Since the time of the Ottoman Empire the Holy Land has maintained an Islamic Sharia court system and, even today, the Jewish state allows these courts to operate in Israeli cities and towns with high Muslim populations.
However, until last week the court had never appointed a female sharia court judge. A committee, chaired by Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and responsible for choosing sharia judges, unanimously selected Hana Khatib from Galilee last week for the role in the controversial court system.
Shaked, a Jewish Home party member, commented that such an appointment “should have happened a long time ago.”
“This is great news for Arab women and the Arab society,” she said. “I’m excited over the choice, and hope this is the bellwether for further appointments of women.”
Arab-Israeli lawmakers also hailed the appointment. Aida Touma-Suleiman, an Arab Knesset member who is the chairperson of the Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, said the selection is “a historic step in the Arab feminist movement in Israel, a step that benefits not only Arab-Muslim women, but the entire Arab population in Israel.”
Sharia Court Chief Judge I’ad Zahalka believes that “a change in society,” as well as a high number of female applicants, has enabled the appointment of a female judge, something for which he has fought.
Israel’s government-sponsored sharia law system is a watered down version of more extreme interpretations of the Islamic justice system and is limited to the areas of marriage, divorce, conversion, inheritance and domestic violence.
In Israel such family matters are governed by rabbinical law, which is also considered by many to be controversial regarding civil marriages and divorces. There has never been a female rabbinic judge.
In both sharia and rabbinic law, when a couple marry they are subject to binding religious law. However, sharia rulings can be appealed in Israel’s higher courts when they conflict with basic rights.
The on-the-ground reality of the sharia system in Israel is that a woman seeking a divorce may get a far lower financial settlement than she would under the Jewish system, according to attorney Roy Brumer. But if she then seeks a settlement under Jewish law she can be subject to social pressure from the Muslim community and even violence, sometimes lethal, for turning to the Jewish system. Despite this intimidation a trend toward the Jewish court system among Muslim women is building.
To be eligible to apply to become a sharia judge a candidate must live their lives according to Islamic law, practice sharia law for six years as a lawyer, pass an exam and undergo a vetting process.
In more extreme Islamic countries Sharia law is interpreted to include rules such as the death penalty for:
- Criticizing or denying the Quran;
- Criticizing Muhammad or denying that he is a prophet;
- Converting from Islam; and
- Leading a Muslim away from Islam.
Other examples of sharia law that appear to take an anti-women stance include:
- Marriage is permissible with an infant girl and consummation may take place when she is 9 years old;
- Wives can be beaten for insubordination;
- A divorced wife loses custody of any child over six;
- Four male witnesses are required to testify against a man for rape; and
- A woman cannot testify against a man for rape in court.
Such extremes are not practiced in Israel perhaps due to the moderating influence of Israeli society’s prevailing culture and biblical foundation. This atmosphere seems to have contributed to a more palatable version of the Islamic legal system and enabled the appointment of a female judge. Nevertheless, even Israel’s sharia system remains some way off from the impartiality and equity the Bible requires.
“Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live
and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you.”