Women and Colonial Legal Pluralism in Algeria

Episode 296

hosted by Edna Bonhomme and Sam Dolbee

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In French Algeria, the colonial imperatives of assimilation and difference gave birth to legal pluralism. In this episode, Dr. Sarah Ghabrial explains what it meant for Algerian women to have different legal structures operating at the same time. The ability to argue one's case in an Islamic court and also appeal it in French common law provided openings for women in matters of personal status. But it also had limits. They may have ultimately been able to divorce their husbands, but divorcing themselves from patriarchal structures of power proved more difficult, if not impossible. At the same time as legal codes changed, so, too, did medicine. As in much of the world, a state-sponsored scientific medicine, mostly practiced by men, began to crowd out local healing practices and knowledge of bodies, in many cases performed and possessed by women such as midwives. But it would have a particularly racialized impact in French Algeria. We also examine the impact of this change in court, where the latter form of medicine came to be an arbiter of truth, particularly in divorce cases. We close by shifting from matters of impotence to questions of agency, and how useful of a concept it is for this history.

This episode is part of a series entitled "Continuity and Transformation in Islamic Law."

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Contributor Bios

Sarah Ghabrial is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of History at Columbia University. Her current book project, Colonial Law and the Muslim Family in Algeria (1870-1930), uses social and gender history approaches and untapped judicial archives to examine the French governance of Islamic law in colonial Algeria. Her article, "The Traumas and Truths of the Body: Medical Evidence and Divorce in Colonial Algerian Courts” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies (November 2015) won the 2014 JMEWS Graduate Student Paper Prize.
Edna Bonhomme is a doctoral candidate in History of Science at Princeton University. Her dissertation focuses on the history of the bubonic plague in Cairo and Tunis during the outbreaks in the 1780s and 1790s. She graduated from Reed College in 2006 with a degree in Biology and from Columbia University with a master's in public health. Prior to pursuing history, she was a research assistant at the Oregon Health and Sciences University. In addition to academic work, she occasionally writes for Socialist Worker and Red Wedge Magazine.
Sam Dolbee is a PhD student completing his dissertation on the environmental history of the late-Ottoman and mandate-era Jazira region at New York University in the joint program in history and Middle Eastern and Islamic studies.

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Episode No. 296
Release Date: 7 February 2017
Recording Location: New York, NY
Audio editing by Chris Gratien
Music: from Excavated Shellac - Lili Labassi - Mazal Haye Mazal; Hocine Slaoui – Yal Cahlafrom archive.org - Harmandali - Recep Efendi, Cemal Efendi; Baglamamin Dugumu - Necmiye Ararat and Muzaffer
Special thanks to Kara Güneş for permission to use the composition "Istanbul"
Images and bibliography courtesy of Sarah Ghabrial


"Benni Yenni Couple," Source: Archives de la société des Missionnaires d'Afrique (Pères Blancs) in Rome; courtesy of Sarah Ghabrial

Select Bibliography

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Agmon, Iris. Family & Court: Legal Culture and Modernity in Late Ottoman Palestine. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2006.

Amster, Ellen J. Medicine and the saints: science, Islam, and the colonial encounter in Morocco, 1877-1956. Austin, TX : University of Texas Press, 2013.

Benton, Lauren. Law and colonial cultures: Legal regimes in world history, 1400-1900. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Charnay, Jean Paul. La vie musulmane en Algérie, d'après la jurisprudence de la première moitié du XXe siècle. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1965.

Christelow, Allan. Muslim law courts and the French colonial state in Algeria. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Cuno, Kenneth M. Modernizing Marriage Family, Ideology, and Law in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Egypt. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2015.

Dennerlein, Bettina. Legalizing” the family: dispute about marriage, paternity and divorce in Algerian courts, 1963-1990. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Doumani, Beshara. Family History in the Middle East Household, Property, and Gender. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003.

Fierro, Maribel. “Ill-treated Women Seeking Divorce: The Qur'anic Two Arbiters and Judicial Practice among the Malikis in al-Andalus and North Africa” in Masud, Muhammad K, Rudolph Peters, and David S. Powers (eds.) Dispensing justice in Islam: Qadis and their judgments. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006, 323-347.

Ghabrial, Sarah. “The Traumas and Truths of the Body: Medical Evidence and Divorce in Colonial Algerian Courts,” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 11.3 (November 2015): 283-305.

Kateb, Kamel. La fin du mariage traditionnel en Algérie? 1876-1998: Une exigence d’égalité des sexes. Saint-Denis : Bouchène, 2001.

Larguèche, Dalenda. “Women, Family Affairs, and Justice: Tunisia in the 19th Century.” The History of the Family. 16.2 (2011): 142-151.

Lazreg, Marnia. The eloquence of silence: Algerian women in question. New York: Routledge. 1994.

Masud, Muhammad K., R. Peters, and D. S. Powers (eds.). Dispensing justice in Islam: Qadis and their judgments. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2006.

Mayer, Ann Elizabeth. “Reform of Personal Status Laws in North Africa: A Problem of Islamic or Mediterranean Laws?” Middle East Journal. 49.3 (1995): 432-446.

Meriwether, Margaret L, and Judith E. Tucker. Social History of Women and Gender in the Modern Middle East. Boulder, Colo: Westview Press, 1999.

Mir-Hosseini, Ziba. Marriage on Trial: Islamic Family Law in Iran and Morocco. London: I.B. Tauris, 2000.

Saï, Fatima Zohra. Le statut politique et le statut familial des femmes en Algérie. Thesis,  l’Université d’Oran es-Senia: 2007.

Shaham, Ron. The Expert witness in Islamic courts: Medicine and Crafts in the Service of Law. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Sonbol, Amira El Azhary (ed.). Women, the family, and divorce laws in Islamic history. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1996.

Tucker, Judith. In the house of law: gender and Islamic law in Ottoman Syria and Palestine Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Tucker, Judith. Women, family, and gender in Islamic law. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2008.


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