The Asymmetrical Representation of Gender in Islamic Family Law

Nahda Shehada

Research output: Chapter/Conference proceedingChapterAcademic


On 16 March 2015, the prestigious Al-Jazeera journalist, Rula Amin, was arrested at her home in Amman, Jordan. Amin was accused of refusing to relinquish custody over her 5-year old daughter to her ex-husband, who is a well-connected Jordanian businessman, Mohamed al-Ajlouni. Amin’s arrest sparked a strong outcry not only from her circle of close colleagues and friends, but also from the general public, civil society organizations, and women’s rights activists in the wider Middle East. The unexpected rally behind Amin caused huge embarrassment to the Kingdom, and to Queen Rania who describes herself as the beacon of women’s rights in the inflamed Middle East. This compelled the Jordanian authorities to release Amin temporarily until a higher judicial authority reconsiders the case. Indeed, Rula Amin is not alone in this situation; millions of Muslim women—to different degrees in different contexts—experience the same difficulty in obtaining custody over their children. In fact, custody rights are only one among many discriminatory, gendered features in Islamic family law, which is carefully and powerfully structured in asymmetrical terms. The case of Rula Amin will here be used as a window to examine the relation between law and society in general, and more specifically between Islamic family law and Muslim societies. The chapter will review the various approaches to this issue so as to emphasize that law—Islamic law being no exception—is secondary to social relations, including gender relations, within societies. It is therefore a grave mistake to think that gender asymmetry in many Muslim societies results from the existence or the operation of Islamic law. Nonetheless, one must not fall towards the other extreme and ignore the role of law and legal institutions in stabilizing, constraining, or revolutionizing gender relations. This approach leads one to focus on the intersection of law with other social relations that produce the current gendered social realities observed in Muslim societies. The chapter will start by a general sketch of Islamic family law and its asymmetrical representation of gender rights, followed by a number of case studies that shall elucidate the intersection of law and other social relations. A more detailed analysis will constitute the bulk of the chapter. Finally, a number of concluding remarks will be made.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWomen, Law and Culture: Conformity, Contradictions and Conflict
EditorsJ.A. Scutt
Place of PublicationLondon
Publication statusPublished - 2016

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