Muslim Family Law in Palestine Today: the Draft Family Law, Women Shari‘a Court Judges, and Palestinians' Views on Reform

By Elizabeth Brownson
Submitted to Session P4630 (Legal Contests & Disputes, Part I, 2016 Annual Meeting
Islamic Law;
LCD Projector without Audio;
For several decades Palestinian women’s organizations have been advocating for a unified Muslim family law code that would apply to both the West Bank and Gaza. Currently, shari‘a courts in the West Bank apply the 1976 Jordanian family code and Gaza uses the 1954 Egyptian family code, although judges have made certain procedural reforms in response to women’s issues with the present systems. Also, the political rift between the PA and Hamas since 2006 has only heightened the need for a unified code. In the absence of a sitting parliament because of Israeli restrictions, human rights and women’s groups, the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and the Chief Justice’s office have been negotiating a new draft law that includes important reforms. This paper briefly outlines the proposed changes in the draft law, such as raising the minimum marriage age to eighteen, a khul’a law similar to Egypt’s 2000 law (wife-initiated divorce that does not require the husband’s consent), and extending the mother’s custody period until her child is fifteen years.

Chief Justices have made a handful of procedural changes that have improved women’s status in family law since Oslo, which this paper notes, but there is still a critical need for a unified law code. An encouraging sign of the prospects for change was former Chief Justice Tamimi’s appointment of three women judges to the shari‘a courts in 2009. This reform is unprecedented in the Middle East. It is particularly significant because the women judges are supportive of family law reform and have been active participants in the coalition of groups drafting a new law. This paper discusses my findings from interviews with two of the judges, which reveal their views on reform and their experiences and challenges as the first women judges in Palestine.

Finally, this paper highlights Palestinian society’s views on family law reform. I will present findings from interviews and surveys that I conducted, along with a recent joint United Nations/Birzeit study.