There are scandalously few female-empowerment documentaries about Arab women that also aim to counter Islamophobia, which is why Erika Cohn’s “The Judge” is a welcome addition. What’s more, it’s impossible not to be impressed by Kholoud Al-Faqih, the arbiter of the title, who together with a colleague became the first female judges in Palestine’s Shari’a courts. Frustratingly however, Cohn’s understandable desire to praise her subject seems to have led her to muddy the timeline of events and downplay the existence of Faqih’s women colleagues. Greater attention to how and when information is revealed would make “The Judge” a far more valuable film, though given the subject’s topicality, there’s every expectation that media attention will be high following its late-April opening.
Women have been judges for criminal cases in Palestine since the 1970s, but Islamic scholars refused to countenance a female judge in the Shari’a courts, where family cases are heard. Enter Faqih, an attorney working with victims of domestic violence, who petitioned the chief justice, Sheikh Tayseer Al-Tamimi, to open the ranks. Arguing that the Hanafi school of Islam doesn’t forbid women from running Shari’a courts, Faqih won Tamimi over, and in 2009 she and Asmahan Al-Wahidi were given positions on the bench.
As with any such revolution, not everyone was pleased. Cohn interviews conservative Islamic scholar Husam Al-Deen Afanah, an outspoken critic explicit in his denunciation of Tamimi’s action, who refuses to accept the Sheikh’s claim that hidebound tradition has blurred the more liberal essence of Shari’a law. While Afanah’s authority holds weight, the prejudice against women in juridical positions goes far beyond one scholar’s rigid pronouncements: Attorneys as well as people on the street (both women and men) largely express the opinion that women are too emotional to be impartial judges (the same argument used in the West a century ago to deny women the vote).
It shouldn’t go without comment that Cohn largely sidelines educated middle-class voices: Her on-the-street interviewees almost all offer parochial opinions about the fitness of women to become judges, contradicting Hanan Ashrawi’s assertion that Palestine long became one of the most forward-thinking societies in the region. It’s unlikely Cohn meant to challenge Ashrawi on this; stacking the deck to build a larger case for community prejudice simply makes the documentary battle lines more exciting.
Tamimi was forced to resign one year after appointing Faqih and Wahidi (the latter never appears on-screen), with the implication that his revolutionary support for these women led to his departure — although he remains an important judicial voice in Palestine. The chief justice who followed, Yousef Al-Dais, appears to have been far less enlightened, sidelining the two female judges by removing their caseloads and reducing them to administrative and contractual work. “It’s a living hell” remarks Faqih, suddenly denied the satisfaction of making a positive difference in women’s lives. Not until 2016 were the women judges able to resume juridical duties, under a new chief justice. Does that mean Faqih had only a desk job for five years?
It’s precisely because “The Judge” succeeds so well in presenting Faqih as an inspirational role model that the corner-cutting of information is so aggravating. Happily, Faqih’s personality shines through: wise and warm-hearted, firm when necessary, generous of spirit, a loving wife and mother of four who somehow manages to balance it all. Her insistence on the necessity of educating Palestinian women about their rights deserves every accolade and award, and the film is at its best when showing her at work, counselling and occasionally cajoling the plaintiffs before the bench. Refreshingly, Cohn shows off the beauty of Palestine’s landscape, though given what a good job she does in presenting an enlightened Islam, it’s a shame that troubling music is paired with a scene of Al-Tamimi at prayer.