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Middle East: Women Fight For Professional Recognition Under Islamic Law

  • Lisa McAdams

Prague, 17 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- In terms of women's rights and employment, Egypt is regarded as one of the more liberal countries in the Middle East and the Islamic World. That's what makes the case of Fatima Lashin, a 34-year-old lawyer seeking to become the country's first female judge, all the more intriguing.

Ten years ago Lashin was denied a judgeship on the basis of her sex. She has been fighting that decision ever since and now is suing the entire Egyptian court system.

Lashin's case has sparked debate in newspapers, television, and the courts over women's rights and Islamic law, which many scholars say bars women from serving as judges. In Islamic tradition, two women count as one man in testimony. So, by analogy, Lashin's opponents say a woman can not be a judge, because she cannot be a witness by herself.

Lashin's supporters argue that the Egyptian Constitution, although based on Islamic Law, guarantees the right of women to hold all government posts.

Lashin's battle for the judiciary job began back in 1988, two years after she graduated from Cairo's Law College with honors. Her application was turned down by the Ministry of Justice, along with those of 17 male lawyers. The men were reportedly told they were not qualified because of their mediocre resumes. Lashin was told she had been rejected because she was a woman.

Lashin took her case to the State Council, arguing that Egypt's Constitution gives equal rights to men and women. After two years of deliberations, the Council, which functions as a government affairs court, upheld the Ministry of Justice decision, again claiming that Islam does not permit women to be judges.

Since then, Lashin has taken her case to a number of courts. This year, it finally went before the country's highest court, although no date has been set for a decision.

Akbar Ahmed, a professor of Islam at Cambridge University in England, told RFE/RL that there is no tenet in the Koran denying women a role in the judiciary. As he put it: "women can inherit, women can lead -- an army or a nation -- so to say that women can not be judges is not correct." Ahmed said that what was at issue in Egypt -- as well as numerous other Muslim societies -- was more a struggle concerning the overall nature of modern society. "In Muslim societies, for various reasons, because there is ignorance -- sometimes there is a rural society or tribal society with their own customs -- women have not been given the position that is due to them in Islam and one aspect of that is what you are seeing today in countries like Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, where there is a debate about how far women are allowed to go in society."

Ahmed said that, to a certain extent, male interpretation of Islamic law was also to blame. He said that since it is often a male judge, or writer, or lawmaker who interprets the law, women are not faring as well as they should be.

One of such men is Mohammed Magdi Murgan, a prominent Cairo judge, who wrote in Egypt's daily (Al-Ahram) newspaper earlier this year in relation to the Lashin case, that the "natural place for a woman is the house, in the shadow behind a man."

Another judge, Abdel Razek Ahmed Mustafa, deputy chairman of the nation's Appeals court, wrote in the same daily, "A woman is a woman till doomsday and she will never be like a man."

Ahmed urged all men in such positions of power to refer back to the Koran, which, he said, clearly states the role of women as being equal to men. Ahmed added that the issue may be affected by circumstances rather that representing religious Muslim thinking.

"Islam, when it is secure, when it has a civilization it feels confident about, when it is not under threat, when it does not feel paranoid, then it is capable of treating everyone -- not only women -- but also minorities with great tolerance and fairness. I believe that when Islam is under pressure -- or perceives itself to be under pressure -- from western civilization, from material civilization, from consumer civilization, then it responds in a defensive and sometimes aggressive way, particularly toward women and minorities and so on."

Most Egyptians, even militants, reportedly agree that it is tradition more than religion that keeps women from becoming judges. It is interesting to note that in secular Tunisia, Iraq and Syria -- all Muslim countries -- women serve as judges.

Iran, long the standard-bearer of Islamic rule, has made tentative steps toward allowing women to serve as judges in some court cases. And just two weeks ago, Iran's Interior Ministry said women could run in next month's election for Iran's Experts Assembly, as yet a male-dominated cleric body.