The Judge: How a film addressing Islamophobia ends up whitewashing Israel's occupation
Almost 10 years ago, Kholoud al-Faqih became the first woman to become a judge in an Islamic court in the Middle East. Al-Faqih, from the occupied West Bank, had battled deep-seated patriarchy, prejudice and misunderstanding of Islamic jurisprudence to earn her appointment in 2009 to Palestine’s sharia courts that handle matters of personal status, like marriage, divorce and domestic violence.
Her momentous achievement has now become the subject of a new film called The Judge, by Emmy-award winning filmmaker Erika Cohn.
It took a chance meeting in 2012 between Cohn and Judge al-Faqih that convinced the American filmmaker to take a deeper look into the workings of sharia courts in Palestine. Drawn to al-Faqih's strong character and achievement, Cohn says she wanted to take her story to the silver screen to present a nuanced take of women’s struggle to protect their rights as well as tackle Islamophobia and erroneous apprehensions towards sharia.
To many in the western world, sharia has become synonymous with a set of customs that are hinged on an old-world depravity. In reality, sharia is a set of moral and broad ethical principles derived from the Quran and the practices of Prophet Muhammad that are open to interpretation and change.
To pretend that Judge al-Faqih battles only misogyny and Arab patriarchy and not an Israeli machinery that works every day to undermine Palestinian dignity, is counter-productive and inaccurate
Cohn felt that al-Faqih's experience interrogated misgivings about sharia while her struggles represented some of the difficulties faced by Muslim women when it came to participating in spaces usually dominated by men. "I felt this was a way in to address some of the misunderstandings about sharia," she told MEE after a screening in Boston.
"I would say I definitely had my own biases when I first started this film about how difficult it would be to work within a religious construct for a change. This is any religion. How do you work within a framework that is hundreds even thousands of years old - to create change - and in a system where you are not only dealing with religion but also cultural norms and traditions."
Whitewashing the occupation
Since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017, The Judge has enamoured audiences and critics alike. The Guardian said that Cohn "showcases al-Faqih’s tireless fight for justice for women, while illuminating universal domestic conflicts including child custody, divorce and spousal abuse".
Similarly, the NYT said that al-Faqih "emerges as someone who's no threat to religious law, but who’s a real problem for patriarchy." As a portrait of Judge al-Faqih, the film is sensitive and intimate.
Cohn’s cinematography pivots between wide expansive shots that offer a pristine take on Palestine from the skies and tight frames of al-Faqih in her home, as a wife, mother and daughter, or at her office as a Judge.
To watch The Judge is to see Palestine as a normal, free society where women are battling for equality and representation in a society layered in generations of patriarchy. It attempts to show that women's struggle for control over their bodies, economic welfare, custodial rights and marital status is indeed a universal struggle.
And it does so while leaving out one small detail.
In Cohn’s The Judge, there are no checkpoints. Nor are there any Israeli soldiers in sight. For all the spectacular drone footage, there is no indication that this is a people under occupation. It does not even mention it
In Cohn’s The Judge, there are no checkpoints. Nor are there any Israeli soldiers in sight. For all the spectacular drone footage, there is no indication that this is a people under occupation. It does not even mention it.
When MEE asked Cohn why the film neglects to mention the occupation she said that the symbols of the occupation were not within the confines of the film. "How do I show occupation?" she said rhetorically. "To insert it in would have been editorialising," she says. "I didn’t want to place it in."
She says she wanted to be an observer; this is cinema verite after all.
That Cohn could choose to tell a story of Palestine in a "warm, inviting and beautiful way" (her words) but would then consider the idea of mentioning "occupied territories" as an unreasonable caveat to her film is extraordinary. "Did I try to put that [the occupation] in? Yes, but it felt like a totally different film. It is not the visual style, it’s not the story,” Cohn says.
But of course it would be a different film.
Muslim and women-of-colour feminists have long decried the ways in which the Western lens refuses to take intersectionality, or an ability to see how multiple forms of injustice operate, into account, and this film is no exception.
For instance, the use of sexual violence by Israeli forces towards Palestinian women has long been documented, as has the entire ID system that forbids a Jerusalemite Palestinian woman from marrying a West Bank Palestinian unless she gives up her military-issued residency. It is the nature of the occupation itself that results in the increasing conservatism towards women in Palestinian society.
"The nature of the occupation exacerbates existing cleavages between men and women, and increases the vulnerability experienced by poor women," Karam Dana and Hannah Walker argue in the Journal of Contemporary Arab Affairs.
"The elaborate system of checkpoints and exposure to Israeli soldiers and settlers that may lead to harassment encourages families who can afford it to keep their daughters within the private sphere instead of engaging in public pursuits such as education, participation in social and political institutions, and participation in the labour market … key attributes of the occupation that impair gender equality in Palestine include reduced mobility between Palestinian territory, reduced access to important social goods like jobs," Dana and Walker add.
This is a conflict zone, an environment in which corruption, murder, and prejudice are literal tools of occupation. In other words, there are a multitude of extenuating factors. This is not a free society.
To pretend that Judge al-Faqih battles only misogyny and Arab patriarchy and not an Israeli machinery that works every day to undermine Palestinian dignity is counter-productive and inaccurate.
As detailed in scholarship over the past two decades, western feminism and Islamophobia have played perfect bedfellows in the American war machine since 9/11. White saviours and their concern for the brown or black woman have long fuelled the voyeuristic instincts of colonial masters.
In looking to reprogramme such clearly erroneous, racist and ignorant conceptions of Muslims, and present them as “normal” human beings, Cohn invites her audience on a journey where real politics are suppressed and "representation" is a showstopper for progress.
"For me, I wanted to show Palestine in a way that we do not typically get to see it. There is life in Palestine. There is beauty in Palestine. There is worth. There is love. There is humour. There is still so much vibrancy. The occupation is a reality. You cannot live, you cannot film. You cannot breathe in Palestine without the pervasive everyday occupation. But that is not all there is to life," Cohn said.
In a way, Cohn is right. This is not a typical Palestinian story. But read another way, it isn’t a story about Palestine at all.
The Judge is now available worldwide on Amazon.
- Azad Essa is a journalist based in New York City.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Kholoud al-Faqih (R) (screengrab/www.thejudgefilm.com)