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LEGAL RIGHTS AND WOMEN'S AUTONOMY: CAN FAMILY LAW REFORM IN MUSLIM COUNTRIES AVOID THE CONTRADICTIONS OF VICTORIAN DOMESTICITY?

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In early- and mid-nineteenth century England, numerous law reformers targeted the law of coverture. Under this law married women lost custody of children, lost any property they brought, could not make a will or enter into a contract once they married, and they could not seek a divorce if their marriage broke down under the doctrine that husband and wife were a single unit before the law. The discourse of the reform debates, however, presented women as either violent and intemperate, and thus requiring the chains of coverture to keep them from bringing down the pillars of civil society. Or, they were seen as victims in sore need of the law's protection from violent and intemperate men. At no time were they viewed as legal agents, capable of exercising rights responsibly or as rational actors, who could be entrusted with the care and control of raising children single-handedly. But as the law changed to accommodate demands for women's rights, it is clear that women did not destroy civil society, nor have they attained equal power and autonomy with men. Thus, in looking at the reforms, and the forces that inhibited the reforms in Victorian England, we can begin to think more critically about how law reforms occur, how men and women are situated, and how barriers to equality frustrate legal change. With that history, I believe we are better situated to understand the demands for change in family law and women's rights in Muslim countries. Much of the rhetoric is ironically familiar. And I argue that knowledge of the pitfalls that threatened legal change in the Anglo-American west can help us avoid them in law reform arenas across the Muslim world. Of course, it is not simply that by learning our history we can hope not to repeat it. Rather, by understanding the complex interplay of reformist arguments and conservative pressures, we are better able to see beneath the rhetoric to the power structures inhibiting women's autonomy that lurk beneath the surface.

Affiliations: 1: University of Florida Levin College of Law

10.1163/156920807781787626
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/content/journals/10.1163/156920807781787626
2007-04-01
2016-12-10

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