law in the fall of 1968, turbulent times for the nation. Campuses were rife with student activism following the June 1967 defeat. She joined in, and since then her name has been associated with many causes, not least the Palestinian solidarity and women's rights movements.

Following her graduation from Cairo University in 1973 Tahani El-Gebali has worked in commercial, civic, criminal and family law. She has defended many civil liberty and freedom of opinion and expression cases, most notably the case of the bread riots in January 1977, the case against Thawrat Misr activists in which the main defendant was Khaled Abdel-Nasser, and the case against Nasr Hamed Abu-Zeid, to name but a few.

In the 1970s and 80s she was heavily involved in defending striking workers. "I was often on the defence teams of such cases, being close to Mahalla, an industrial centre. Strikes, by factory and railway workers, made me aware of the importance of social balance. Such workers have always set examples of discipline as a group, and their protests were always for group benefits. I felt that there was a need to organise this right. I was very glad when in the case of the railway workers in the 1980s the court stated in its ruling that the right to strike is a legitimate right that has to be regulated by law. Nowadays, the new labour law that is being discussed is moving in the direction of regulating this right. I view such developments differently than other people because I lived through the experience of defending workers in court whose only crime was that they went on strike. And now there will be a clause that tells them they have a right to strike but according to a certain order."

Similarly, for El-Gebali women's rights aren't some abstract, fashionable notion. She recalls in detail the number of cases she has handled in which women were unjustly treated and where the law did not always stand by them -- women who spent 12, even 15 years in court trying to get a divorce ruling on the basis of harm, walking into court in their twenties, walking out in their late forties.

"One of my clients, a woman, was refused permission by her husband to travel to London to visit her dying father who was injured in a fire. I spent 21 days trying to get a court ruling to allow her to travel, but the law was not on our side. And the man passed away. I failed to get her a court order to allow her to attend the funeral. I had to personally interfere with the husband, plead with him, until he agreed to travel with his wife to attend her father's funeral." When people talk about a woman's right to freedom of movement, to travel without her husband's approval, El- Gebali knows what is at stake. "I defended a cancer patient whose husband refused to allow to travel abroad for treatment," she remembers.

Working on personal status cases made El-Gebali aware of the gap between the rights ordained according to Islamic Shari'a and the ways in which the law functions.

No one should be forced to live with someone against their consent; consent is a precondition for accepting certain arrangements, for their continuity and for their termination, she explains. She welcomes recent legal amendments to the personal status law, including the Khul' clauses, inasmuch as they ensure the safety of society and human beings from the abuse of rights. Not all her cases have been success stories. "The court delegated me once to represent a woman accused of killing her husband. She was 72 years old and at first I was surprised that she might have committed such a crime. Then I came to understand that at her age she was vulnerable to her husband taking another wife. She was in a very difficult emotional and social position. She had no one to support her, she couldn't work, she was old and her health frail. Unfortunately, she died before the ruling. I fell sick afterwards and stayed at home for two weeks. Since then I've been urging for a social fund financed by the state, to take care of women divorced in old age because they have no means of support and need special care; they need the social care that a husband normally provides."

There are many cases she is proud of. The young soldier, Ayman Hassan, who was involved in a shooting incident against Israelis in Rafah is one. "I was part of the defence team and was assigned what I believe was the most difficult part of the case. But, you know, he got 12 years in the end. And that was a victory, because he faced the death sentence on four different counts. We met recently and he told me 'I kept remembering your words during those 12 years: as long as your head is still on your shoulders, that's as good as an acquittal.'"

She hopes that her appointment to the SCC will provide opportunities to review Egyptian laws and perhaps weed out persistent elements of gender discrimination. "There are still laws that are tarnished with unconstitutionality because of gender discrimination -- the citizenship law and some criminal laws, for example. I hope I can do something to redress these injustices," she says.

"As a lawyer I have often appealed to the SCC. In fact, I still have a couple of cases that haven't been ruled on. I will have to step down from the bench when they come up for discussion."

Even though she's been living in Cairo since she went to college, the Tanta connection remains. It is there in the bric-a-brac that occupy every inch of space in her colourful living room, in the blue ceramic ornaments that crowd a wall of the room ("No, I'm not afraid of the evil eye").

Tahani El-Gebali is not married and does not have children of her own but she is very much a family woman.

"I am a mother by choice. I brought up four children, you know." Four of her nephews and nieces came by different circumstances to live with Tante Tahani at different points in their lives.

El-Gebali takes issue with traditional nuclear definitions of family. And she doesn't give any weight to the notion that had she had a traditional family of her own -- husband, kids and all the trappings -- she might not have achieved all she has: "Women do it all the time. I saw the experience of my mother. Besides," she says smilingly, "I do have a family and responsibilities. And I am responsible for children, for a kitchen and house work and all that." No big deal.

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