Ramallah, West Bank The Islamic courts were among the last male-only bastions in Palestinian society, where women have been presidential candidates, police officers and even suicide bombers.
Now two stern-looking young women in Muslim head scarves and long black robes have smashed through the thick glass ceiling.
Khuloud Faqih, 34, and Asmahan Wuheidi, 31, made history in February when they became the first female Islamic judges in the Palestinian territories.
‘I think we’ve done well’
Across the Arab world, only Sudan has had women judges in Islamic courts, West Bank-based academic experts on Islamic affairs said. Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, all relatively progressive states in the region on women’s rights, do not.
“I compare us to other Arab Muslim women, and I think we’ve done well,” said Faqih, wearing a sash in the colors of the Palestinian flag across her robe. “I think I’ve opened a door for myself and other women.”
She spoke between meetings with petitioners in her modest courtroom — an office with a few couches, a desk and a coffee table with plastic flowers.
Muslim courts in the Palestinian Authority rule over family affairs like marriage, divorce, inheritance and custody, relying on Islamic jurisprudence rather than secular rules.
‘Don’t think it will change’
The petitioners did not seem shocked to see a woman in the judge’s seat — in this case, an office chair. But they appeared to argue often and loudly with Faqih, in stark contrast to the quiet in a neighboring room where a male judge heard cases from respectful petitioners.
Palestinian feminists have praised the female judges but say the move will not make a dramatic change, because the judges still rely on Islamic laws that ultimately favor men.
“As long as the law is the law, which is difficult to women, I don’t think it will change much,” said Dima Nashashibi of the Palestinian Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling.
For example, women need a judge to grant a divorce, while men don’t need that approval.
Women helping women
But the female judges say they can help their sisters obtain their rights under Islamic law. They say a sense of shame surrounds women speaking to men, especially about intimate family relations.
Wuheidi gave the example of a woman seeking divorce because her husband was impotent but who was too shy to divulge details of her sex life to the male judge. In Islam, a woman can ask a judge for a divorce if she is not sexually satisfied.
“When a woman speaks to another woman, it’s easier for her to speak,” Wuheidi said.
In one case, Faqih doubled the alimony that a woman’s ex-husband had to pay for each of their five children to $96 a month — a fair sum among Palestinians.
“Where I can make decisions that help women obtain better rights, I will,” Faqih said.
But some petitioners doubted women could be equal to men.
“I’d like to see her, but I think that men do this job better, they are less emotional,” said Eziyeh Yousef, who was finalizing her divorce papers.
In many Arab societies, traditions have long held that only men can be Islamic judges because women are too weak and sensitive.
But Yousef’s friend, Najah Mahmoud, quickly interrupted. “Are you kidding? Women can do everything like men. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
A ‘new experience’
The two new judges are trained civil lawyers, not Islamic scholars. But they excelled in the Islamic law exams, beating dozens of other, mostly male, applicants.
The top judge responsible for the appointment, Sheik Taysir Tamimi, said Faqih approached him in August asking whether she could apply for a position.
“I said, ‘I beg you to apply,’” Tamimi said, hoping it would help women obtain better rulings.
Tamimi debated the issue with his reluctant colleagues, then issued a letter confirming that women could become Muslim judges.
The decision only affects the West Bank, ruled by the Western-backed Palestinian Authority. In the Gaza Strip, the ruling militant group Hamas has not made similar appointments, although Hamas women have become legislators and are slowly emerging in senior positions.
Tamimi said he hoped more women apply, but said the openness to change among critics depends on how the two new judges perform.
“Any new experience will have supporters and detractors. But if you want to please everybody, we’ll never move forward as a society,” he said.