Married by a woman: a quiet Palestinian revolution

RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories - Holding the young couple's identity cards in one hand and the Koran in the other, the Palestinian justice of the peace pronounces Thaer and Rawan man and wife.

It's an everyday scene at the Islamic sharia law court in the West Bank city of Ramallah except for one glaring difference - the justice is a woman, the first in the Palestinian territories licensed to perform Muslim marriages.

Wearing a long black robe decorated with the Palestinian flag and with a keffiyeh scarf draped over her shoulder, Tahrir Hamad, 33, is leading a quiet revolution in Palestinian society.

On July 29, she became the first, and so far the only, woman appointed as a "mazouna" - a Muslim official authorised to carry out marriage and divorce.

Until now in the Arab world only Egypt and Abu Dhabi have appointed women to the post.

The reason there are not more, she says smiling, is cultural rather than theological.

"The only obstacle comes from our patriarchal society, because there is no religious or legal reason that prevents women from filling this post." Her conviction has been forged during 10 years of Islamic studies, culminating in a master's degree in Islamic law.

She explains it to couples planning their weddings so they can decide whether to let her officiate or use one of the four male justices at the Ramallah court.

No reason to object

In the week since she began, she has performed eight marriages and had two categorical refusals.

One of those who objected, she says, "could not give a reason. He just said, 'I don't want a woman performing my marriage and that's it!'" Such an attitude, she says, is the exception rather than the rule.

"People come to get their wedding contract signed and leave when they have what they want. Whether the signature is that of a man or a woman is not a problem for them." Some, like newlyweds Thaer and Rawan Schuman, are proud to have been married by a woman.

Of Palestinian descent but living in the United States, they have come for the summer to marry in their ancestral homeland.

"This is amazing. I'm totally defending the rights of women and this is great," says Rawan, 24.

"It furthers the cause of women in Palestine." Her Brazilian-born dentist husband Thaer, 26, is also enthusiastic.

"The Palestinian people are smart people, respectful people, educated and it's a great thing that they are progressing and I support it," he said.

In the traditionally closed male world of the secular courts, three women have already made a breach and are serving as judges in civil law cases.

In approving marriage contracts, Tahrir Hamad is also helping ensure the future rights of the bride.

The document prepared for Tayssir Hamad and Faten al-Deik stipulates that after marriage the bride will continue her doctoral studies, then go to work.

Any decision to quit at a later stage will be bride Faten's alone, it states.

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