The intelligent, thoroughly scrupulous and charismatic subject of Erika Cohn’s latest documentary is Khouloud Al Faqih, the first female judge in Palestine. Early in the film, the filmmakers follow her to visit her parents; her father has an eighth grade education, her mother, sixth grade. Her father is clearly proud of her, claiming that he worked to send most of his children to university, particularly his daughters. “A man can work and be self-sufficient, but for a woman education is her weapon.” He cites the benchmark of Hillary Clinton, hoping that his daughter will eventually replace President Abbas.
It is a sweet, funny, and tender moment with her and her parents, and a bitter reminder of how people like Secretary Clinton and Judge Al Faqih have to be constantly excellent, and not just merely good. Ms. Cohn’s documentary effectively demonstrates that the challenges for public women are pretty much the same everywhere, whether in Palestine or the United States. Women all over the world have to contend with history and historically being relegated to the domestic sphere of life; convention; entrenched customs; and, outmoded perceptions of gender. It also demonstrates the importance of allyship: it is not enough for Judge Al Faqih to be an experienced attorney and pass the judicial exams. She needed her father and her husband (also an attorney) to support her at home, and a chief Justice, Sheikh Tayseer Al-Tamini, to support her in public and appoint her as the first female judge in Palestine. You have to prove yourself above and beyond? #MeToo!
Generally speaking, there are two court systems in Palestine. One which governs civil and criminal cases, and another which is effectively a domestic and family law court, governed by Shari’a law. As with other legal systems around the world, Palestinian jurisprudence comprises history, precedent, previous rulings, and customs and practices; in addition, family courts follow Shari’a, Islamic religious law. Another layer of complexity is Palestine’s history of being governed by Ottomans, Great Britain, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt. As a result, those cultures’ legal traditions are woven, and not consistently, throughout the different courts around Palestine. Judge Al Faqih has to contend with these historical and legal complexities as well as the the perception that women cannot be impartial as judges.
It is clear that her presence in family court is not just extraordinary, but also politically critical. To a certain degree, Palestinian women have agency in family court, and are able to negotiate their marriage contract, dowry, divorce, and child custody and support. However, long-entrenched customs and traditions can often get in the way of the rule of law. Shari’a court, therefore, is an important space where women can advocate for themselves when customs fail them. The presence of a female judge can ensure the sanctity of that space and ensure that there is another advocate for women and the equal application of rule of law. Significantly, where a family or cultural custom discourages women from speaking out on “intimate matters,” including domestic violence, this is a space where women can advocate for themselves. One of the most poignant scenes in the film, involving domestic violence against a woman by her husband, concisely demonstrates how a female judge’s ruling would have literally saved the woman’s life.
The documentary is successful in demonstrating how women’s education, increased presence and voice in the public sphere, and male allyship are necessary to the functioning of a just and economically sustainable society, regardless of whether religious law or custom is folded into jurisprudence. It is also an important record of how activists get it done in different areas of the world – whether through sustained collaboration, allyship, working slowly up a career ladder, and advocacy. I would welcome a follow-up multi-part series which demonstrates how her and her female colleagues in court slowly and steadily change women’s lives, case by case.