PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
First Woman Dean of Law (Egypt)
By Omnia Gadalla
Dr. Fatma El-Razaz is the first woman law professor who occupied the dean position for a law school in Egypt, at Helwan University where she teaches. Although Egyptian women have studied law since the 1920s, it took about a century to reach such a milestone. When the profession was dominated by men, Munira Thabit was the first woman to enroll in the French Law School of Cairo in 1924 and the first to earn a License en Droit, enabling her to be registered as the first Arab lawyer and practice law before the Egyptian Mixed Court. In 1929, Naima Al-Ayoubi was the first woman to enroll in the Faculty of Law at an Egyptian University to complete a Bachelor’s Degree in 1933 and applied to the Egyptian Bar to be the first female lawyer before the National Courts. Women now account for around half of the students in the Faculties of Law and acquiring first ranks. Egypt has traditionally been a pioneer of development in the region and has a history of feminist politics dating from 1923, when Hoda Sha’arawi helped found the Egyptian Feminist Union.
Fatma El-Razaz was born in 1968 in Paris, France while her mother was studying for her PhD in France. Her family returned to Egypt where she was raised in Cairo and studied at Lycee French School in Egypt. Her father is Dr. Mohamed Ahmed El-Razzar, Public Finance Law professor at the Faculty of Law, Cairo University and former Finance Minister. He is her role model and she is always looking up to him. Her mother is Dr. Aisha El-Kelleny, one of the very few women who challenged her family and went to high school in 1953, since it was a misconception that those who go to high school are poor families who want their daughters to graduate and work for others while aristocratic families do not go to school. Her mother challenged the family once again and decided to go to Law School (1956-1960) when there were very few females going to the university. Her mother decided to proceed in her post-graduate studies after being a wife and mother, and obtained her Masters in Law and Ph.D. from the Sorbonne University in 1970 while she did not know a French word at the time she started.
Fatma El-Razaz studied Law at Ain Shams University and graduated in 1988, one of the top law graduates in her class. Her passion for law and academia pushed her to proceed in her post-graduate studies. She obtained her master’s in law from the same university in 1991 and pursued a PhD in very a sophisticated and novel specialization –at that time- in Civil Law. She got her doctorate in 1998 from Cairo University Law School. She joined Helwan University law school at the Social Laws (including Labor Law) Department as an Assistant Lecturer in June 1995 and promoted to Lecturer in 1998. During that time, she traveled for France many times during her research to collect materials and make her thesis original and comparative. In October 2003, she became an Assistant Professor, and in December 2008, she became a Professor till date. She is one of few female law professors and heads of departments (from May 2015 till October 2019). She was Acting Dean from October 2018 until she was officially appointed to the position as Dean in 2019. Prior to joining academia, she worked as a legal advisor and lawyer at the Accountability State Authority from June 1989 till June 1995. Later, she got appointed in the Administrative Prosecution (Semi-judicial Authority) but resigned due to her passion for academia. She did not think to apply to the State Council (Administrative Judiciary) nor the Public Prosecution (the normal path to the Ordinary Judiciary) at that time since it was, and still is banning women applicants.
Applying for the law school dean position was a challenging idea and competitive process -let alone risky for being a woman, since the 24 law schools in Egypt –public and private universities- have never had a woman dean. At the time she applied to hold the position, there were two applicants. She was optimistic, motivated and encouraged by her husband, and her personal will to empower women and promote them to the high posts and decision-making process, especially after Egypt adopted the UN Sustainable Development goals (2030 Roadmap) and the African Agenda 2063 which includes gender equality in all spheres of life. She submitted a plan for developing the law school and was invited for an interview by two members of the University Board and two members of the Law Faculty Board to assess the applicants with marks. This assessment goes throw a review process which includes the Ministry of Higher Education and the Ministry of Interiors-Security Department, the Minister of the Higher Education, the Cabinet, then approval by the President. In the end, she excelled and become the Dean on 17 March 2019.
In parallel with academia, and after achieving great strides in both her education and professional life, she got exposed to practical life. That’s why she joined the bar and become a lawyer before the Supreme Courts (Cassation, Supreme Administrative Court and Constitutional Court lawyer. Being an eminent professor in Labor Law, she got selected as the Legal Counsel for labor legal relations at the Egyptian Industries Federation in October 2015, and supervisor on the Work Affairs Unit at the same Federation in May 2015. She contributed immensely to the Human Resources Academy since its establishment in 2018, which is a project to promote gender equality in the work environment, with support from the Embassy of Finland, Egyptian Industries Federation, Business Men Association and International Labor Organization (ILO). It works on three angles, legal, gender, and human resources and she was in charge of the legal section.
Fatma El-Razaz has always been involved in reviewing labor laws, regulations, union and syndicate laws. Her contributions are not only in the national arena but also extend to the regional and international arena. She is a Social Laws expert in the International Labor Law, as well as the Legal Advisor of the Arab Woman Organization from July 2004 till December 2014. Later, she became a member of the Women Committee at the Arab Labor Organization. Her remarkable achievements led to her selection as a member of the Egyptian delegation for the International Labor Organization, discussing the international convention of the Elimination of Violence and Harassment in the World of Work (190) adopted in 2019 – ILO conference. She participated in the discussions and got exposed to the convention drafting process for three years.
Based on her long academic and practical experience, Fatma El-Razaz was selected as a member of the selection committees of the Legal and Economic Studies – Faculty of Law Review from 2008 to date. She wrote many articles and researches about labor laws and related issues. Many of her publications are devoted to women and child employment, gender equality, equal payment, humane working conditions. Her most recent articles are “Legal Legislative and Economic reforms for Women Economic Empowerment” in 2020 for the ILO. Besides, “Protecting Women Employees in the International Conventions and Egyptian Law” and “Social Protection for the Arab Woman in the Unofficial Sector” for the Arab Labor Organization in 2017/2018.
Throughout her career, she faced gender-based discrimination, which emboldened her to advocate for the rights of women. One of her areas of interest is women representation in the labor union. Union women members who are represented, take roles and in charge at the syndicate board and committees are woefully low. Among the 28 syndicate and union committees, many committees don’t include women in their composition at all. What’s more, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation never had women on board and the situation remains. That drives her to address this absence of women’s representation in the decision-making process for the sake of women workers in her research and papers, to put women workers/employee’s issues in the work environment on the table and to seek answers to why women are not represented.
In addition to pursuing a professional life marked with excellence, Dr. Fatma El-Razaz was actively engaged in the civil society, serving her faculty and raising awareness in the country. She established the “Women Support Unit in the University” in 2019 and assigned Dr. Naila Oura to chair it. The Unit was accredited by a ministerial decree in 2019. The Unit provides legal and social services, and cooperates with other units and centers in the university to provide comprehensive services, whether inside or outside the university. She had held a series of symposiums at Helwan Law School with Women Support and Anti-Harassment Units at the university to inform and educate the students with the definition of harassment and its different types and forms and how it happens in the workplace. Informing them about the gender stereotypes (you become a lawyer so you are not feminine any more, your voice becomes tough, you better have a mustache, you better talk like a man, women cannot be judges, you cannot work as an engineer, you better cook at home,…etc), which dehumanizes women, all happened to her personally even now at her age and in her position, some men still challenge and ask her “do you really understand what you are addressing from the legal perspective? Are you able to handle the responsibilities of being a dean?” till she replies and refutes them, so they realize whom they are speaking to.
El-Razaz expressed sorrow towards misconceptions that many Egyptians have about women’s roles and underestimation of their capabilities, which needs collective efforts from the state, regular media, social media and filmmakers. She notes the negative impact of the media is affecting the image of Egyptian women objectifying her and violating the ethics and values of the Egyptian community at the mindset of a huge number of the Egyptians getting their entertainment from the TV. She wonders where is the drama that promotes women workers and reinforces financial independence and promoting the role of women in the high post.
On a personal level, her husband is a professor in the Medicine Faculty, Zagazig University. He supports her throughout her career and pushed her to apply for the dean position. When she was hesitant, he said “just apply and think later.” She balances prudently between her professional and personal life. She has one sister professor in the engineering school and one brother who studied science and then studied law. She is raising her children on many values including equality, saying “you have to earn your superiority, being privileged or getting the position depends on being more qualified. Life is not a race or a competition between men and women. It is about integrating each other and growing, while working and learning.”
El-Razaz’s appointment inspires a lot of female law students and graduates and every Egyptian women who are still encountered by “No, no woman has ever held this position” and breaks a stereotype that women cannot fit in high positions. She is a notable woman; we have much to learn from her life and work. Fatma El-Razaz’s contributions, commitment to the legal community, attainment of gender equality and promoting the development and participation of women in law makes her an excellent pioneer for Egyptian women generally and for women in law specifically.
Author interview with Dr. Fatma El-Razaz at her office at the Faculty of Law, Helwan University. January 2020.