No man would ever cause problems with his wife” such as beating her or abandoning her. So insists a male lawyer in Palestine… a man who is also a bit suspicious of female judges: won’t they inevitably side with women in the disputes they adjudicate? Unlike male judges — and presumably male lawyers — that is, who are, of course, naturally unbiased.
This lawyer’s worries are prompted by Kholoud Al-Faqih, the first female judge — she was appointed in 2009; a few others have joined her since — in the Shari’a courts of Palestine. Shari’a is a word that has taken on ominous overtones among some Western right-wing fearmongers, but in Palestine, the Shari’a court is simply the family court, the one that deals with such matters as divorce, child custody and support, and the like. In a society in which women are not recognized as equals under the law, certainly not in the civil and criminal courts, Al-Faqih is an absolute pioneer precisely because she does bring her woman’s perspective to her cases, and her appreciation of the woman’s side of reality that, ahem, some men are clearly blind to.
The Judge is American documentary filmmaker Erika Cohn’s portrait of the delightful Al-Faqih, who is as fiery and as passionate as any Western feminist. Yes, the Shari’s courts judgments are guided by the Koran, and by Muslim tradition, but Al-Faqih clearly takes enormous pride and even great humor in embracing the most liberal interpretations of the Koran possible. (Like the Bible, and most holy books, it can be used to justify completely contradictory actions and beliefs.) Her fury over how women are kept ignorant of their rights is palpable, as is her adamant desire to rectify that. That earns her plenty of enemies, but Cohn doesn’t have to do anything but present their opinions in the most straightforward way to show them off as relics. One very conservative Islamic scholar who decries “the many evils associated with” women judges, like how it means men and women must work together in an office, comes across as nothing more than an old-fashioned scold who cannot be taken seriously.
Al-Faqih is an immensely fascinating character, a woman who smashes stereotypes, not only for Western audiences but in her own culture as well, just by going about her day. But The Judge is essential viewing particularly for us in the West: it depicts a side of an Islamic society that we do not often see, the one where the same conversation between tradition and change that is occurring in the West is also happening. Spoiler: progress is winning.