Judith Tucker's book is a welcome addition to Cambridge University Press' series on Islamic law under the editorship of Wael B. Hallaq. Tucker is a well-known historian of Islamic law and gender issues, especially the law of the Ottoman period.
Her approach is analytical: a "study of a multi-layered history". Her concern is primarily with the way Islamic law has been "gendered" in relation to both theory and practice, and in five chapters she examines areas of male/female relations that have been the subject of juristic speculation in the pre-modern, Ottoman and modern period.
As a social historian, Tucker is mainly interested in the interface between juristic doctrine and the lived experience of men and women in how they understood their rights within the legal debates. Although this book requires knowledge of both form and content of classical Islamic family law, it is written in an engaging and accessible style.
A broad introductory chapter allows the reader to become familiar with some of the more technical vocabulary and also the aims and limitations of this study. This is not meant to be an exhaustive study of women in Islamic law but is rather an analytical work that provides depth and breadth around some of the most important issues affecting male/female relations in classical jurisprudence, legal methodologies as well as contemporary debates.
Tucker's style is very descriptive in the way she "tells" the law. To a scholar of marriage, divorce and personal law, many of the areas she examines are familiar territory because they are familiar themes. Her presentation therefore does not always provide the detailed referencing one might expect in a textual analysis of a particular argument. However, when she develops her arguments from the classical texts to the Ottoman courts and finally to modern legislation with all its cultural and social changes we can discern the fluidity of juristic thinking, as well as the cultural and social challenges to contemporary practices. For example, in her analysis of divorce, or talak, laws, she is right to conclude that while most wives contribute to the family income alongside their husband, the law remains an "institution in which the man is the putative provider".
While it is difficult to assess from Tucker's analysis if any real changes have been made in this area of the law, she could have been even bolder in asserting that that this creates a distorted view of male/female contribution to the family income and discriminates against a more just financial settlement for the wife.
The fifth chapter is perhaps the most absorbing because it is here that Tucker looks at gendered space and issues of space, sexuality and the law. The modern reader may well recognise here some of the more popular discussions around male/female segregation, including the Muslim headscarf now commonly known as the hijab, but Tucker rightly places these debates within the context of demarcated space. She says at the outset that although the jurists held some views of gendered space, "there is no clear demarcation of a public space that belongs to men and a private space that belongs to women".
This may come as a surprise to many readers who define the Muslim world as a socially segregated world. But in the area of worship, which was obligatory upon men and women, it became imperative to define space where lust and vice would not deter the believer from duty to God.
Tucker's analysis of veiling, segregation and the juristic concern with minimising sex appeal leads the reader into her assessment of the crime of zina (illicit fornication). The chapter is an excellent overview of how concern for righteous behaviour leads to discriminatory practices, many of which continue to be challenged by those at the forefront of legal debate and cultural reform.
Women, Family, and Gender in Islamic Law
By Judith E. Tucker
Cambridge University Press
268pp, £45.00 and £17.99
ISBN 9780521830447 and 537476
Published 16 October 2008