Review: ‘The Judge’ documentary explores Middle East’s first female jurist in sharia law courts
“The Judge” is not the eagerly anticipated documentary on Supreme Court luminary Ruth Bader Ginsburg. That film, “RBG,” is coming soon, but in the interim viewers would be wise to take in this story of another woman jurist who is just about as impressive.
That would be Kholoud Al-Faqih, who is a judge in a Palestinian sharia or religious court in the West Bank. That may not sound like a big deal until you realize that when appointed she was the first woman to hold this position in the Middle East in the more than a thousand years these courts have been in existence.
Given that, it’s no surprise to discover in Erika Cohn’s fascinating documentary that the confident Al-Faqih is an altogether remarkable person, a firebrand whose formidable knowledge of sharia helped get her appointed in the first place.
Al-Faqih began her professional career as a lawyer defending abused women. Because sharia courts are routinely involved with issues of women and family, she didn’t understand why there were no female judges.
Al-Faqih’s research revealed that that lack was caused only by custom and convention, not the tenets of the Hanafi school of Islamic thought followed in Palestine.
When she so informed Chief Justice Sheikh Tayseer Al-Tamimi, he was so aghast that “tradition overrides actual sharia law” that he appointed her in 2009. Her goal, she does not hesitate to say, was to “throw a rock and stir these stagnant waters.”
Not that it has been easy. Traditionalists such as the interviewed legal scholar Dr. Husam Al-Deen Afanah continue to insist that women have no place as judges.
More than that, candid interviews with Palestinians, both lawyers and ordinary citizens, reveal a widespread agreement with tradition, a feeling that, as both men and women claim, women are more emotional and thus not ideal jurists.
It’s no wonder that Al-Faqih says, and more than once, that “we need to be our own advocates. We need to be involved, we need to be taught that we have the same rights as men.”
Aside from interviews with its subject, where we hear Al-Faqih deride customary patriarchal notions as “10th century ideas in the 21st century,” “The Judge” takes several tacks.
We see the jurist with her husband (they met when they were opposing lawyers) and their four children, including a daughter who says in irrepressible sing-song, “my mom is a judge, my mom is a judge.”
Also talked to are the judge’s remarkable parents, including a father who, despite having no more than an eighth-grade education himself, put eleven of his twelve children through college.
Best of all, we get to see Al-Faqih in her office-like courtroom, revealing slices of judicial life shot unobtrusively by cinematographer Amber Fares using small cameras on the order of GoPros and DSLRs.
Though the cases don’t go beyond women and families, all kinds of arguments come up, and Al-Faqih comes across as smart, tough and very much in charge. “You can fight outside, not here,” she says to one bickering couple, and they promptly shape up.
The judge is also shown as believing deeply in the religious basis of sharia law. “In the end,” she wants people to know after they’ve placed their hand on the Koran and sworn to tell the truth, “you stand alone before God.”
A side benefit of seeing “The Judge” is that it reveals the rarely seen everyday side of Palestinian society, where ordinary people just want to have a good life and be treated fairly by their family. People who need a fair-minded adjudicator like Kholoud Al-Faqih and are fortunate to have her.
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica
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