Despite all these societal dilemmas and legal obstacles, I still hope Egyptian women will come out victorious, occupy judicial positions, and eventually put an end to more forms of discrimination”- Omnia Taher Gadalla

Omnia Taher Gadalla is an Assistant Lecturer at the Faculty of Law and Sharia, Al-Azhar University and currently undergoing her second Masters in Law research. She founded Her Honor SettingThe Bar  Initiative in 2014, which mainly addresses the ban on Egyptian women from being Judges. Omnia obtained her first LLM from Ain Shams University in International Trade Law, ranked one of the top five in 2015. Omnia was selected for the “Justitia Award (Pioneers/ Game Changer/ Young Achiever)” by Women in Law Initiative in collaboration with European Women Lawyers Association in November 2020 (Austria); “Future Leader” by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs; “Inspirational Egyptian Women” by the National Council of Women 2020, one of the 50 Egyptian Women Heroes by Women of Egypt Initiative and Magazine 2020; one (out of 7) of the most influential people in the legal field by MPL Acadeher- 2020, and shortlisted for the Young Global Leader Program – USA 2019. She is a member of the Voice of Women Worldwide (VOWW) and its Egyptian Representative. She was honoured by the New Woman Foundation for defending women’s right in joining the Judiciary in 2016 and awarded (Borderless Press) prize for one of the top five articles that shed lights on the most vital gender issues in 2017.

1. What Ignited “Her Honor Setting The Bar Initiative”?

The story started when she was a senior in law school when the draft of the current Egyptian Constitution was published in 2013 and the public started to discuss it. She printed it out, wrote her comments and discussed it the day after with her colleagues in the university and encouraged them to participate and vote. It was the first time for the Egyptian Constitution to state explicitly that the State guarantees women appointment in all judicial entities without discrimination against them. She was optimistic and thought that such an article will end decades of discrimination against Egyptian women whenever applying to the judiciary. As an ambitious fresh graduate, she went at the exact date to apply, only to hear denouncing comments from the official and rude comments from some male applicants. The officials refused to accept her application, along with those submitted by all other female graduates. She suffered from gender discrimination many times but this time she refused to remain silent and established “Her Honor Setting The Bar Initiative” to combat this discrimination. She filed cases 7 years ago, lost 2 of them and challenged the last judgment and waiting for the hearing session before the Supreme Administrative Court. She has filed cases for other female graduates as well.

2. What Is “Her Honor Setting The Bar Initiative” About?

Omnia set up “Her Honor Setting The Bar Initiative” as an awareness righteous initiative, aiming to support female law graduates and ending discrimination by banning Egyptian women from being judges. The Initiative believes in the importance of having women judges sitting at the Bench and its impact on the judicial authorities specifically, the whole society and development generally, as well as its importance in strengthening the rule of law, equality, and independence of the judicial authorities. The Initiative believes that competence, professionalism, and qualifications should be the requirements for those who deserve to sit at the Bench, regardless of their gender. Besides, she believes it is unfair to deprive the judiciary of maximising the benefits of selecting the most qualified applicants equally, based on objective criteria and equal opportunities.

The Initiative also serves the SDG’s and African Agenda 2063, which include “Achieving gender equality and empower all women and girls” and “Full Gender Equality in all spheres of life”. To reach this goal, the initiative is mainly working on combating this flagrant discriminatory ban against Egyptian women/female law graduates, encouraging other women who seek judicial appointments to speak up and file cases on their behalf and support other graduates banned from applying to the judiciary and suffered from discrimination too.

In parallel with the legal and judicial track, the initiative works on raising awareness by different means, holding symposiums, participating in conferences, joining job fairs, communicating with other governmental, non-governmental institutions and parliament members to shed light on the issue. The initiative’s voice was the reason for submitting a bill by female parliament members which stipulates clearly that women have the right to be judges in 2017. She had the privilege of drafting the explanatory memo of the law which was submitted to the legislative committee of the parliament but is yet to be promulgated now.

Furthermore, the Initiative translates the biographies of women judges -specifically African- in national -from countries around the globe- and international judiciary into Arabic (since there is nothing in Arabic about them) and inform the Egyptian legal and non-legal community about them, their professional track, and their contributions to justice. This comes to break the stereotypes that women are not capable of being judges and other arguments that have countered the right of women sitting on the bench.  Unfortunately, the counterarguments we hear in 2020 are the same we read about in women judges’ biographies and what they heard since the twenties of the last century!!!! (she refers to the Majesty of the Lawbook by Justice O’Connor and Her Own Words about the notorious Ginsburg. Also, to Iran’s Awakening – Diaries of the Revolution and Hope by Sherine Abbady First woman Judge in Iran.)

Besides, the initiative supports and provides researchers (Masters, PhD, …etc.) in law and other fields with the needed information and documents for their projects. Omnia notes that more than 70 researchers have contacted the initiative for information, clarifications, and documents, including journalists and people working in the media sector. She further notes that women judges -especially Africans – have occupied and presided over overall national and international judiciaries so far and it makes no sense reading judgments in 2021 stating that women cannot be judges and the judiciary has the discretionary power to decide, excluding females based on gender without objective criteria.

Part of the awareness for “Her Honor Setting The Bar Initiative” is publishing about women judge’s representation in the judiciary. For example, she cites that the percentage of women judges is 39% in Rwanda (ranked 9th in the Global Gender Gap Report 2020), 38% in Ghana (ranked 107th), 48% in Tunisia (ranked 124th), 36% in South Africa (ranked 17th), 42% in Algeria (ranked 132th), 20.5% in Burkina Faso (ranked 129th), and 24% in Morocco (ranked 143th).

She further mentions that African women also ascended to top positions of the judiciary, most notably as Chief Justices of the Supreme Court in common law countries like Ghana, Nigeria (ranked 128th), Gambia (ranked 136th), Malawi (ranked 116th) and Zambia, and also as Presidents of Constitutional Courts in Civil Law countries such as Benin (ranked 119th), Burundi (ranked 32nd), Niger, and Senegal (ranked 99th). More so, for her, the regional African judiciary is exquisite in terms of women judge’s representation. For example, the African Court of Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) have (6 out of 11) women judges which constitute 55% of the court representation. On the other side, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has only 3 out of 16 (19% women judges) and the International Criminal Court (ICC) has 6 out of 18 women judges accounting for 33%.

Omnia Taher Gadalla: Africa’s Legal Millennial

Omnia Taher Gadalla: Africa’s Legal Millennial

3. How Have The Cases She Has Filed In Court On Gender Discrimination Impacted Her Life?

For Omnia, the cases are time demanding and that prevents her from focusing on her PhD and her academic path, which is her main preference by the way. Fighting for the Judiciary is a matter of principles and this might surprise others indeed. However, looking to the bright side, she has learned from the case, the required memorials to be submitted, advocating, networking and discussions with supportive and non-supportive people as well. Due to her academic and professional career, she witnessed the impact of this persistent discrimination and this hastened her determination and increased her insistence of proceeding in the case.

As earlier mentioned, she is a teaching assistant in the Faculty of Law & Sharia’ at Al-Azhar University, where her students are all women/females. From time to time, she receives questions that reflect their sense of being second-class citizens and not having a seat at the table, despite being qualified. Additionally, some of her students question the effectiveness of the law and its enforcement. This leaves her questioning the essence of the law if it is not applied—let alone the Constitution itself.

Such discrimination generally and against women in the judiciary specifically has not only undermined justice and the judicial system and deteriorated the rule of law, but it has also affected current female law students and graduates, imposing barriers on their dreams and barring future generations from pursuing their aspirations.  This has also made her wonder, how many girls wanted to be judges and decided to give up studying law for that reason? Also, about the self-perception of young women who were raised being told—unfortunately sometimes by other women—that they are not capable of doing any kind of jobs, including being a judge.

This intimidates her on the personal and professional level since she is concerned with rule of law and legal reform and she sees the potential of many female students and what they can achieve if they were offered real opportunities that extract their capabilities. Furthermore, the social stigmas that affect females who are seeking and claiming their rights to serve as judges had a notable impact on me as well. Those females are usually labelled as “less feminine,” “masculine,” “not fit for the life of a spouse,” “faithless” even after the supreme religious authority (Dar Al-Iftaa El-Massriyah) stated different fatwas that Islam allows women to be judges.

Also, she observed that many female applicants refused to proceed in the litigation process for different reasons, whether it be loss of hope, being busy with work, family commitments, fear of retribution, or hope in the potential of being appointed to alternative prestigious positions they may be eligible for at the Administrative Prosecution Authority or Egyptian State Lawsuits Authority. She faces the same risks, but She has chosen to keep fighting.

Moreover, for her, some incidents trigger many questions related to the right of taking decisions by women/female graduates in their families. She received many inquiries from female law graduates who have wanted to file cases and claim their rights. In the end, most of them could not proceed in the litigation process without family approval to file such a case and financial support, factors not limited to those who are economically or socially disadvantaged. It extends to the privileged class, where concerns about family prestige or status may play a role in whether or not a case can be brought and where family approval might remain challenging. The issue is sprawling and interlaced with many political, historic, social aspects, and misconceptions that are deeply rooted in Egyptian society.

4. What Kind of Support Does She Expect from The Society?

For her, solidarity is what makes a real difference in such historic crucial cases and collective efforts are needed to reach such a goal. While I may be described as “the voice of the voiceless” for this reason, one voice is not enough. Despite all these societal dilemmas and legal obstacles, she still hopes Egyptian women will come out victorious, occupy judicial positions, and eventually put an end to more forms of discrimination. She understands that reaching such a goal will not occur due to any individual step. Instead, their cumulative steps will make a positive difference towards it. She believes that the right is never lost since someone strives to claim it and the justice system must be gender-equal.

The PALM considers Dr Omnia Gadalla a legal millennial who has shown exceptional radiance in her field of the legal practice.

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