Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1147, 9 - 15 May 2013
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1147, 9 - 15 May 2013

Ahram Weekly

Obituary: Aisha Rateb (1928-2013)Women’s struggle: one champion down

Aisha Rateb, a pioneer in law and women’s rights, has departed our world at a time of unprecedented political challenges in both domains.

Rateb was a quiet and softly spoken woman whose demeanour concealed a combative spirit and a steely ability to take principled stances over the course of her career. Her positions on issues relating to the status of women, as well as on social equity, pre-empted many of the battles that we see today.

Rateb was the second Egyptian woman to become minister of social affairs, which she did in 1974. She resigned her position three years later in 1977 in protest over the lifting by late president Anwar Al-Sadat of the subsidies on bread and other staple commodities. The measures, hitting limited-income groups the most, ignited massive protests across Egypt.

Rateb was born in Cairo in 1928 into an educated middle-class family. Upon her graduation from Cairo University’s Faculty of Law in 1949, she pursued her studies in France. She then returned to Cairo to obtain her PhD in law in 1955.

In the same year, she filed a lawsuit against a higher judicial body, the State Council, which had rejected her application to sit as a judge. The reason given was that she was a woman. Rateb’s lawsuit was an unprecedented step in the history of the Egyptian judiciary. While she lost the case, the head of the State Council at the time, Abdel-Razek Al-Sanhouri, admitted in his written opinion that the reasons Rateb’s application has been rejected were not legal, but “societal” and “political”.

Al-Sanhouri wrote that while the Egyptian constitution gave women the same rights under the law as men, it would be a “contravention of custom” for a woman to be appointed to the State Council as a judge.

The prohibition barring women from assuming senior judicial positions or becoming public prosecutors continues to this day, this despite a Supreme Constitutional Court ruling in favour of their appointment. The only exception to this rule remains the appointment by presidential decree of Tahani Al-Gebali as a judge on the Supreme Constitutional Court in 2003, when 20 other women were also appointed to senior judicial posts.

Al-Gebali’s tenure was retracted by a subsequent constitutional amendment issued by the current President Mohamed Morsi. However, the precedent of women holding senior judicial positions had been set.

“It’s been more than 50 years,” Rateb said in a press interview in 2003, commenting on Al-Gebali’s appointment, adding that it was a further step forward in the battle she had initiated five decades before to see women judges sit on the bench.

In 1971, Rateb participated in the Arab Socialist Union’s Central Committee, which had been asked to write the country’s new constitution. She expressed her objection to the extraordinary powers that the constitution granted to the then president Sadat.

Rateb also left a pioneering imprint as the first woman to join the staff of Cairo University’s Faculty of Law and the first woman to teach international law, later heading the faculty’s International Law Department.

In 1979, two years after her resignation from the position of minister of insurance and social affairs, Sadat appointed Rateb as the first Egyptian woman to become an ambassador, and she was made Egyptian ambassador to Denmark from 1979 to 1981, followed by a stint as ambassador to Germany from 1981 to 1984.

Rateb’s take on foreign policy was that Egypt should maintain a balanced position in a world of highly polarised international relations. She was critical of the animosities fomented during the rule of former president Hosni Mubarak against significant regional players such as Turkey and Iran. She also deplored the negligence which beset Egypt’s African ties, specifically regarding the countries of the Nile Basin with which Egypt shares strategic interests.

Rateb’s works in the field of international law included The Contemporary Outlook on Non-Alignment, Legal Aspects of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and Arab International Relations.

Her legal training came in useful particularly when as minister of insurance and social affairs she presented the first initiative to reform the status of women in the country’s personal status laws. 

Her suggested reforms restricted polygamy and required that divorce be carried out in front of a judge. However, the reforms did not gain momentum until five years later, when they were passed by a decree issued by president Sadat.

During her tenure as a minister, Rateb also gave special emphasis to pension funds, and she was highly critical of the policies subsequently pursued by the Ministry of Finance under former minister Youssef Boutros Ghali in the 1990s.

The Finance Ministry has invested the pension funds in the stock market, a policy which Rateb objected to because it “put senior citizens’ resources in a precarious position”.

She did not mince her words in her opposition to the open door law issued in 1974 either, this reversing the socialist policies adopted by former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the 1950s and 60s.

In discussions of the law, Rateb objected to it on “constitutional and political grounds,” and this resulted in her removal from her position as the head of the ministerial committee in charge of approving draft laws prior to their introduction into parliament.

In an interview published in the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm in 2010, Rateb described Sadat’s economic liberalisation policies as having induced “deep inegalitarianism into Egyptian society”.

She saw former president Hosni Mubarak’s rule as a continuation of a political and economic approach that was “pushing society into an even steeper descent towards inequality and unrest”.

Rateb admonished Mubarak to “come out of your isolation in the resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, or else you will become totally disconnected from the Egyptian people”.

On whether she anticipated social unrest similar to that which exploded during the bread riots of 1977, Rateb said that “I expect worse, because under Sadat, for all the criticism we did not see workers striking and sleeping on pavements in front of the parliament and cabinet, beating their faces in despair. They do so now and are met with apathy by a government that does not respond to what it sees.”

Rateb was socially active to the last and was constantly surrounded by her many friends, for whom she held an annual reception every year. She stayed intellectually sharp and never lost her concern for the public domain. 

However, she chose to remain uninvolved in a political climate where cabinet ministers were, she once said, “no more than secretaries toeing the line and being assigned tasks instead of acting like ministers capable of initiating policies.”

Aisha Rateb is survived by two sons and four grandchildren.



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