The First Female Sharia Judge
Erika Cohn’s “The Judge” is a captivating documentary about the first female Sharia judge in the history of the Middle East, Kholoud Faqih. It’s particularly interesting that this documentary, which takes us into Palestinian life and culture is directed by an American Jewish filmmaker. This combination of cultural diversity and conspicuous female presence on both sides of the camera is exciting and we can hope that it will start a new trend. Once we see Faqih, we connect to her. She is a person with great charisma and intelligence who immediately pulls us into her. We also sense her confidence.
After studying law, Faqih had worked as an attorney until she decided to become a judge. When she informed the Chief Justice, Sheikh Tayseer Al-Tamimi about her decision to do so, he thought it was a joke. But Faqih was serious and supported her choice with lawful evidence and passed the exam with the highest honors.
Faqih was appointed a judge in the Sharia Court of Ramallah, the West Bank. In Palestine, people follow the Hanafi School of Islamic law, which allows women to be judges. In fact, Palestinian women have ruled in the country’s criminal courts since the 1980’s. However, Faqih is the first female judge to be appointed in the Sharia court, which deals primarily with domestic and family matters. She argues that it’s judicious to have a female judge in the Islamic court as domestic situations are incredibly important and pertinent to women. This changed the status quo and broke the deadlock of confining women to traditional roles. Faqih has numerous supporters, many of whom are women. She is a nonconformist and her perseverance embodies Palestine’s desire for change. Her story shows her country’s obstinacy against social reforms.
The media claims Faqih’s career move as “revolutionary,” yet some local authorities are not so ready to welcome her in this new position. While Sharia law permits female judges, a few Sharia scholars refuse to accept it. Dr. Husam Al-Deen Afanah is a recognized Palestinian professor and Islamic scholar. He is a conservative thinker and a strong believer in gender roles and argues that women are bound to limited vocations due to their biological susceptibilities. Afanah has also repeatedly criticized the expansion of women’s civil liberties, including Faqih’s advancement as a judge.
Afanah is representative of a substantial fraction of Palestinians and has a huge following online. While his interpretations of Islam might contradict some of the actual Sharia laws, he is highly respected by many. His way of thinking is a reflection of and conforms to the traditional ideas about women and femininity, which increases his high esteem in many peoples’ eyes. The Chief Justice says that in Palestine traditions are so strong that they overtake the actual Sharia laws. Nonetheless the entire documentary revolves around the Sharia courts and actual Islamic law is rarely mentioned here. Religion has little to do with the antagonistic reaction many have expressed against Faqih’s appointment. Gender roles are deeply entrenched in Palestinian culture. Women are repeatedly stereotyped, and femininity is often perceived as a threat.
According to Faqih, the problem is that society still views women as objects. This kind of mentality corrupts the justice system, even when it comes to the Islamic law. Islamic religious education is also shocking in the way it sees women. Even thoughthe film is culturally specific, its topic is globally ubiquitous. Its narrative quickly escalates beyond courtroom drama conventions, offering shocking and distressing revelations. As we watch the film, we begin to realize that it is a social critique of Palestinian prevalent chauvinism. We learn of the stories of horrific abuse perpetuated against Palestinian women and become aware of the juridical negligence concerning women’s issues. The film authenticates the need for women like Faqih in Palestine’s justice system. Aside from getting an overview of Sharia law and a brief look at Islamic feminism, the film also gives us an all-encompassing and uplifting portrayal of Palestine’s people and culture. We see the bustling streets of the West bank and the region’s traditions and atmosphere. There are several street interviews and we hear public political sentiments. Director Cohn takes us into the peaceful households of Faqih and Al-Tamimi and through everyday conversations and small court hearings, we learn about the country’s current political landscape and the on-going conflict with Israel.
Through the story of one woman, we are introduced to a world where modernity and tradition come together to produce a beautiful and yet incomplete creation. The film is a tribute to brave, intelligent and inspiring women like Faqih, “whose relentless dedication and humanity will help to shape a more inclusive future.”