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Q&A: 'More Women Need to Judge'

Mel Frykberg interviews judge THURAYA JUDI ALWAZIR

RAMALLAH, May 21 2009 (IPS) - Thuraya Judi Alwazir is one of few women judges sitting on the Palestinian Authority's Judicial Authority. Alwazir speaks here to IPS about her experiences in a largely male-dominated environment, on the rights of women in regard to honour killings and domestic violence, and on the death penalty as applied in the West Bank.

Thuraya Judi Alwazir. Credit: Mel Frykberg

Thuraya Judi Alwazir. Credit: Mel Frykberg

Alwazir was born in Lebanon to a Lebanese mother and Palestinian father. She studied law in Jordan and then completed a master's degree in law at Yale University in the U.S.

She worked as a lawyer in Jordan but moved to Gaza 12 years ago after marrying Jihad Alwazir, governor of the Palestinian Monetary Fund and son of the late Khilal Alwazir, or Abu Jihad. Abu Jihad was a founding member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. He was assassinated by the Israelis in Tunisia in 1988.

She worked at first in Gaza on World Bank projects aimed at unifying the legal systems between Gaza and the West Bank. She also worked as a legal consultant and lawyer. In 2002 she was appointed a judge on the Palestinian Authority (PA) conciliation court.

IPS: What does your current position involve? Thuraya Alwazir: I am part of a three-judge panel in the Ramallah (central West Bank) district who adjudicate various civil cases. We do not oversee criminal cases as these are separated and fall under a different jurisdiction.

I am also the head of the planning and project management unit of the Palestinian Judicial Authority, and in this capacity I handle all sorts of cases including conciliation, criminal, commercial and law enforcement.

IPS: Can you explain the breakdown within the PA and the current composition of the judiciary? TA: The PA comprises three authorities; the executive, legislative and judicial. The Judicial Authority consists of 180 judges, 21 of whom are female. There are two female high court judges, one in Gaza and one in the West Bank. The remaining female judges are divided between the conciliation and district courts.

IPS: The PA Judicial Authority has actively been seeking to increase the number of female judges in the last few years, why is this? TA: The decision to recruit more female judges comes in the wake of a backlog of unresolved cases due to the political turmoil that has taken place here. This includes the Israeli occupation, the second Intifadah (Palestinian uprising) and the Palestinian infighting between Hamas and Fatah when the judicial system was seriously compromised.

Now that the courts are operating again at full capacity, the backlog has also been exacerbated by a significant increase in the number of new cases being brought to us by a public more confident in the credibility of our judicial system.

However, many of the PA's international donors have also pushed for stronger female participation in all walks of Palestinian administrative and governmental life, including the judiciary. To this end they have sponsored numerous programmes through various civil institutions aimed at empowering women and girls.

IPS: As a woman have you experienced prejudice from a predominantly patriarchal society, and do you think you've had to prove yourself more than a male judge? TA: Yes, in some ways I do think it's harder. Some sections of society are prone to judge female judges by how they look, (and doubt) whether they are up to the job, and if they have the necessary qualifications.

However, Palestine was the first Arabic society to appoint female judges during the seventies. Furthermore, as a consequence of the protracted political struggle of our people against the various occupations, Palestinian women have long stood alongside men in the struggle for freedom and independence.

Women have been forced though circumstance to take on all the traditional roles and responsibilities of men, with so many men being killed and imprisoned by the Israelis, so the concept of woman as equal is not something new.

Additionally, the Judicial Authority has a policy of gender equality, and many families are now focusing on educating their daughters as well as their sons. Of course where poverty is endemic, the males take precedence due to their perceived role as the traditional breadwinners.

IPS: The West Bank operates according to the Jordanian Penal Code, and Gaza according to the Egyptian Penal Code. This has meant that the punishment meted out to a fraction of the perpetrators arrested for honour killings and domestic violence is very light. Rape is not recognised as a crime in marriage, and there are no specific domestic violence laws. Are there any plans to change this system? TA: A draft for a new penal code was put before the Legislative Council, which is responsible for implementing changes to the law, several years ago. However, the council, which comprised a mixture of Hamas and Fatah members, has ceased to function due to the infighting between the two groups.

The draft law alone is not sufficient, and more shelters need to be established and more legal aid for women provided. But this again is outside the Judicial Authority's jurisdiction and needs to be pushed by civil society, women's groups in particular, and then approved and implemented by the Legislative Council when it is once again functioning.

IPS: With the apparent inability of Hamas and Fatah to reconcile, what hope is there for meaningful changes to the judicial system in the short term? TA: Until there is reconciliation, the Legislative Council will remain crippled. When Hamas took over Gaza in June 2006, although the PA's judiciary there continued to operate, there was no integration of the penal and civil codes between the West Bank and Gaza.

There was also no cooperation between Hamas's security forces and the PA judiciary, so the enforcement of civil judgments was impossible. Eventually Hamas appointed its own legal system in violation of the independent judiciary and its laws. The two judicial systems in the divided Palestinian territories now operate independently of each other.

IPS: International human rights organisations have expressed concern about the number of Palestinians receiving the death penalty. What is your stand on this? TA: Actually the death penalty was abolished under an Israeli military order during the seventies when Israel controlled the West Bank's legal system. The current civil and criminal courts of the PA still can't implement the death penalty. The death sentences that were handed out here were by PA military courts.

We have a problem with this and want to limit the jurisdiction of the military courts and return the trial of civilians guilty of treason, and other offences warranting capital punishment, to the civilian courts. A draft bill to this effect is currently before PA President Mahmoud Abbas who controls the West Bank.

And actually we are discussing the return of the death penalty to the civil courts. This is consistent with our Islamic beliefs and this is also supported by a number of religious leaders. It is not the place of the international community to impose its value system on us.

IPS: Do you see yourself as a role model for the next generation of Palestinian women, and what do you think should be done to promote women in law in Palestine? TA: I would hope that I could be a role model for the younger women of my generation. I think girls should be encouraged through special programmes initiated by the Judicial Council, which should also support and guide female lawyers.

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