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First Palestinian female sharia judge showcased in film at Toronto festival

Sharia courts or councils, as they prefer to be called, mainly pronounce on Islamic divorces, which today constitute 90 percent of the cases they handle
Shaun Curry (AFP/File)
'I wish the rest of the Middle East would hasten their recognition of Arab women's rights'

Nearly a decade after shattering the glass ceiling of Islamic jurisprudence, the first woman judge to be appointed to a sharia court in the Middle East says women's rights still have a way to go.

Kholoud al-Faqih was at the Toronto film festival on Monday for the premiere of Erika Cohn's documentary "The Judge," which looks at sharia law through the eyes of the first woman judge to be appointed to the Middle East's religious courts.

"I'm personally satisfied with the speed of progress in Palestine," Faqih told AFP. "But I wish the rest of the Middle East would hasten their recognition of Arab women's rights."

Eight years ago, Faqih pressed Palestinian chief justice Sheikh Tayseer al-Tamimi for the judgeship and beat out dozens of male applicants.

Tamimi initially laughed off the idea of a woman judge, but eventually was persuaded by her arguments to appoint her and another woman, Asmahan Wuheidi.

Michael Buckner (Getty/AFP)

Many in the West associate sharia courts with religious extremism, but they are used throughout Muslim countries.

In the Palestinian territories, civil courts handle criminal, administrative and civil law, while sharia courts adjudicate family issues.

Only two other women have been named to the Palestinian sharia court since Faqih and Wuheidi's appointments in 2009.

There are also female religious judges in Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan and Malaysia. Israel appointed its first female judge to a sharia court in April.

Faqih and her peers, however, continue to face pushback.

"If she gives birth, if she is pregnant or bleeding, she is bound by these things, which affect her work," sharia scholar Husam al-Deen Afanah was quoted as saying in the film.

A young woman at a cafe tells Cohn she would prefer a male judge.

"For me, it's painful to hear that a young woman would reject a female judge," Faqih said.

"But if that lady or anybody else comes to my court, they'll have to accept my ruling, because that's the way it is."

Tamimi was forced to resign one year after appointing Faqih and Wuheidi to the bench.

"Women are not treated equally by the law," he says in the film, holding out hope for change.

Justice for women

The film showcases Faqih's tireless fight for justice for women, while illuminating universal domestic conflicts including child custody, divorce and spousal abuse.

Cohn obtained unparalleled court access for the documentary, offering a candid look at life in the Palestinian territories.

Getting access, however, was challenging.

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"People saw me as an American woman with broken Arabic and a tiny camera," Cohn said. "But we just wouldn't take no for an answer."

The film opens with the judge discussing women's rights with groups of Palestinian women. It was at one of these meetings that Cohn met Faqih.

In response to a question about Palestinian women needing "equality to men," Faqih comments in the film: "We do indeed need a social revolution."

She calls current religious education "shocking," noting: "They have a picture of a woman on the Quran verse about the devil."

She points to a lack of understanding of women's rights, and the need for more education.

There are moments of levity, such as when a man drags a stranger from a nearby hallway into the court and asks him to testify to his character.

Cohn recounts a tragic moment when a man stabbed his wife to death in Faqih's court.

After a moment of reflection during this interview, the director expressed hope that audiences will be inspired by Faqih.

"She's an incredibly strong woman and I think a lot of people around the world will identify with her," Cohn said.

Then Faqih steps in, offering a piece of legal and personal advice to women.

"You must believe in your abilities and your rights in order to reach your full potential," she said.

"If you only see yourself in a broken marriage, you will only see pieces of yourself."

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