Film Review: The Judge

This skillfully conceived documentary focuses on a charismatic Muslim judge, a woman appointed to the Palestinian Shari’a court.
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Erika Cohn’s documentary The Judge is about Kholoud Al-Faqih, the first woman to preside over the Muslim version of family court. She received her judicial appointment in 2011, after presenting what was apparently impeccable scholarly research to the chief justice of Palestine’s Shari’a court. Kholoud proved that the absence of female judges was based on tradition, and not on Shari’a law. Confident and ambitious, Kholoud is also a mother of four, and a committed feminist. She had her lawyer husband Yaqoub sign a marriage contract that precludes him from taking another wife, and advises all women to write such contracts in which they can stipulate a variety of conditions, including that their husbands will allow them to complete their education.

This feature-length documentary begins with an explanation of Shari’a, which means “path,” and refers to the Muslim religious tenets. It is the “law” that informs all of the court’s rulings. In Palestine, religious courts are distinct from those that handle civil and criminal matters; Jewish residents, Druze, and Christian sects are all served by courts similar to the one in which Kholoud hears cases. A prosecutor interviewed in The Judge states that 80 percent of those bringing claims before the Shari’a court are women who are suffering spousal or family abuse, including rape, which is not recognized as such for married couples. Kholoud’s response to the limitations that she perceives in the Shari’a law is that she “lives in the 21st century” and will not apply “10th-century rules.”

While Cohn’s documentary is compelling and well-edited, the use of reenactments detracts somewhat from the effective cinema-vérité style established at the start of the film. The Judge is at its best when it follows Kholoud into a meeting of the Ministry of Women, or when she is at home with her husband and their young children, or in the scenes in which she informally advises her female neighbors of their rights. Cohn balances Kholoud’s direct-to-camera remarks with interviews with lawyers and colleagues, Chief Justice Tayser Al-Tamimi who appointed her to the court, and his conservative opponent Dr. Husam Al-Deen Afanah, who continues to oppose Kholoud’s appointment and that of other women. Kholoud’s family members are also interviewed, and while the sequence with her parents is awkward, it is also revealing. The judge, for instance, seems to balk at her father’s claims of supporting all his children’s educational goals.

Palestinian legislator and scholar Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, who received her Ph.D. at the University of Virginia, explains the country’s women’s movement, providing a broader context for Kholoud’s work. She also echoes the need for reform that Kholoud alludes to several times, including the pressing requirement that women be informed of their civil rights and their rights under Shari’a law, both of which are discrete from the religious education they receive. Dareen Salhiyeh, a lawyer, explains the “culture of shaming” that Palestinian women are subject to, especially those bringing cases before the Shari’a court. For instance, wives are shamed into not discussing intimate sexual relations so that their husbands go unpunished for beating or raping them. Honor killings are also tolerated, although Ashrawi says the matter is under debate in Palestine, and she hopes that it will soon be outlawed.

Kholoud’s commanding presence in the courtroom is thrilling to watch, and Cohn’s camera captures both its positive effects on petitioners and family members and, at one point, on a particularly annoyed male petitioner. It is apparent that men sometimes bristle at Kholoud’s pronouncements just because she is a female. When she suffers a demotion at the hands of a new, conservative chief justice, becoming “a judge in name only,” she fights back by reporting his abuses, obviously risking her own appointment. In the course of the documentary, Kholoud’s unstinting support for women in judicial and administrative roles leads to their advancement. In fact, Kholoud encouraged her friend to apply for a judgeship at the point that she first applied, and while that woman is now a judge, she is not interviewed in the documentary. Unfortunately, this lapse is unexplained.

Cohn’s repeated use of dramatic back-tracking shots, and overhead shots of Ramallah, as transitions between scenes, sometimes interrupts the narrative flow, but she avoids all the other, more significant pitfalls of documentaries devoted to a subject unfamiliar to mainstream audiences—in this case, a Muslim woman in a position of great authority. She begins by not putting Kholoud in every scene. In fact, doing so would have necessitated the explanation of arcane points of Shari’a law that would hold little interest for general audiences. Instead, Cohn skillfully broadens the significance of the judge’s work, first through interviews with those in what might be called her inner circle, neighbors, family members and friends, and then her professional sphere, that of lawyers, chief justices and protégés. Finally, the importance of Kholoud’s work on a national and international level is made apparent through the interview with Ashrawi.

The Judge features bits of sly humor, such as the moment when Kholoud’s father remarks that his wife (the judge’s mother), likes her goats more than she does her husband, or when Yaqoub recalls the first time he and Kholoud met. It was in a courtroom, and they were on opposing sides. He says it was their destiny to marry—they are both “stubborn.” Perhaps the most memorable moment features Kholoud hanging her freshly laundered robe and sash on a clothesline. She recalls that she was not permitted to wear a tarboush, a hat, and the emblem of office for male judges. Since there had never been any women judges, there were no uniforms for them. Smiling broadly, Kholoud explains her design, now the official garb of every female judge.

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