Ikram El—Qaisi’s phone has been ringing constantly in recent weeks. The 45-year-old Palestinian lawyer, whose fifth-floor office sits atop a ritzy mall in Ramallah, specializes in divorce, and most of her clients are women. Until recently, the divorce business was slow in the West Bank. As in other parts of the Muslim world, the law in the Palestinian territories prevented women from unilaterally ending their marriages. Instead, a woman had to ask her husband for a divorce and, if he refused, prove in court that he was abusive or neglectful—often a long and expensive legal process. Without tangible evidence, cases were often tossed out. But changes in the law earlier this month giving judges the right to grant a divorce even without proof of abuse or neglect have suddenly shifted the dynamic. Across the West Bank, courts are being inundated with divorce filings. And El-Qaisi is hearing from potential new clients every day. “I’m getting calls from worried husbands who are inquiring about their precarious status in the context of the [new] law, and… from women who had given up on achieving divorce,” she told Newsweek recently. “Now they feel they can get their freedom back.”
The reforms are the work of Sheikh Yousef al-Dais, the head of the Palestinian Authority’s Islamic court system. A portly man who sports a turban, al-Dais chuckles at the thought of men worrying that they will now have to shape up or face the prospect of their wives leaving them. In an interview, al-Dais said that when he took the job in 2010, he worried that Islamic law was becoming less and less relevant to Palestinians, whose society is among the most liberal in the Arab world—at least in the West Bank (Gaza, run by the Islamic group Hamas, is more conservative). And so one of al-Dais’s first moves was to appoint younger judges whose worldview reflects the Palestinian mainstream. Turning to family issues, he discovered that husbands were routinely extorting money from their wives as a price for granting divorce—while they themselves were free to take on additional wives without having to end the marriage. “Under the old law, these women suffered tremendously within the context of a conservative, male-oriented society,” says al-Dais. “I worked to achieve ... what is possible and reasonable.”
The changes won’t solve every marriage problem in the West Bank. Granting the divorce is still left to the discretions of judges, who are all men. Women who do win favorable judgments are expected to pay back their dowries, a tall order for many. But the new law will certainly ease the process for women, including those who are contractually engaged but never married—a subcategory of the wider problem. One such woman, a college student who did not want to be identified by name for fear of repercussions, told Newsweek that she has been engaged for four years, but her fiancé will neither marry her nor let her out of the engagement. “We started to fight, and he started to abuse me in front of my classmates,” she says. “He dragged me one day in front of them and tried to put me in his car. When I refused to get in, he slammed the door in my face. But no one would testify in my favor for fear of his bullying.” The woman said she’d offered to return the dowry and other money he’d spent on her, but he kept raising the price. Under the new law, he can no longer turn her down. “I feel alive again,” she says.