A new film follows the first female sharia judge in the Middle East. Through the story of Kholoud al-Faqih, Erika Cohn’s documentary provides insight into women’s rights in Palestine.
From its first sunlit moments, “The Judge” is a warmly intimate documentary. Women sit on plastic chairs under pomegranate trees while Kholoud al-Faqih, the film’s subject, drinks juice and answers shy questions about the law and the breakup of marriages. What happens when a man leaves, or when a woman does? What if there’s been violence? What should become of the children?
The women live in the village of Beit Rima, on Palestinian-controlled territory in the West Bank, where most family matters for Muslims are decided by courts governed by sharia (Islamic law). Judge Faqih is the first female judge in these courts, a woman steeped in the study of Muslim scriptures. While sharia is often associated in the West with draconian punishments and extremism, the documentary shows a system open to many interpretations. As the sun sets in the village, Judge Faqih forcefully lays out her understanding of a woman’s rights under Islam. A violent husband will go to jail; a woman leaving an erring spouse should be awarded full support. “The problem is,” she declares, “we’re not educated about our rights. People are unaware.” Elsewhere in the film, she opines on divorce being easier for men to obtain than women.
The film begins when Judge Faqih has already been on the bench for several years (she was appointed in 2009), and it shows her meting out justice in the courtroom, stern and authoritative. She started her career as a lawyer, and says that when she wanted to sit the exams to become a judge, she had to persuade her male superiors to let her do so. Tayseer al-Tamimi, the chief Islamic judge, was supportive, but says they faced opposition—opposition driven less by scripture than by culture. “In our society, traditions are so strong that they override the actual sharia,” Sheikh Tamimi says with remarkable frankness. Husam al-Deen Afanah, another Islamic judge, believes unequivocally that the scriptures do not permit a woman to hold the office. “She opened the way,” says her husband, who is also a lawyer. “Hey world, my mum’s a judge!” hollers one of their small children. Such heartfelt moments of pride recur throughout the documentary.
Erika Cohn, the director, met Judge Faqih when she was working in the region teaching film and undertaking postgraduate research in Islamic feminism. She says that she was “beyond captivated” by the judge, whom she met at an Islamic reform meeting in Ramallah. “It was like this magnetism that I just kept experiencing.”
As well as providing “a greater insight into sharia law and strong imagery of powerful Muslim women” with her film, Ms Cohn sought to create “an immersive Palestinian experience”. The animating spirit of Judge Faqih, and of this engaging film, is the possibility of reforming that society from within.
(Taken from economist.com)