Postcard from… Alexandria

Well, we are now on the last leg of the British Council exchange programme for  women judges in Egypt. Cairo and Alexandria in less than 5 days, and our feet have not touched the ground yet.

Jill Wainwright

Fortunately the weather was unseasonally cold but bright so not bothered by the heat this time. Our UK party comprises two district judges, a tribunal judge, a district judge/recorder and a circuit judge from the UK Association of Women Judges.

Our six Egyptian counterparts (some of the 42 women judges recently appointed out of a total number of judges across Egypt of 11,000!) are so full of enthusiasm for their new jobs that it is hard to keep up with them. We are here through the British Council who, as part of the “Women@Work” programme have arranged for us to visit most of the major courts and meet the Presidents of those courts in Cairo, discuss with them the different legal regimes, and consider the similarities and the differences of our systems. Five judges from the UK Association of Women Judges were able to come, from a variety of levels of the judiciary.

We were all particularly struck by the new Economic Court in Cairo. This court, where 25 per cent of the judges are women, was only formed last year and is innovative in its thinking – dealing with civil and criminal economic issues – fraud, insolvency, intellectual property rights – albeit with differing standards of proof – but all in front of the same judges. The rules regulating this court set timetables for certain actions, and provide for a pre-issue timetable as well, and another judge deals with gathering and exchange of evidence, identifying of issues and mediation. We all form the view independently that this system deserves a longer look.

We see the equivalent of the No 1 criminal court (where the late President Sadat was tried for murder – and acquitted) meet the Minister of Justice and his assistant, and are taken to a male inner sanctum (the Cairo Automobile Association) for lunch by the Ministry – much to the shock of most of the business men there! The tour of their Judicial Studies board equivalent is rounded off with a visit to their “black” museum full of gory tales and exhibits.

The finale to the visit is a regional networking event in wonderful Alexandria, where we meet women judges from Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria and exchange views and ideas to support a network of women judges across the Near East and Mediterranean Africa – for mutual support, ideas and to provide a venue for discussion of women’s issues, both for women working in and affected by the judicial system. Discrimination of different kinds is present in all of our countries, some blatant, some discreet, some evidenced by lack of opportunities, some by informal and less tangible barriers such as culture and  attitudes. We discuss programmes of education for teenage girls and young women students in Cairo to raise their awareness of the possibility of careers in the law, mentoring, the treatment of domestic violence and the cross border issues inevitably raised in family law.

It is hard to describe the smell, taste, feel and sounds of Egypt. A quiet corner shaded by a fig tree, with the distant call of the muezzin, the thwack of a carpet being beaten, the sweet smell of spices and perfume. The shocking mass traffic in Cairo – how on earth it does not simply come to a grinding halt I will never know, a three lane carriageway inevitable becomes five, horns beeping, not angrily, just to say I am here, let me in – the fumes, the babble, the minibuses that shriek to a halt if you hesitate by the side of the road to give you a lift to the next bus stop, the “no hassle” hassle of the bazaars, and the incredible friendliness and generosity of the people,

We have been made very welcome, this mustbe treated as our second home – we must return – we mustmaintain this momentum and those special relationships that we have fostered for the last year – we mustreturn soon.

I think we will … in sh’allah.

District Judge Jill Wainwright