Rating: 2.5 stars
What’s it like being one of the first female judges to serve in an Islamic court of law? That’s the subject of the inspiring documentary “The Judge,” an intimate profile of Kholoud al-Faqih, who in 2009 was one of two women appointed to preside over a sharia court in the West Bank — becoming the first in that role in the Palestinian territories and still among only a few such female judges in the world.
American filmmaker Erika Cohn (who co-directed the Emmy-winning 2015 documentary “In Football We Trust”) charts the path of the pioneering Faqih, who comes across as a relentlessly upbeat advocate for women despite the difficulties of working in a patriarchal Middle Eastern society.
Originally a lawyer helping battered women, Faqih was determined to become a judge in the West Bank’s sharia courts, which hear family cases. Women had been judges in Palestinian criminal law courts since the 1970s, but they had never served in sharia courts. Islamic jurisprudence has traditionally been the province of male magistrates and religious scholars.
“I laughed, and I thought it was a joke,” recalls Sheikh Tayseer al-Tamimi, the former chief judge of the West Bank’s sharia court system, describing his reaction when Faqih first approached him about the idea.
But after Faqih convinced the chief justice that the Hanafi school of Islamic law that was in place in Palestinian territories permitted women to be judges, she and another female lawyer successfully passed the requisite exam. Their appointments paved the way for the first female marriage officiant to be appointed a few years later.
Cohn uses a cinéma vérité style, showing Faqih on the job as she handles cases with aplomb: negotiating alimony, for example, from the family of a man who has abandoned his wife. Other issues include those both commonplace (child custody) and more culturally specific, such as honor killings, or men wanting to take additional wives (as allowed by Islam).
Viewers also get to know Faqih outside of the courtroom, in warm family scenes at home with her lawyer husband and their four children, or visiting her elderly parents, who only finished middle school but supported their 12 children’s education.
The film touches on some professional hurdles: Faqih and her female colleagues have faced opposition from a conservative sheikh, and a restructuring of the courts by a traditionalist chief justice meant that Faqih was effectively demoted for a period of several years.
Indeed, these challenges could have been explored more thoroughly — both to give broader context for the achievements of the film’s subject and to create a more compelling (and chronologically clear) dramatic arc. And although Faqih speaks eloquently about women’s rights and what she stands for, a bit more personal introspection might have been illuminating.
“The Judge” presents a rare Western view of the Middle East that doesn’t frame Palestinians’ lives in reference to Israel, which is barely mentioned. It also offers a robust counternarrative to stereotypes of Arab and Muslim women as powerless. Islamic legal principles might be the formula here, but the quest for justice is universal.
Unrated. At Landmark’s West End Cinema. Contains discussions of violence against women. In Arabic and English with subtitles. 76 minutes.