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Female Palestinian Lawyer to Speak at The UN For International Women’s Month

Scarlet Bishara is a judge in the Ecclesiastical Court of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land and a member of Beit Jala congregation. Photo: Ben Gray/LWF

West Bank/New York – As the only female in the entire Middle East serving as a judge on the church Ecclesiastical Court which governs family matters among Christians, attorney Scarlet Bishara, a member of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL), will be a panelist at the United Nations’ Sixty-Third Commission on the Status of Women (CSW63) in New York, USA on 13 March.

The UN Bureau of the Commission will meet 11 – 22 March 2019, to reaffirm statements and review future strategies that support the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) document adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979.

Bishara will speak during a side event, organized by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the Church of Sweden, on the topic of Religious Actors Promoting Gender Equality Through Personal Status Laws in Palestine as a social protection system.

After the recognition and establishment of the Lutheran Ecclesiastical Court in 2014 by the Palestinian Authority, and inspired by the LWF Gender Justice policy, the ELCJHL established a groundbreaking amendment to its Personal Status laws in 2015.

I hear them.

Attorney Scarlet Bishara

One example of changes to the policy was an increase in the age that a girl can be allowed to marry from 14 years old to 18 years old.

Suad Younan, then head of the ELCJHL Women’s Committee and co-organizer of a 45-member seminar which launched the Arabic language Gender Policy in 2016, continues to encourage striving for equality in all religions and in the government.

“[It is important for the ELCJHL] to use its prophetic voice and effective tools to challenge ecclesiastical and socio-political fixtures,” Younan said in a 2016 LWF article.

The Personal Status Laws are cases such as divorce, inheritance, child custody, alimony, and other family matters, such as marriage age as mentioned above.

In Palestine, legal cases concerning the family are handled by the religious community.  Outside of the Islamic Sharia court, there are four Christian Ecclesiastical courts: the Catholic, the Anglican, the Orthodox and the Lutheran courts. Each of these denominations has its own law.

Bishara says that because of the culture, when a case reaches the Ecclesiastical court it is usually the last resort for a family, especially for women.

Most of the time the women come to the courts after consulting the family, their fathers, and their pastors. Bishara says that often they continue to face suffering because usually, particularly in the case of the Catholic and some Orthodox churches, they are judged by unmarried men – priests.

“As an unmarried man, it is difficult for them to understand the situation of women,” Bishara said.

She explains that because of the culture, most of the men will place the blame on the wife first, saying, ‘she didn’t cook well, and made her husband angry. She didn’t raise the children well, or she didn’t satisfy her husband, therefore, he beat her.’ This is the cultural norm that we face in the Middle East.”

As a woman, Bishara says her role as a female judge is simple… “I hear them [the women].”

She also understands the consequences of not listening to women. In the past, many were turned away and told to ‘be patient’ or to give their husband another chance, which has led to women and children being badly hurt by domestic violence.

“I am trusted with their stories because I am a woman.”

Bishara says that her male colleagues, the two ELCJHL pastors and head of the court, ELCJHL Bishop Sani Ibrahim Azar, respect her insights, support her position as judge, and accept her decisions in cases, fully.  She stated that Bishop Azar, installed as bishop of the ELCJHL January 2018, has given his blessings to continue the progressive work of gender equality within the church.

“She understands how other women are feeling. She explains things that the men don’t understand,” said Bishop Azar.

“She represents us in a good way. We notice the positive outcomes of what we have today with her on the court as judge.”

Bishara wrote in her paper to the UN,  “the Lutheran Family Law of 2015 provides a sustainable framework for answering questions raised about how to rectify gender imbalances in the personal status laws in Palestine that are still promulgated by religious institutions of all faith backgrounds.”

Her message to the commission is that the Lutheran Family Law can serve as a theological- and biblical-inspired model that other religious communities can use to craft their own laws guided by gender equality, including the Islamic laws.

“The religious communities in Palestine are uniquely positioned to champion the rights of women in Palestine.”

During her discussion with the CSW63, Bishara is excited about the future possibilities of the ELCJHL’s gender policy. She hopes to eventually see one ecumenical law for all Christians that upholds justice for all woman.

Overall, she believes that because of the dual court systems in the Middle East, civil and religious, it is the religious community that will be the leaders in a just system for women.

“Change in the Arab world is in the hands of the faith leaders.”

Dina Nasser, a health advisor to the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem, site coordinator for the Juzoor International Training Center in the West Bank, and an expert on hospital infection control is also a panelist with Bishara during the UN CSW63 side event.