President Reuven Rivlin and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked installed the first ever female judge, or qadi, for Israel’s Sharia Court system on Monday in Jerusalem, along with three other regional qadis.

“This is testament to the positive changes in the status of women,” said Rivlin, as he praised Hana Mansour Khatib, a lawyer from the Galilee of town of Tamra who previously specialized in family and Sharia law. “This is testament to the inescapable understanding that it is our duty to ensure that half of the world’s population has an equal part in determining and implementing policies and laws in all spheres of life. Today, I will allow myself to express the hope that the appointment of the first female religious judge will be the first of many, not just in the Muslim community.”

Rivlin noted that the government had hoped to install female qadis last year, but that it had not been possible. All qadis must pass a rigorous written exam and a selection process from the Justice Ministry’s Committee to Elect Sharia Judges.

For the first time this year, three women were nominated to serve as qadis, but Khatib was the only one appointed. The nine-member committee unanimously appointed Khatib on April 25, 2017.

Her appointment was controversial both in hardline Jewish and Muslim circles. Days after the appointment, Muslim clerics, led by deputy head of the outlawed Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Sheikh Kamal Khatib, slammed Shaked and warned her “not to intervene in matters of Islam.”

Shaked noted on Monday that there are already female qadis for Sharia Courts in Indonesia, Malaysia, Jordan, and Egypt. The Palestinian Authority appointed its first female qadi in 2009.

“We are shattering another glass ceiling,” Shaked told the audience of family members, lawyers, and supporters of the new qadis. “From the presidential residence in Jerusalem, a city for three religions, we are sending a message to girls everywhere: go, invest, study, and excel. The sky is the limit for you, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

New qadis, or religious judges, pose for a picture at the President's residence, on May 15, 2017 with President Reuben Rivlin and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

New qadis, or religious judges, pose for a picture at the President’s residence, on May 15, 2017 with President Reuben Rivlin and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

“This is a really big victory, and it really shows how the courts can support equality for women,” said Khatib after the ceremony, while being mobbed by well-wishers. “Along with the three other qadis, we will work within the Sharia rules, so we can fulfill all of the Sharia procedures.”

Khatib’s emphasis on following Sharia rules and laws was an attempt to refute hard-liners who insist that women cannot serve as religious judges.

“I am not a mufti, but the opinion in the Islamic Sharia is that a woman should not be appointed as a qadi,” said Sheikh Khatib, after the appointment. “I smell a political deal here in the Sharia court system.”

However, others disagreed.

“We accept differing opinions, but during the election process we unanimously agreed that it was religiously acceptable for women to serve as qadis,” said Qadi Iyad Zahalka, who was promoted from the Jerusalem region to the national Sharia Appeals Court during the ceremony. “[Khatib’s appointment] is a historical step, this is the Islam that we believe in,” he added. “With the installation of a female qadi, we prove to ourselves that Islam is based on the same values as our humanity, with no difference between race or sex, because religion must serve humanity.”

The Sharia Courts have been utilized for religious and family matters since the Ottoman Empire and were formally incorporated into the State of Israel in 1948. The campaign to appoint a female qadi started 22 years ago in 1995 with a coalition of women’s groups called the Working Group for Equality in the Personal Status Law.

Hana Mansour Khatib, the first female qadi, or religious judge, with her family at her installation ceremony at the presidential residence in Jerusalem on May 15, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Hana Mansour Khatib, the first female qadi, or religious judge, with her family at her installation ceremony at the presidential residence in Jerusalem on May 15, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Ultra-Orthodox MKs have traditionally opposed the appointment of female judges to the Sharia court system, worried that it could set a precedent for forcing the Rabbinical Court system to also appoint female judges.

In both the rabbinical courts and Sharia courts, women can serve as lawyers, or “toanot” (legal petitioners). But women cannot serve as judges in the rabbinical courts.

Yaakov Kelman, the head of Rabbinical Lawyer’s Association, said the rabbinical court system would never consider a woman for the position of judge.

“According to the halacha and the interpretations of the Torah, it’s simply not allowed for women to serve as religious judges,” he said. “There are a lot of mitzvot [commandments] that women cannot do that would keep them from being judges.”

He noted that while Khatib also faced criticism from the Muslim community, the criticism from the Jewish community over a female judge in the rabbinical courts would be much more vociferous.

“99 percent of the Orthodox community would oppose [a female rabbinical judge], it would be total chaos,” he said.

In December 2015, all of the ultra-Orthodox parties opposed a bill that would have required the selection committee to consider female candidates during every selection process.

Kelman posited that the ultra-Orthodox aren’t actually scared that the state would force them to appoint a female rabbinical judge, but are worried that it will be used for fodder against them. “They’re concerned about the political impact,” he said. “They’re worried about people saying, ‘Look at the Muslims, even though they’re even more extreme than us, even they have a female judge.’”

Shaked also highlighted the fact that over the past two years the number of qadis has almost doubled from nine to 17, cutting down on some of the delays for Muslims petitioning the courts. There are now nine Sharia courts across Israel, including two new courts in the cities of Taybeh and Sakhnin.