In Review

The Judge

5 out of 5 stars
5 out of 5 stars - 'Outstanding - Starkie!'
Directed and produced by Erika Cohn
Music by Omar Fadel
Cinematography by Amber Fares
San Francisco International Film Festival
Review by Jeanne Powell

Religious courts in Asia Minor historically banned women from adjudicating domestic and family matters – both the Shari’a courts of Islam and the Rabbinic courts of Judaism. Attorney Kholoud Al-Faqih challenges that history.

The Judge is an absorbing documentary about an amazing attorney in Palestine, who became the first woman appointed to a Shari’a court. With its blend of narration, cinematography, music and powerful interviews, the film has been described as a verite’ drama, due to its emphasis on realism or naturalism.

Shari’a law is the religious law forming part of Islamic tradition. It is derived from the Quran, the Sunnah (traditional custom and practice of Islamic community), and the Hadith (teachings of Mohammed). In Palestine the civil courts hear criminal, administrative and civil law cases. The Shari’a courts hear all family cases.

“Indeed, Allah commands you to render trusts to whom they are due and when you judge between people to judge with justice.”

Judge Kholoud Al-Faqih is a force of nature – charming, brilliant and inspired by the above quote from the Quran.

Married to an attorney and the mother of four children, Judge Kholoud is a firm believer that knowledge is power and encourages women to study more and to know both their rights and obligations under Shari’a law. She visits women’s empowerment groups, as well as the homes of wives who wish to know more about what they can do when they are faced with abusive husbands or spouses who do not pay child support. Visiting West Bank communities such as Birzeit, Beit Rima or Ramallah in her al-amira head covering and abaya, the judge advocates for and encourages women to study their rights and to become aware.

How did Kholoud Al-Faqih become a judge? She began her legal career as an attorney defending women. Since the 1970s women have been judges in Palestinian criminal courts. By studying the Quran, the Sunnah and the Hadith and presenting strong evidence to the Chief Justice that women are allowed to be Shari’a judges, she was permitted to take the exam and was appointed to the shari’a courts in 2009. Why the Shari’a courts? These courts hear all family cases.

Director Erika Cohn
Director Erika Cohn

The judge has said “God helped me pursue justice and open a closed door.” Her attorney husband has said proudly: “Her name will be written in a book, for her, her children, and the future.”

In a moment of humor, the Chief Justice puzzled over what the first female judge should wear. “How shall we dress you?” Male Shari’a judges wear a distinctive hat and their faces are fully exposed. Judge Kholoud said I will think of something, and she designed a lovely sash with the colors of the Palestinian flag. The Chief Justice was pleased, and so was she.

Sheikh Tayseer Al-Tamimi is the Chief Justice who appointed Judge Kholoud. He had three wives, which is allowed under the law, and he explained his reasoning quite eloquently, pointing out that western men often divorce, have mistresses, neglect their children, etc. In her own marriage contract, Kholoud specified that there were to be no additional wives and her fiancé agreed. The contrast between the sheikh and the judge is fascinating, and their mutual respect is powerfully displayed.

She and her own father disagreed on the need for a marriage contract. He said, why bother with that? Kholoud said, “The marriage contract is the cornerstone of the family, its birth certificate. Why shouldn’t our agreement be frank and honest from the beginning?”

As Judge Kholoud hears cases ranging from a divorce action to child support to physical abuse to whether wife #1 needs to be told about wife #2, one begins to appreciate her formidable knowledge of the law and her awareness of the need to balance tradition with reality. Wife #2 will have her legal rights protected, for example, if wife #1 knows about her in advance. And a husband who is a no-show at a court hearing? When he finally does show up, we discover that he could not get through all the checkpoints Palestinians have to endure when he tried to get to court the first time.

The documentary shows us that Palestinian law is “like a cocktail of laws due to historic periods that Palestine has undergone:” Colonial occupation over the centuries, including British and French, left its marks.

[1] Jordanian law in the West Bank;
[2] Ottoman law with Egyptian influence in Gaza;
[3] Jordanian law in East Jerusalem;
[4] Ottoman law and Israeli law in West Jerusalem.

We witness the Judge visiting her parents on their small farm, where her mother delights in tending goats. Her father jokes that she loves the goats more than she loves him. Her parents raised 12 children. Her father says that for women, education is the weapon to use. His primary goal was to arm his children with education. He clearly is proud of his history-making daughter.

Trouble comes to her accomplished and busy life when Sheikh Tayseer is forced into retirement. The new Chief Justice cancels judicial exams and restructures the courts. Suddenly Judge Kholoud becomes a judge without any cases. She and other Shari’a judges protest in writing about these politicized changes and about other irregularities during his administration. Eventually under another Chief Justice, order is restored.

Director Erika Cohn has said:

“I have always been fascinated with how law is interpreted – how power, economics and/or status can influence implementation. I am captivated by the intersect and tension between religion, culture and identity.”

This documentary impresses on several levels. Viewers hear from the women of Palestine, both professionals in western dress and traditional wives in hijab and abaya. Their values and concerns are not different from those of western women. We see the closeness of family ties in conflict with the intemperate social practices popular today due to the influence of secular values. And especially we experience the richness and complexity of one of the most influential religions in history, portrayed with accuracy and understanding. If patriarchal religions are to survive – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – they must continue to replace 10th century (and earlier) perspectives with 21st century realities and concepts of justice.

Jeanne Powell
Jeanne is a published poet and essayist. She holds degrees from Wayne State University and the University of San Francisco. Jeanne has taught in the CS, UB and OLLI programs at universities in the City. Her books in print include MY OWN SILENCE and WORD DANCING from Taurean Horn Press.