High Court Confronts Religious Panel Over Ban on Female Attorneys

Muslim woman petitions High Court of Justice after Sharia courts refuse her request for female arbitrator.

The High Court of Justice on Monday asked the Sharia Court of Appeal to explain why it would not allow a female arbitrator to represent a Muslim woman in divorce proceedings.

The woman petitioned the High Court about a year ago, after the appeals court upheld the ruling of a lower Sharia court, according to which only men may serve as arbitrators. The sharia courts are Muslim religious courts that are Israeli state institutions.

Israel's High Court of Justice in Session.
Tomer Appelbaum

Article 130 of Ottoman Family Law, which is applied in Israel's Sharia courts, specifies that when a couple files for divorce each party is asked to choose an arbitrator to represent them. If the arbitrators cannot effect a reconciliation they recommend that the couple be allowed to divorce.

All of the Sharia court arbitrators in Israel are male. In this case, 18 months ago the woman asked her local Sharia court for permission to hire a female arbitrator.

The court turned down the request, citing interpretations of religious law to that effect by the Maliki, Hanbali and Shafi'i schools of Islamic jurisprudence that guide Israel's Sharia courts.

The Sharia Court of Appeal upheld the lower court's ruling and rejected the plaintiff's request for a female arbitrator.

In his petition to the High Court the plaintiff's lawyer, Victor Herzberg, argued that the Sharia courts had exceeded their authority in disqualifying the female arbitrator out of hand and had violated Israel's laws on sexual equality.

Claim of discrimination

The Arab feminist organization Kayan recently asked to join the petition. Kayan told the court that according to the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence, which Sharia courts accept on other matters, woman can be arbitrators.

Attorney Shirin Batshon of Kayan's legal department said the position of the Sharia courts compromised gender equality, the right of women to hold public positions and the right of women in divorce proceedings to hire female arbitrators.

"We believe this is an opportunity for the High Court of Justice to end the continued discrimination against women in the Sharia courts and to declare that women can serve in influential public positions," Batshon said.

The Sharia courts administration and the courts' legal adviser said they will respond in the High Court of Justice.