Madam Justice al-Gebali of Egypt is the first female judge in the history of Egypt and deputy head of Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court 92011).

Her surname is also spelled, in English, El Gebaly or el-Gebaly.

Born in Tanta, Egypt in 1951, she received her law degree from the University of Cairo in 1973, including the de rigeur diploma in Sharia law. She was a student when Egypt was defeated by Israel in the 1967 Suez War.

She came to prominence as defense lawyer for several high-profile clients. One was a terrorist Ayman Hassan, an Egyptian who had crossed the border with Israel and attacked several Israelis. Facing a death sentence, al-Gebali takes credit for his 12 year sentence, telling her client: "as long as your head is still on your shoulders, that's as good as an acquittal."

She was one of the lawyers defending Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid who faced a most peculiar accusation, right out of the pages of history it seems. He was an Islamic scholar who fell into disfavor with this colleagues who then brought an action against him in court to divorce him against his will, as no Muslim woman could be married to an apostate.

Tahany al-GebalyIn another high-profile case,she defended a woman guilty of a horrific "honor crime", the accused had killed her own daughter because she suspected her daughter of having committed adultery. Al-Gebali argued that her client should get a lenient sentence since Egyptian men always received lenient sentences for honor crimes.

Tahani al-Gebali successfully ran for public office on several occasions for the Nasserite Party.

Since 1949, the Egyptian minister of justice had been receiving applications from woman to be appointed judges but the official response was that they were too "emotional"for the position. In 1998, al-Gebali and 24 other female lawyers applied en masse for judicial appointment. All were rejected. Al-Gebali appealed and pointed out that in ancient Muslim lore, there was a precedent for a female being appointed marketplace judge.

Surprising though it may seem, these arguments were successful and on January 23, 2003, she was named to the Supreme Constitutional Court. She opened the floodgates: by 2007, there were 30 female judges on the bench.

The appointment of females to positions of judicial authority is clear sign of Muslim theocracies creeping towards democracy. Already, the rolls of attorney generals in Syria, Sudan and Tunis have included women.

But there is still much to be desired of judicial life in Egypt. Al-Gebali's judge's chamber is adorned with Palestinian flags. In the aftermath of the 2011, revolution in Egypt, she openly met with the press and did not hold back in suggesting the proper answer to a constitutional question to be put to the population.

Judges in Egypt - including al-Gebali - can't keep their mouths shut on current affairs. As history has shown elsewhere, any comment on current political affairs simply diminishes the judiciary and is a double-edged sword. For example, in 2007, a group of male Egyptian judges publicly objected to the appointment of female judges. According to Inter Press, some of the reasoning seems taken from a time-travel machine:

  • "The appointment of female judges contradicts Islamic law and therefore contradicts ... Islamic law"; and
  • "The difficulties associated with judicial work served to hinder women from carrying out responsibilities as judge".

REFERENCES:

  • Delong-Bas, Natana, Notable Muslims (Oxford; Oneworld Press, 2006)
  • Elbendary, Amina, Tahani El-Gebali: No winding pathways for Egypt's first woman judge, 65 Al-Ahram Weekly, 13-19 Feb. 2003
  • Morrison, Jeremy, "Lady Justice", Enigma Magazine, March 2009
  • Morrow, A. and al-Omrani, K., Female Judge Appointments Stir Controversy, Inter-Press Service, April 16, 2007