After nearly a year on the job, Hana Mansour Khatib says she is already seeing the impact she can make as the first female judge in Israel’s Islamic, or sharia court system. She says she has long witnessed many female plaintiffs remain quiet and instruct a lawyer or male relative to speak on their behalf in the Islamic courts, which handle marriage, divorce and other personal issues for Muslims here.
“But now, I have noticed that when women see me as the judge, they have more confidence to talk and speak up,” says Khatib, adding that she also asks the many relatives who often accompany a divorcing couple to court to leave the room “so the parties can talk honestly. I really encourage them to talk and I want to hear what they have to say, especially in these sensitive matters.”
In appointing Khatib, Israel joins a growing number of countries with Islamic courts with female judges. Her appointment also is significant here for the Jews and Christians, who, like Muslims, must marry and divorce through their respective religious authorities because civil marriage does not exist in Israel. Jewish and Christian legal authorities remain all male.
“The appointment of Khatib is wonderful proof that what is perceived as entrenched and immutable can in fact be changed,” says Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, a law professor at Bar-Ilan University and vice president of the U.N. Committee on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women.
Khatib’s judgeship comes at a time of rapid change for Israel’s Arab minority, which makes up about 20 percent of the country’s population. Recent years have seen an increase in the number of Arab women going to work and earning academic degrees and certifications. There has been significant government investment, including a five-year 15 billion shekel ($4.3 million) plan, implemented in 2015, to improve education, employment opportunities and other infrastructure in Israel’s Arab communities.
The appointment of a female “qadi” – a magistrate or judge on a sharia court – may be even more significant in the long run than those other social changes, says Israeli parliamentarian Esawi Frej, a Muslim and a member of the left-wing Meretz political party. That’s because Arab society remains deeply traditional, and what religious leaders say carries a lot of weight, explains Frej, who sat on the parliamentary committee that nominated Khatib.
“There really is no such thing as a secular Muslim,” he says. “So for real change in Muslim society, you need the religious establishment to support it. So it is significant that you have religious law saying it’s OK for women to be a sharia court judge. That means that gender equality can improve in other parts of life, as well.”
Although appointing a female judge is still seen by many as controversial, Islamic law does not ban it, Abd Al-Hakim Samara, Israel’s Sharia Court of Appeals president, said at last spring’s swearing-in ceremony for Khatib and three new male judges. Khatib was appointed “out of a right, not out of kindness,” Samara said at the ceremony.