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Glass Ceiling Cracks in Egypt, but Would-Be Judges Still Hear: ‘No Girls’

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CAIRO — When 98 women were sworn in this week to serve on Egypt’s highest administrative court, breaking a barrier and taking seats in an enclave once restricted to men, the moment was celebrated in an hourlong ceremony broadcast on national TV.

But for many Egyptian women seeking to become judges, it was the exception that proved the rule.

The women sworn in Tuesday to the State Council, as the court is known, were appointed at the behest of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and drawn from a pool of administrative prosecutors and lawyers already employed by the state.

Given the irregular path that landed them on the court, there was skepticism that the appointments would do much if anything to chip away at longstanding institutional discrimination against women in Egypt and seed any meaningful change.

A handful of women make it to the bench every few years, but most others, especially newly minted law graduates, get another message: “No girls.”

That was what Omnia Gadalla, 30, who graduated in 2013 from one of Egypt’s oldest universities as valedictorian of her class, says she was told when she tried to get a judgeship on the State Council. She has since sued the state and begun a Facebook page to raise awareness about the fact that women in the Arab world’s largest country are still vastly underrepresented in the judicial system.

Hundreds of women earn law degrees in Egypt each year, but only about 150 now sit on the bench across the country. On paper, the door to the bench is open to women, but it is common, they say, to show up at a courthouse and be refused an application.

Women’s rights veterans say it is important not to understate the gains women just made at the State Council.

“It’s a breakthrough,” said Mona Zulficar, a prominent Egyptian lawyer and human rights activist who was one of five women in a committee of about 50 to help draft a set of constitutional amendments passed in 2014. One of the articles enshrines equality between women and men in civil and political life, with an emphasis on the right of women to be appointed to judicial bodies.

“They were resisting for years, and have finally conceded because they couldn’t go against the Constitution that they’re supposed to be defending and protecting,” Ms. Zulficar said.

Ms. Gadalla’s legal battle is still underway, but a few of her cases — she brings new ones with each setback — have been dismissed on the basis of the court’s “discretionary powers.”

That, she notes, is part of the challenge: Ms. Gadalla is suing the State Council, the very same judicial body that handles all decisions in which the government is a party.

She was not impressed by the government’s decision to name the nearly 100 women to the court.

“It’s window dressing,” Ms. Gadalla said. “Every young woman who graduates, regardless of how well qualified she might be, will still not be admitted.”

When the women were sworn in on Tuesday, the occasion was accompanied by grand pronouncements.

“Today is a national event,” declared Judge Mohamed Hossam Eldin, chief justice of the State Council. “Our duty as the State Council is to preserve their rights as women in the constitution and the law.”

But the near exclusion of women from the courts, critics say, means that they rarely participate in decisions that pertain to their everyday lives, including those touching on marriage, divorce and inheritance, as well as the crimes of harassment, domestic abuse and sexual violence.

Judge Eldin was the head judge named in court decisions that dismissed Ms. Gadalla’s efforts to allow women to be hired under the same set of rules that have allowed men to dominate Egypt’s courts.

Ms. Gadalla is not the only woman to file suit. So did Noor El-Gohary, who graduated with a law degree last year and was turned away from applying for vacant positions that opened this year.

“At one point, I walked through a courthouse and saw all these guys my age standing around waiting to be interviewed,” Ms. El-Gohary said. “It was hard to see just how they were the ones who got the opportunity.”

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