RAMALLAH — In 2009, a woman arrived at the Shari’a courthouse in Ramallah, West Bank and asked to see the judge. A few minutes later, Kholoud Faqih, then 34 and 5’6”, appeared in a black robe and printed hijab to greet her. The woman immediately stood up and said words Faqih would never forget: “I will never allow for a woman to judge me.” She left the room without turning back. Even after struggling for eight years to become the world’s first female judge in an Islamic court system, Judge Faqih was the one being judged.

In a recent interview, Faqih reflected on those early days on the bench. “You know the men, they tested me. At first, they didn’t discuss the cases with me and they tried to trap me by assigning me difficult ones,” Faqih recounted. “Finally, they accepted me. But what surprised me was that the women were the ones who refused to believe that a female could be a judge.”

Qadi (Arabic for “judge”) Faqih is now a celebrity in her own right with an acclaimed documentary called The Judge based on her decade of struggle. “You should see my movie,” she said. Ten years ago, when she was struggling as a lawyer and a mother, she couldn’t have imagined saying those words. “Yes, I faced many, many difficulties to be in this position then.” She reflected now on how many things have changed since, but the change in her she said was this: “I’m a feminist judge in Palestine. That’s why I’m different from the others.”

Where some tried to sow seeds of doubt in her credibility, Faqih, in turn, sowed seeds of inspiration in the women around her who followed in her footsteps and have even exceeded her in the Shari’a court system. Today, Faqih is among the first four women in the world including Faqih’s own former clerk—all of whom happen to be Palestinian—who now serve as judges in Islamic court.

One of them, Somoud Damiri, was dubbed the Chief Prosecutor of the Supreme Judge Department in the Judiciary High Council of the State of Palestine in 2011, the first woman to ever earn this title and the first to speak to an international audience at the United Nations in 2017 on the issue of women’s rights under Shari’a law.

Damiri, 37, was the third female to become a judge in the shari’a system after Kholoud Faqih and Faqih’s collegiate peer, Asmahan Wuheidi, 41. She dealt in women’s equality, divorce, and domestic violence cases every day, but at home she was mother the of four who split the chores equally with her husband. Asked why she chose to join the justice system, Damiri responded fervently saying, “It’s the time. It is our time. That’s it.”  

Damiri is also a lecturer at Birzeit University in the West Bank. She remembers discovering from the school administration that the young women studying law there would quietly go to the department to request to join her classes. “The girls look to me to tell them that they can make it and that it will be okay for them,” said Damiri. She reflected on the questions she got from her female students in class. “They ask me: ‘Is it easy for you to be with sheikhs (male judges)? Do they really listen to you? Do they respect you in the courts? What is it like to be a mother and a judge?’ They ask me human questions really.”

Mid-march was a stressful time for aspiring lawyers at Birzeit University. Hundreds of young Palestinian women and men were taking the three-hour-long bar exam on Saturday, March 16 to enter the law and justice system of Palestine. Among them was 22-year-old Diala Nidal Sayyed.

Sayyed graduated from Birzeit University three months ago after completing her three-and-a-half-year law course and took the exam so she could qualify to train with a lawyer.  It was her female law professors, she said, who left an indelible mark on her career path. “There were actually a lot of women professors at my university, and they were so much more effective than men,” she said with a hearty laugh.

There was one who she unequivocally deemed her favorite: her international law professor, Hala Shoiabi. “Her way to teach, her personality, everything about her made us girls very happy in her classes,” said Sayyed. “She is a role model for me. She didn’t take the same ways to teach. We had to act out cases for each other. She made us watch movies about crimes. It was a really new way of learning that opened me up.” Sayyed noticed that her classes at Birzeit were now full of women too, as was the bar exam hall this past March. “In the past, women didn’t even study in school, but now almost 85% of women go to university,” she said. She’s not wrong. Palestine has the highest female literacy rate in the entire Middle East at 94%, according to a 2013 UNDP study. And the rate of female enrollment rate in higher education institutions in Palestine is soaring, despite poor funding and even poorer infrastructure, both of which are at the mercy of the Israeli Ministry of Education.

Photo by Radha Dhar

Internal documents from the Palestinian Bar Association revealed that out of the latest cohort of 630 practicing lawyers in Palestine, only 36% were women. Though it was a far cry from equality, the number was an industry record. “Things are changing and we are supporting that change,” noted Samar Issa, a high-ranking member of the Palestinian Bar Association that keeps records of these demographic trends in Palestinian law and justice and supports women’s growing involvement in it. “We give trainings to women in Shari’a law about their rights,” said Issa. “The first judge in Prophet Mohammad’s time was a woman after all. His wife!” she exclaimed.

Professor Abdelrehman Rehan would agree. He is a professor of law at Modern University College in Ramallah. Rehan explained that Shari’a law how often misunderstood. According to him, it is less to do with stoning as the Western media frames it, and more to do with “personal status” issues like getting a divorce, child custody, and management of financial assets within a family. Among Rehan’s current course offerings is one called “The Rights of the Wife.” Referencing the Prophet’s wife, he explained that the role of shari’a law is simply to guide people spiritually as they live a holy life in each of its stages, fulfilling their duties under the eyes of Allah. In a recent interview in his office at the college, Rehan gestured to his classroom textbook, pointing to the section he would cover the next day. “But the main book of law is this one,” said Rehan, placing a copy of the Quran on top of the textbook.

Amid his lesson plans in Arabic splayed about on his desk, he pointed to the attendance sheets. “I have 26 students now, and 15 of them are women,” Rehan said, counting up to 15, marking the rows on the spreadsheet before him as he went. They had stellar attendance. The prior year’s demographic revealed 13 females in class. But the step forward was marred by a discussion of a backwards practice under weak shar’ia interpretations that gives allowance “for a man to hit his wife, only politely, in extreme cases,” explained Rehan. “But I don’t think hitting is ever ok. The Quran does not tell us to harm a woman,” he stated firmly with brows furrowed. When asked what happens to the judges who do not believe this as he does, Rehan said that they are transferred to a lower court, “But they are never dismissed. I guess, it is a problem.” 

Rehan worked in the courts for years as an arbitrator, making decisions on paper for smaller domestic cases that never made it to higher courts. “I always dismiss the man who hits his wife. There are other ways to explain to her her duties,” said Rehan of the matter.

Faqih, also a wife and mother to four, spoke through laughter as her kids interrupted her speaking on the phone from her home in Ramallah. “I’m sorry, I’m cooking and I had to open the door,” she apologized. “It’s an old system, the shari’a law. The time has changed and it has to change too. And we will change it,” she said with pause. One of her daughters, the youngest, wanted to be a judge like her mother at first, but changed quickly her mind to become a doctor, fearing that higher ups in the Supreme Court would not accept her and she would be transferred. Faqih calmed her down. “I told her you can do anything, but you have to be strong. You have to know your rights. You can do anything.”

Top image by Radha Dhar.