Israeli Sharia court system appoints first-ever female judge

The Sharia Courts in Israel handle personal status law issues like marriage and divorce for Muslim-Israelis.

A mosque in Abu Ghosh with its minarets towering above (photo credit: REUTERS)
A mosque in Abu Ghosh with its minarets towering above
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel’s Shari’a courts on Tuesday appointed Hana Khatib as the first female judge in the Muslim system’s history.
The country’s rabbinic courts still have yet to appoint a female judge, though there are a smattering of women on local rabbinical councils.
The Shari’a court system in Israel handles personal status issues like marriage and divorce for Muslims and has functioned on an uninterrupted basis since Ottoman times, including when Israel was established in 1948.
In 1961, the Knesset brought the Shari’a courts into Israel’s system, and they are connected to the Justice Ministry.
They handle an average of 36,000 cases per year, with the Jerusalem Shari’a Court hearing about 20 cases per day.
Khatib is an expert in Shari’a law who has two advanced degrees, lives in Tamra and is married with four children.
Although Jerusalem Shari’a Court Chief Judge I’ad Zahalka told The Jerusalem Post that there has never been a formal prohibition on appointing a female Shari’a court judge, the issue had never come up.
Zahalka credited Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked with pushing hard for a female judge and for providing additional funding for another judicial position.
While other justice ministers have supported the idea with words, Zahalka said Shaked has supported the initiative with actions.
Shaked hailed the appointment as “great news for Arab women and Arab society... I am emotional about this choice and hope that this is only the first on the way to choosing more women for these positions.”
Explaining why the first female judge was appointed only now, though it was always theoretically permitted, Zahalka said, “It had not happened yet for many reasons. There was not a readiness in terms of candidates, from the system and from public support.”
But Zahalka emphasized that “there has been a change in society. Also, more female candidates applied and passed the written exam.”
“Many of the Hadiths of Muhammad he received from his wife, Isha. In Muslim history, there are women who were leaders, and it was not prohibited. It is true that in practice most legal scholars have been men, but Islam gives equal rights to men and women,” he said.
Mostly, the problem was “with custom and culture which derides women. There is no problem though under the law, which does not deride women. Many times there is a tension between the custom and culture on one hand and the law on the other hand,” he added.
The first requirement to apply to become a Shari’a court judge in Israel, or qadi, is that candidates must live their lives according to Shari’a law and either have already practiced six years as a lawyer or spent at least six years learning Shari’a law at a university in or outside of Israel recognized by the Education Ministry.
Next, candidates must pass a written exam of expertise in Shari’a law, pass a public vetting process and be chosen by a nine-person committee, similar to the nine-person committee that chooses Israeli civil court judges.
The nine members include the justice minister, another government representative, three Knesset members (two of whom must be Muslim), two Israeli Bar Association members (both of whom must be Muslims), two Shari’a court judges appointed by and including the head of the Shari’a system and one additional Shari’a court judge voted in by the other judges.
The committee makes recommendations to the president of the state, who invariably approves the recommended candidate.