Here comes the (Muslim woman) judge!

An interview with the United Arab Emirates' first female justice.

muslim woman 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
muslim woman 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I recently sat down with Khulud Al-Dhahiri in her office at the Al Ain Sharia court and spoke with her about her experiences as the country's first national female justice, and the role of tradition in this environment. Jacob Olidort: Can you describe your experience before this position? Khulud Al-Dhahiri: From my graduation in 2000 until I took this job in March I worked in a law office. A female judge is certainly new for the country, particularly for Abu Dhabi, because it is an expression of female emancipation. It raises questions about the foundations of our society. It is important that the genders remain equal before the law, including of course the Shari'a (Islamic) laws. And this includes the position of women in the work force? Certainly, there is no difference. Even in Shari'a, the only difference that exists is a fiqhi (scholars' interpretation) that when a woman becomes a judge, she is more responsible than at any other point to uphold the truths of the Shari'a laws and traditional social dynamics. And thank God, we have flexible laws. We don't believe a woman doesn't have a right to govern. This is not an issue of opposition or debate. We are not talking of whether there is more opposition against a man or a woman. We are discussing work ethics. When I as a woman or as a woman judge consider a legal ruling, I look to determine whether it is ethical and how it applies. This is professional. When I pass a sentence, I don't consider whether the subject is a male or female. I just look at whether the sentence is correct. Was the law office where you worked before comprised of both men and women? There were one or two other women. This was the first law office for women in Al Ain. Of course we all worked together. Yes, it was considered unusual for a woman to enter this field, but thank God we all worked well together. Until now we have been discussing ideals and principles. Did you find a difference between what is and what should be? Of course people differ, and certainly there are some who think men are stronger than women, but I would not say that is the perspective of society. As usual, people are most concerned with their own self interest, with who is best at taking care of them. This is the ultimate aim. With discussion of marriage and traditions, of course there is a difference between classical Islamic law and the Islamic law of today. There is of course a difference, [but] in society. From both the legal and social perspectives, does a woman have the same opportunity to advance professionally as a man? Generally, in earlier times the woman was inside the house and society was more traditional. The UAE is only a 37-year-old country but has been marked by much development. The most advanced technology is being used here. Of course you still see women inside the house, not socializing with men, but in terms of work one can't say a man is better than a woman. The UAE is new, and its infrastructure is still developing; much depends on the youth, who must carry and confront professional issues with personal as well as national implications. And this is perhaps the challenge also facing any woman. But thank God we have the opportunity. Since I graduated, I have been working with my peers and everyone has been supportive because they understand the situation and the need. Would you say it is a paradox that in this country, a center for the interaction of many nationalities and cultures, there is so much attention paid to tradition? How do you see the family's role in preserving tradition when the society seems increasingly open to others? You could see this in many ways. Our Emirati population is a minority in this country, but our traditions stand on strong pillars. If you look at any foreigner who lives here, chances are they come from a different culture, not even Arab, but nonetheless they come to appreciate our culture and traditions. Second, our traditions retain a big influence. I work with families and people from Lebanon, from Syria, from other countries, and I see this. For example, if I talk with a non-national man, there is a distance between us. I have a friend who is Lebanese Christian. She tells me her son speaks with his friends in school in the Emirati dialect. This is so because it is his country too, and he sees a relationship between himself, his family and this country. It is a society that accepts everyone. The writer is a graduate student at Harvard who spent the past year in the United Arab Emirates as a Fulbright Scholar.