Palestinian Women are Transforming the Shari’a Law Court System

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.

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.”  

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.

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.” 

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.

Day #2, Part I : Haifa

HAIFA -- For a good stretch of Highway 4, wrapping around Israel's northwestern hook called Haifa, you can immediately spot two things: the vast expanse of bright blue ocean to your left and two tall white stone minarets peeking over the hills to your right. On the drive north, over the hump of the Mt. Karmel range, and you’ll find 19 concentric rings of luscious garden terraces tapering upwards consume the landscape. 

Baha'i World Center, Haifa.
(Photo Courtesy of Eleonore Voisard)

Despite the undeniable presence of these massive features in the Haifa metropolis, often neither of the religions associated with these structures is conjured in the minds of people when they think of the Holy Land. The Holy Land is often associated with “umbrella” religions like Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, but the nuanced voices of the minority diaspora are often glanced over as it falls into the “other” category of theology pie charts. 

The two towering spires of white granite belong to the Ahmadiyya community, a persecuted sect of Islam founded in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. The expansive and meticulously manicured Baha’i Gardens are the intentionally designed work of the Baha’i faith’s international community. While one faith spoke of its war for peace within, the other actively advocated peace in the community without.

The gardens were our first stop today. “The shrine in the center is like the gemstone in the ring, and the gardens around it are the adornments,” said the volunteer guide, Douglas Baker. “The windows of the shrine are like perfect mirrors, reflecting God’s light.” 

Each element of the 150-year-long construction of the gardens was intentional. “The symmetry reflects unity, yet the varying flora on each level of the gardens represent the simultaneous diversity,” said Anouchka Venkadee, another volunteer (one of about 600 that come each year to run the gardens). The garden was the physical manifestation of a core element of the Baha’i faith—actively creating an environment of peace. A tour of the Baha’i visitor’s center confirmed this as the group showed a short video capturing the religion’s presence across 200 countries. The very international community of five million gathers regularly to promote peacekeeping policies to actively better their outward environment. “It’s kind of like this,” said Carmel Irandoust, a volunteer who previously worked with Ban Ki Moon at the United Nations, “We all live in the same street. How can we work together to make this street better?”

As the Baha’is actively advocate for peace in the outside community, the Ahmadis in Kababir talk of their war for peace within. It was a just short drive from the gardens to the Ahmadi mosque. Imam Falah M. O’deh greeted us and, learning we were journalists, wanted to be sure we understood something about Islam.  “Jihad, in the Quran, never comes in connection to physical war,” he said. “We fight to translate the meaning of Islam. This is the real jihad.”

Imam Falah M. O’deh
( Photo Courtesy for Eleonore Voisard)

Ahmadi Muslims stand for humility, yet bow their heads in prayer

On a warm Sunday in February, over 200 women, many accompanied by young children, gathered in the women’s prayer hall at a mosque in Queens. They fell to the carpeted floor during prayer, folding in their knees, sitting on their heels, and lowering their heads until they touched the ground.  Some held their hands slightly in front of them, together, pinkies touching, with palms facing up. Some interlaced their fingers, criss-crossing, pressing their hands against their face. Most—except for small children—wore scarves of various colors, partially or fully covering their hair. All sat in a particular, curved, almost upright fetal position in complete silence for several minutes, before slowly unraveling at the collective utterance: “Ameen.”

It was a synchronized moment of prayer and devotion that plays out regularly in this fashion among the men, women, and children of the Ahmadiyya community at Bait-uz-Zafar Mosque located at the intersection of McLaughlin Avenue and the recently-renamed Ahmadiyya Way in the Hollis section of Queens, New York.

Islam’s sect of Ahmadis see prayer as a holistic experience that involves not just the spirit, but the body as well. This “conversation with God,” as they see each of their moments of worship, is communicated through not only what is said from the mouth (like Qur’anic verses) but also what is conveyed without an utterance, through the mere stance in one’s body as they commune with their higher power, Allah. Thus, posture, in itself, is also a form of worship for Muslims.

Imam Mahmood Kauser, the head imam of the Ahmadi sect in New York City at their headquarters in Queens, described the concept of prostration before God. “We Ahmadis believe that the body and soul are connected, and when your body has a certain gesture, it affects your soul.”

Kauser is young, lightly bearded, and sports a karakul hat, which he says is of traditional Indonesian design. Before assuming a high religious position in the Ahmadiyya community, he studied at an official Ahmadi university in Canada.

The prostrations during prayer serve as a metaphor or a reflection of the mind, he explained. “If you have this very arrogant stance, it will depict what you actually feel deep down inside,” said Kauser.

“There’s all kinds of science behind it. Sometimes you say you agree, but your head instinctively moves left and right. Scientists and psychologists will say that that indicates that you’re actually disagreeing, but with your mouth, you are trying to agree. When you speak with your father and pump out your chest, you display that you are prideful.” Thus, bowing, in the eyes of Muslims, it is the greatest level of submission and humility. Carl Jung’s book “Psychology and Religion” speaks of a similar concept, though Jung adds that the act of bowing may be a sign of acknowledging greater power and seeking appeasement or “propitiating.”

“We believe that when you are in prostration, it doesn’t matter how arrogant you may be, your soul feels a sense of humbleness,” said Kauser. “You could be the most arrogant man in the world, but the moment you are prostrating in front of somebody, that all goes away. It’s the most intimate posture you could possibly be in our form of prayer.”

This physical state coordinates in tandem with the meaning of the prayers that are recited, silently or aloud, in that position of humility.

“In that prostration, you are literally in the lowest state that you can be in. But what’s interesting is that in that moment, you are reminded to say: ‘Oh God, you are holy and the most high.’”

A significant piece to this posture of submission is also in the hands. “When in a posture of absolute prostration, your hands are asking,” Kauser states, referring to the open hands, palms up, covering the face, as previously mentioned. “We hold our hands as if we are beggars.”

“But we only beg to God,” Kauser adds.

This is something the Ahmadiyya sect particularly emphasizes. “We have exclusively kept this position only for God. As a Muslim, we don’t prostrate in front of anybody else. It doesn’t matter if he is a king or ruler or whatever. We prostrate before God alone.

In other religions, worshippers bow, kneel, prostrate, recite, and show reverence through their hands when communicating with God, but in this one fluid Ahmadi ritual of bodily gestures, Kauser notes, Muslims encompass all those acts within their daily prayers.

(Photos courtesy of Radha Dhar.)