Israel is often celebrated for LGBTQ rights, gender equality in its military and electing one of the world’s first female heads of state back in 1969. But women still lack equal representation in positions of power, especially in Israel’s religious realm.

For these reasons, Hana Mansour-Khatib’s appointment as Israel’s first woman religious court judge is being celebrated by Arab and Jewish leaders alike. She will serve as judge, or Qadi, in Israel’s Sharia courts. 

“It's not only a personal achievement,” Mansour-Khatib insists. “It’s ours, for Arab women and Muslim women in Israel who are seeking the best rights they can get from the religious courts.”

Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze religious courts in the region date back to the Ottoman Empire and operated throughout Britain’s mandate control of Palestine. Today, rabbinical courts in Israel oversee marriage, divorce and other personal status issues for Jews, as do the Sharia courts for Israel’s Muslim Arab citizens, who comprise about 17 percent of Israel’s population.

Mansour-Khatib is a mother of four and family lawyer specializing in Islamic law, identifying both as a modern Muslim and feminist. In the small law firm she shares with her husband, Fouad, in northern Israel, awards and certifications line the walls.

“Most of them are hers,” he brags.

From Mansour-Khatib’s perspective, Israel’s Sharia courts are vital to its Muslim communities. But the courts have no shortage of critics, many pointing to their condoning of practices like underage marriage in some districts, polygamy and glaring misogyny.

Speaking from experience, Mansour-Khatib notes that when many women testify in the Sharia courts, “she comes with her father, she comes with her brother and she comes with her grandfather. They start the first trial and finish the ninth or the 10th trial without expressing a word.”

But from her new position, Mansour-Khatib hopes to begin making a positive difference in the lives of those women.

“When a woman stands in front of a woman judge, she can express herself,” she says. 

All Israeli citizens also have access to secular, civil courts, but many Muslim women prefer the Sharia. Mansour-Khatib acknowledges that Muslim and Arab women in Israel face hurdles of discrimination and inequality, but is frustrated by stereotypes that portray them as weak or suppressed by Muslim society. Her own appointment is proof, she thinks, that it’s a fairly good time to be a Muslim woman in Israel. 

“There's a lot of young girls who became doctors, managers in schools, high-tech specialists," she says. "It’s also in the West Bank. They go study in Jenin, or in Nablus. They go alone without their fathers. It means that we live in a good era, people cope with the success of women as an achievement.”

That may be true, but her judgeship was only achieved after a fraught, 20-year battle between two opposite political factions. Hard-line Islamic organizations, for one, accused the Israeli justice minister of meddling in Islam. Such conservative groups do not accept the notion of a woman as Islamic judge.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish lawmakers also fought her appointment, fearing a woman Sharia judge would set precedent in the rabbinical courts, where female judges are still forbidden. Could their fears prove to be well-founded?

“Up until recently, very few even thought to ask,” says Jewish legal expert Dr. Rachel Levmore. “But through study of the actual laws, it is apparent that a woman can be a rabbinic judge in a court that deals with monetary matters. The rabbinic courts that deal with matters of marriage and divorce is still up for debate. Even what I just said is a revolution and would be highly contested by the rabbinical establishment. This is something that’s going to be debated for quite a few more years, and we’ll see what happens.”

Islamic and Jewish law have one thing in common — they are both extraordinarily complicated. But what is clear, is the surprisingly long road ahead for an Orthodox Jewish woman in Israel to reach what Mansour-Khatib just accomplished. And that from her seat as judge, Mansour-Khatib will aim to bolster the voices of Muslim women while protecting their rights, likely inspiring more to follow her.  

From PRI's The World ©2017 PRI