Skip to main content

How Are Women Faring in Islamic Courts? Anthropological and Historical Perspectives from Malaysia

 By Michael G. Peletz
Department of Anthropology, Emory University

We live in a time when headlines about Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq dominate many Westerners’ understandings of Muslims, Islam, and Islamic law (sharia) in particular. We typically hear very little if anything about “ordinary Muslims”, who are neither political nor religious elites and are not in the forefront of political or religious movements. Our understandings of Muslims and the lived realities of sharia are further limited by two additional factors. First, most discussions of Islam and sharia that unfold in Western media and other venues of Western culture focus on the Middle East and North Africa, largely ignoring South and Southeast Asia, home to more than half the world’s Muslims. And second, many of these discussions fail to critically engage -- indeed, some of them actively reproduce -- centuries-old Western stereotypes suggesting that, throughout the Muslim world, harsh, medieval punishments are routinely administered to women in the name of Islam. In many cases, these latter stereotypes are entailments of more encompassing views purporting that Islamic and other types of religious law are invariably exceedingly conservative if not altogether backward looking and deeply unfriendly to women, even when they are relatively reform-oriented and “this-worldly”.

My essay, “Are Women Getting(More) Justice? Malaysia’s Sharia Courtsin Ethnographic and Historical Perspective”, aims to help ameliorate this situation. It does so by exploring the practice and lived entailments of Islamic family law and gender pluralism in Malaysia, arguably the most economically successful Muslim-majority nation in the world, based on ethnographic fieldwork I have conducted since the late 1970s. The essay focuses on the routine, everyday practices of Malaysia’s Islamic courts and the changes that have occurred in the court’s discourses and practices in recent decades, particularly as they relate to ordinary Muslim women. My research reveals that these courts are more timely and flexible in responding to women’s claims than in times past, and that they are more inclined to punish husbands who transgress sharia family law bearing on women. In addition, women nowadays have far more access to resources for negotiating marriage, its dissolution, and the aftermath. This is not to say that women and men experience marriage, divorce, or the sharia juridical field as social equals; they do not. But this situation is changing in ways that benefit women as long as they embrace increasingly salient and restrictive codes of obedience and heteronormativity. More broadly, my essay problematizes tensions and oppositions between Islamic law and women’s rights that are the subject of considerable scholarly debate; in these and other ways, it contributes to our understanding of the complex entanglements of religion and law.

Popular posts from this blog

Europeanization or National Specificity? Legal Approaches to Sexual Harassment in France, 2002–2012

By Abigail Saguy, UCLA

Sexual harassment represents a massive problem for working women worldwide. A recent social media campaign has brought increased awareness to this fact. In late 2017—after three-dozen women accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, assault, or rape—millions of women posted “Me Too” on Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, and other social media platforms. Taking inspiration from African American activist Tarana Burke—who, in 2007, started an offline “Me Too” campaign to let sex abuse survivors know that they were not alone—actress Alyssa Milano launched this online Me Too campaign to shift the focus from Weinstein to victims. She hoped this would “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”[1] While some posted simply, “Me Too,” others provided wrenching detail about abuse they had sometimes never before shared publicly. In France, a similar social media campaign flourished, under the hashtag “balance ton porc,” loosely translated as “sq…

Comment: Making valid claims in social science research: A comment on Jenness and Calavita

By Tom Tyler, Yale Law School

I am writing to comment on several methodological issues raised by the article by Valerie Jenness and Kitty Calavita, entitled “It depends on the outcome”: Prisoners, grievances, and perceptions of justice”. I am pleased that the methodology blog for Law and Society Review has been created and provides a forum to discuss research design issues. I will address three aspects of the study: operationalization of the variables; statistical analysis; and inclusiveness of the literature review.

The Jenness/Calavita paper studies California prisons using data collected through interviews with prisoners. The paper says that it tests the perceptual procedural justice model, in particular there are frequent references to the Tyler model, in a prison setting. The study concludes that “prisoners privilege the actual outcome of disputes as their barometer of justice” showing “the dominance of substantive outcomes” (from the abstract)”.

I agree with Jenness and Cala…

The Roots of Life Without Parole Sentencing

By Christopher Seeds, New York University

Since the early 1970s, life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (LWOP)—an extreme prison sentence offering no reasonable possibility of release—has emerged as a routine legal sanction and penal practice in the United States. A century, even several decades ago, this would have been unexpected. Yet today, with more than 50,000 prisoners so sentenced and hundreds of laws authorizing it, LWOP is firmly entrenched in American penal policy, in judicial and prosecutorial decisionmaking, and in public discourse. Two general theses—one depicting LWOP as a replacement penalty for capital crimes; another linking LWOP with tough-on-crime sentencing policy of the mass incarceration era—have served as working explanations for this phenomenon. In the absence of in-depth studies, however, there has been little evidence with which to carefully evaluate these narratives.

My article, “Disaggregating LWOP: Life Without Parole, Capital Punishment, and …