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New female judge transforms Islamic court

Khouloud el-Faqeeh is part Judge Judy, part Sunday School teacher.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 13, 2009

Law over tradition: Khouloud el-Faqeeh argues a legal point in her West Bank office. In March, she became one of the two first female Islamic judges in the Middle East.

Ilene R. Prusher / The Christian Science Monitor

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Ramallah, west bank

Khouloud el-Faqeeh has shattered the glass ceiling of Islamic jurisprudence.

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After years of pushing to break into the all-male ranks of sharia judges in the Palestinian territories, she finally secured a post after scoring among the best – along with another woman – in a recent test for new jurists. They are widely considered to be the first female sharia judges in the Middle East.

Now, Ms. Faqeeh is setting a new tone in her Ramallah courtroom, where defendants are often shocked to see a woman on the bench. With a style that's part Judge Judy, part Sunday School teacher, she's on a mission to change her society, case by case. But sometimes, even the most progressive intentions won't overcome powerful social forces, such as those driving Miryam Abed-Nabi, a newlywed who came to court recently to finalize a divorce. Her husband – Fahmi Awadullah, a man twice her age – took her as a second wife just a few months ago. But the marriage infuriated his adult sons, who worried about their portion of his inheritance.

Because his new bride was rejected by the family, Mr. Awadullah is divorcing her, and must, according to their contract, pay her a lump-sum alimony of 6,500 Jordanian dinars ($11,050). He has paid her only half of that, but wants her to sign on the dotted line today, absolving him of any further obligations.

Ms. Abed-Nabi, who in her mid-30s is well past the age when most Palestinian women can expect to marry, walks into the courtroom with her eyes trained on the floor.

"There are institutions which will assign a free lawyer to you," Faqeeh says. Abed-Nabi nods.

"Fight for your rights," the judge adds, sounding more like an advocate than a neutral arbiter. Abed-Nabi shrugs. Her elderly father, here to give his permission for the divorce, explains: "We just want to finish with this."

In their last court appearance, Awadullah came in with two of his sons, who tried to intimidate the judge as well as Abed-Nabi and her family.

Faqeeh wants to deny Awadullah's right to divorce until he pays the full amount owed Abed-Nabi as part of their contract, so that he and his sons would be "taught a lesson." But, reluctantly, she formalizes the divorce.

"If she has her father with her and they say they want to finish with this, I have to comply," says a disappointed Faqeeh. Abed-Nabi leaves in tears.

But the judge doesn't let Awadullah go without a sermon."I advise you to remember that you have to worship God by being kind to other people," she tells him. "Why didn't you give her full rights? Would you like people to treat your daughters the way you treated [her]?... You have breached Islam with this woman.... You can go and pray to God, but I wonder how your worship will be received in light of this." Appealing to his conscience from a religious standpoint is part of her mandate, she feels.

While many associate sharia with extremist regimes, it is a complex system of jurisprudence used throughout the Muslim world – though with deeply varying interpretations. Even in the officially secular Palestinian Authority (PA), most issues of a Muslim's personal status – from marriage to inheritance – are decided before a qadi, or judge.

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