Opinion

Why Orthodox Jews Tried and Failed to Block Israel’s First Woman Sharia Court Judge

Hana Mansour-Khatib made history this week following decades of opposition to women as religious court judges which united conservatives in both the Muslim and Jewish communities.

Hana Khatib.
Hana Mansour Khatib Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked's Twitter

It may seem surprising, and unlikely, but this week, Sharia law brought Israel together with Indonesia, Sudan, Malaysia, and the Palestinian Authority. The Jewish state appointed Hana Mansour-Khatib as the first female judge to its Islamic (Sharia) courts.

Khatib, an Arab-Israeli lawyer, was confirmed Tuesday by a Justice Ministry committee responsible for appointing judges (qadis in Arabic) to the nine Islamic courts that adjudicate the country's Islamic family law. Although, with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s support, the committee unanimously appointed Khatib, her appointment represents the fruition of a fraught 22 year struggle against conservative Muslim and Jewish ultra-Orthodox  leadership to open the benches of Israel's Islamic judiciary to women - exposing the complex relationship between Islam, women, and the Jewish state.  

As early as 1995, a coalition of Israeli women's organizations, the Working Group for Equality in the Personal Status Law, began advocating for the appointment of female Islamic court judges in Israel. The issue gained publicity in 2001, when the Working Group lost a Supreme Court case called Obeyd v. Minister of Religious Affairs. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Qadi Appointment Committee's selection of Muhammad Zibdi, a school principal, over a more qualified female candidate.

Asmahan Al-Wehidi was one of the first two Palestinian women appointed as Islamic Court judges in 2009.
REUTERS

However, the Palestinian Authority's appointment of its first two female Islamic court judges in 2009 reenergized the Working Group’s efforts. Former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni also championed the cause, nearly convincing the President of the Sharia Court of Appeals, Daoud Zini, to appoint a woman to the bench in 2013.

Although many Muslims argue that Islamic law permits female judges in Israel, the Muslim leadership has demurred until now. When asked for his position in December, Qadi Ahmed Natour, the President of the Sharia  Court of Appeals from 1994 - 2013, was not shy about his outspoken opposition. As Natour put it, "When I was President, no one talked to me about it. They knew my position." He added, "the judges are appointed by the government, and Sharia courts are an organ of the state – and now they want the right to make this move and this change. Why? Because they have the right to show us liberalism, to say you have to meet the standards of the Israeli state? It's too much interference. They're getting under our skin."

From this perspective, Khatib's appointment represents a potential step towards transforming the Islamic courts into secular Israeli institutions. Academic specialists Mousa Abou Ramadan and Yuksel Sezgin have explained that Muslim leadership view patriarchal elements of the Islamic courts as protection for their religion’s authenticity and independence within a Jewish majority state. This attitude is intensified by the framing of Islamic courts as a last bastion of Muslim legal autonomy in Israel. Issues of identity were far less at play in the Palestinian Authority’s Islamic courts, where women became judges without obstruction in 2009.

Khatib's appointment also overcame intense Haredi opposition. In December of 2015, Zionist Union, Meretz, and the Joint Arab List proposed the "Qadi Bill (Amendment- Choosing a Female Qadi)," attempting to legally require the appointment of female Islamic court judges, but the bill was blocked by United Torah Judaism. 

In a Knesset discussion, MK Issawi Freij (Meretz) explained the Haredi opposition: "They do not want to create a precedent that could return like a boomerang to us in Judaism... If it is possible to appoint a qadiya among the Muslims, which according to Islamic law is permissible, we are creating a precedent for ourselves in Judaism, that tomorrow there will be the demand to appoint female rabbis to rabbinic courts." Orthodox state-funded rabbinic courts in Israel, who have a denominational monopoly on religious legal services for the country’s Jews, do not accept women as judges.

This Haredi fear may contain a kernel of truth. Israel's Civil Service Act and Equal Rights for Women Act categorize together rabbinical and Islamic courts, providing both with immunity from anti-discrimination policies in terms of women. Now that the Islamic courts have appointed their first female judge, it is not implausible that the rabbinical courts could be pressured to follow suit.

Israeli rabbinical court
Tali Mayer

That being said, there is far less precedent in Orthodox Judaism than in Islam for female judges in religious courts; left-wing Israeli Orthodox institutions, like Midreshet Lindenbaum’s Women’s Institute of Halachic Leadership, are only beginning to explore the option. In 2014, Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner, the Institute’s director, began training three female graduates of his rabbinical ordination program to become judges. Although the formal training program was canceled in 2016, he has continued to offer informal training. As of now, unlike in the case of Muslim women, there is no parallel pool of Jewish women qualified to serve in Israel's religious court judiciary.

While it will likely take years for Khatib to be joined by female Jewish counterparts, her presence in Israel's Islamic judiciary will significantly benefit the position of Muslim women in Israel. Khatib herself may not be able to liberalize interpretations of Islamic law, because of her likely need to prove her legitimacy. Regardless, her presence will likely alleviate the discomfort of female plaintiffs sharing personal issues with the court regarding sexuality, marital intimacy, and domestic violence.

Speaking at Brigham Young University, Kholoud al-Faqih, one of the Palestinian Authority's first female Islamic court judges, noted that that women simply "wouldn't feel as comfortable talking to a male judge because she would feel [he] always would judge for his fellow male."

By achieving a leadership role in the Islamic family courts, Khatib has made a significant step towards gender equality in a central space of Muslim autonomy in Israel.

Sarah Jacobs is a research assistant at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.