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Erika Cohn’s Documentary Provides Insight into Sharia Law and Strong Imagery of Powerful Muslim Women



The Economist

December 05, 2018

The film begins when Judge Faqih has already been on the bench for several years (she was appointed in 2009), and it shows her meting out justice in the courtroom, stern and authoritative. She started her career as a lawyer, and says that when she wanted to sit the exams to become a judge she had to persuade her male superiors to let her do so. Tayseer al-Tamimi, the chief Islamic judge, was supportive but says they faced opposition—opposition driven less by scripture than by culture. “In our society, traditions are so strong that they override the actual Sharia,” Sheikh Tamimi says with remarkable frankness. Husam al-Deen Afanah, another Islamic judge, believes unequivocally that the scriptures do not permit a woman to hold the office. “She opened the way,” says her husband, who is also a lawyer. “Hey world, my mum’s a judge!” hollers one of their small children. Such heartfelt moments of pride recur throughout the documentary.

Erika Cohn, the director, met Judge Faqih when she was working in the region teaching film and undertaking postgraduate research in Islamic feminism. She says that she was “beyond captivated” by the judge, whom she met at an Islamic reform meeting in Ramallah. “It was like this magnetism that I just kept experiencing.”

As well as providing “a greater insight into Sharia law and strong imagery of powerful Muslim women” with her film, Ms Cohn sought to create “an immersive Palestinian experience”. She used soaring drone footage, closely observed street scenes and soundscapes, and travelled and recorded “different calls to prayer in different towns and villages, different horn sounds, and the different winds and different insects”. At the same time, Ms Cohn wisely leaves many things out. Portrayals of ordinary Palestinian life are often overshadowed by Israel’s occupation, and complicated by political rivalries among Palestinian groups. These issues are well documented and intractable; her film is the more absorbing for focusing instead on the position of women in Palestinian society.

The animating spirit of Judge Faqih, and of this engaging film, is the possibility of reforming that society from within. She expresses no desire to lessen the role of religion in everyday life, but she does call for re-interpretation and evolution. “I’m shocked at our religious education,” she tells a group at the Women’s Ministry. “In the Quran verse about the devil, they put a picture of a woman. Where does that leave us?”

Progress, as ever, is not linear. Over the course of the film, successive new chief justices sideline Judge Faqih, and then promote her again. Other women, wanting to get ahead as senior lawyers and judges, stumble. But the door has opened, just a crack. “We do indeed need a social revolution,” Judge Faqih tells some fired-up women. This deft film shows just how much patience and grit such a revolution will take.