Feminisms, Empowerment and Development: Changing Women's Lives

Feminisms, Empowerment and Development: Changing Women's Lives

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The economic and political empowerment of women continues to be a central focus for development agencies worldwide; access to medical care, education and employment, as well as women's reproductive rights remain key factors effecting women's autonomy. This book explores what women are doing to change their own circumstances, and provides in-depth analysis of collective action and institutionalized mechanisms aimed at changing structural relations.

Drawing on unique, original research and approaching empowerment as a complex process of negotiation, rather than a linear sequence of inputs and outcomes, this crucial collection highlights the difficulty of creating common agendas for the advancement of women's power and rights, and argues for a more nuanced, context based approach to development theory and practice.

An indispensible text for anyone interested in gender and development.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781780325835
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 04/01/2014
Series: Feminisms and Development Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Andrea Cornwall is professor of anthropology and international development in the School of Global Studies at Sussex University. She is coeditor of Dislocating Masculinity and Men and Development.

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Feminisms, Empowerment and Development

Changing Women's Lives

By Andrea Cornwall, Jenny Edwards

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2014 Andrea Cornwall and Jenny Edwards
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78032-586-6


Legal Reform, Women's Empowerment and Social Change

The Case of Egypt

Mulki Al-Sharmani

Feminist legal scholarship over the past three decades has, on the one hand, shed light on the importance of law as a mechanism of oppression of women as well as a pathway to their empowerment, and on the other hand grappled with the complexities and contradictions of the roles that law and legal reform can play in the lives of women both at the macro and at the micro levels (Mackinnon 1987; Smart 1989; Mussman 1991; Thornton 1991; Boyd 1994; Kapur and Cossman 1994; Wang 2004). What this scholarship suggests is that both the potential transformative benefits of the law and the challenges it can pose for women lie beyond its functional role as a tool of claiming or denying rights. This work draws attention to the gendering nature and effects of the legal process itself, and the contribution that this makes to the construction and reproduction of discriminating and marginalizing gender norms.

The literature also suggests the need to pay close attention to processes through which legal reforms are introduced, debated and implemented in order to understand more fully the outcomes of these reforms, and their often mixed and contradictory effects on women. Kapur and Cossman (1994), for instance, argue that the process of legal reform is in fact more important than its outcomes because it is through the process that we can capture (and subvert) the discursive power of law and its complex interplay with other domains of the gendered lives of women and men (normative and social, for example). Writers also underscorethe importance of understanding the multi-dimensionality of the process through which legal empowerment or disempowerment works and the need to recognize that multiple actors (rather than merely the state) can have considerable influence on this process and its outcomes (Smart 1989; Boyd 1994).

In Egypt, family laws were reformed in the 2000s with the aim of facilitating and enhancing women's access to legal justice and empowerment. In 2000, a comprehensive procedural law (Personal Status Law, PSL No. 1) was passed, granting women the right to obtain no-fault divorce (khul) in exchange for giving up their rights to dower and alimony. In 2004, new family courts were established introducing a mediation-based and family-sensitive legal process. In that same year, PSL No. 11 was passed, which set up a government fund through which female disputants are paid court-ordered alimony. Finally, in 2005, PSL No. 4 was passed, which extended divorced mothers' rights to child custody until their children (boys or girls) reach 15. The outcomes of these reforms, however, have been mixed and for the most part still fall short of addressing the inequalities and vulnerabilities from which women suffer.

This chapter seeks to shed light on the complexities and contradictions of these family law reforms. It draws on ethnographic research carried out in 2007–10 that included interviews with female and male plaintiffs, judges, mediation specialists, lawyers, legislators, women's rights activists, public thinkers, religious scholars and members of the religious establishment, observation of court proceedings in family law cases, and a content analysis of court records. My analysis focuses on two issues, which complicate and perhaps diminish the transformative role that the new legal reforms can play in strengthening Egyptian women's rights and achieving gender justice. First, I argue that despite the recently passed laws, the institutional model of marriage that the state continues to uphold through its codes and court system is premised on gendered roles and rights for husbands and wives. This legal model of marriage, however, contradicts the realities of Egyptian marriages. Second, the incongruence between the agendas of different reform actors, their piecemeal approach, and their top-down and non-participatory strategies have had an inevitably mixed impact on the reform outcomes. This has meant that the multi-dimensionality and social embeddedness of the process of law making have not been taken into account adequately in the reform efforts undertaken by both state and non-state actors, thereby undermining the effectiveness and significance of these endeavours.

Constructing marriage in modern Egyptian family laws

Egypt, like all other Middle Eastern countries with the exception of Turkey, adopts family laws that are drawn from the doctrines of classical schools of Islamic law. Reform efforts thus have to engage with the model of marriage and marital relations that is sanctioned by Islamic legal schools. But is the Islamic model of marriage inherently discriminatory against women? Abu Odeh (2004) and Mir-Hosseini (2003) argue that the main schools of Islamic jurisprudence share a gendered model of marriage in which the relations between husbands and wives tend to be hierarchical. In this model, Islamic marriage is based on a contractual agreement between a man and a woman in which the husband has the duty to provide for his wife and their offspring, and, in return, the wife makes herself available to him and puts herself under his authority and protection. The husband's exclusive right to his wife's sexual and reproductive labour is earned through and conditioned upon his economic role. This model of marriage does not recognize shared matrimonial resources. Whatever possessions and assets the wife brings to the marriage remain hers. Likewise, apart from maintenance for herself and her children, the wife cannot make claims to resources acquired by the husband during marriage. In addition, the husband has a unilateral right to repudiation and polygamy.

Nonetheless, the schools of Islamic jurisprudence show considerable difference in the specificity of spousal rights and duties; this plurality often worked for women, as historical studies of pre-codification eras in the Muslim world show (Tucker 2008; Hallaq 2009). In fact, historians who have studied the trajectories of modern Muslim family laws argue that the gender inequality and biases against women found in present-day family codes cannot be explained away by their religious sources. For example, Abdel Rahim (1996) and Sonbol (2005) have traced the discrimination against women that is embedded in modern laws to modernist notions of building cohesive nuclear families that could be disciplined and controlled by modern nation states. Sonbol argues that the process of codification of Muslim family laws was based not only on the doctrines of one or several Islamic legal schools, but also on borrowings from colonial European laws. She shows that the project of subject making and nation building that was undertaken by modern Muslim nation states in the twentieth century incorporated modernist European notions that perceived nuclear families as the essential building blocks for progressive and well-governed societies. This discourse shifted the purpose of marriage from regulating a contractual relationship between a man and woman to creating nuclear families and maintaining their cohesiveness. Modern nation states saw the nuclear patriarchal family as the institution in which individuals were reproduced as citizens and dutiful members of the nation. To enable families to fulfil their roles in the process of subject making, these states devised family laws that regulated the rights and duties of family members. Husbands were bestowed the responsibility of heading the family and providing for its family members. In return for the protection and financial support that women and children received from the husband/father, they owed him obedience and submission.

Article 1 in Egypt's first codified family code, PSL No. 25 of 1920, defines a husband's main role as being the provider for his wife, while the role of the latter is to be sexually available to the husband. The law, furthermore, makes a wife's right to her husband's financial support conditional on her fulfilment of her sexual role – she is expected to be physically available in the conjugal home. Article 11 in PSL No. 25 stipulates that a wife who is found by the court to be disobedient (nashiz) loses her right to her husband's financial support. Disobedience is defined as a wife's refusal to reside in the conjugal home with her husband. The law stipulates that this home has to be adequate and safe and the court needs to ascertain that the wife's desertion was not due to a reason sanctioned by the social norms (urf). The law does not spell out what these reasons are, but it is commonly understood that these would include leaving the conjugal home to visit extended family or to seek education or health care. Whether a wife's leaving the conjugal home for work is considered a socially acceptable reason has been contested by litigants and judges. According to law PSL No. 100 of 1985, if a wife has written in her marriage contract that she holds a job, a husband cannot bring an obedience ordinance case against her on the basis of her going out to work.

The subsequent family code (PSL No. 25 of 1929) also granted both spouses rights on a basis that was unequal and discriminatory against women in many aspects. Men had an unfettered right to unilateral repudiation and polygamy, and they enjoyed full guardianship over their children; whereas women had highly restricted access to divorce and could not be the legal guardians of their children even when they were the custodial parents. The new Egyptian Child Law, which was passed in June 2008, grants custodial female parents guardianship over their children. However, existing personal status laws still deny this.

In 1979, the late President Sadat decreed PSL No. 44 of 1979, which included revolutionary reforms. PSL No. 44 protected working women from obedience ordinance suits from their husbands on the grounds of their leaving the conjugal home to work, and affirmed their right to spousal financial support. Other reforms included a wife's automatic right to judicial divorce if her husband enters into a new marriage without her having to prove injury; and her right to the conjugal home in the case of divorce if she has the custody of the children. The new law also legislated mut'a (indemnity) for women who are divorced by their husbands without their desire or fault (Fawzy 2004). To avoid opposition from the religious establishment, Islamist groups and other conservative factions in society, President Sadat decreed the law at a time when Parliament was not in session. PSL No. 44 of 1979, however, was later annulled by the High Supreme Court in 1985 because the process through which it was passed was ruled to be unconstitutional. That same year, its replacement (PSL No. 100) was passed. The new law lacked many of the revolutionary articles of its predecessor.

Thus, marriage as constructed by the Egyptian modern laws is one in which a husband supports his wife and children, provides them with an adequate and safe conjugal home, and is considered by the legal institution as the guardian and leader of this family unit. In exchange, a wife is expected to fulfil the sexual needs of her husband, to be physically available in the conjugal home, and to care for the children, although she cannot claim guardianship over them. Her role is sexualized and her rights are unequal to her husband's. But does this institutional model of marriage fit with the lived experiences of Egyptian women and men?

Lived experiences of marriage

Marriage continues to be an important social institution in which Egyptians invest to seek stability, security and social acceptability as well as to forge social and economic alliances between families. For the women interviewed for this study, the process of getting married involved finding a partner, negotiating each partner's share of the costs of marriage, and entering into marriage with adequate protection against divorce and abandonment. However, these different aspects of the process were not necessarily congruent with one another. Negotiations and compromises had to be made. Some women strategized better than others, but many entered into marriages that were inherently based on precarious foundations such as reliance on meagre resources that were shared with in-laws; the husband's irregular employment status; discrepancy between husband's and wife's perceptions of their financial roles in the marriage and the realities of their economic needs; pursuit of partners with economic assets at the expense of emotional and educational compatibility; as well as the unequal and hierarchical legal rights and obligations of husbands and wives. Many of the interviewed women worked before marriage. Some continued to work after marriage either regularly or intermittently, while others gave up their jobs. But the majority of the women were sceptical about the notion that work strengthened their marital rights and relations.

The legal gendering of marriage takes place through the interplay between different state codes (labour, social security and family), which is often disempowering to women. It is not only the case that gendered notions of men's and women's roles in family laws contribute to labour or social security laws that discriminate against women and their spouses; in addition, labour or social security laws that discriminate against women destabilize their marriages. For example, widowed women are sometimes forced to enter into unregistered marriages (urfi), in which they can make no legal claim to financial support or inheritance from their second husbands, in order that they can keep the pensions of their deceased first partners. Also, in the course of this research, I have come across married women in their sixties whose husbands did not support their families because either they earned very little and intermittently from informal labour, or because they were absent partners who repeatedly abandoned and then returned to the conjugal home. The wives engaged in a variety of informal occupations to make ends meet and were at a stage of their lives in which they could no longer sustain work because of poor health. A number of these women were in the process of divorcing their husbands through khul because they wanted to be eligible for monthly payments from the state's social aid and assistance programme (SAA). According to SAA regulations, in order to receive monthly cash, female beneficiaries have to prove that they are in dire economic need and that they are divorced, widowed, or have been deserted by their husbands for at least four years. In fact, studies of government welfare in the past decade and a half show that programmes such as the SAA are operated on the basis of a philosophy and work practice that gender the roles and needs of their female beneficiaries and expect them to be in abject poverty and without a male provider (Bibars 2001; Sabry 2005).

The new family courts: implementation challenges

Effective implementation of the new laws is impaired by a number of shortcomings, which in effect impede women's access to justice. For instance, the failure to obligate disputants to attend mediation sessions results in making pre-litigation mediation an ineffective resolution tool. In addition, lack of resources, enforcement mechanisms and adequate training of court personnel diminish the effectiveness of the alternative mechanisms of dispute resolution that the new court system offers.

Most of all, the legal process in the new court system is gendered through its discourse and practices. In this discourse, women are considered emotional and hasty, and therefore incapable of making rational decisions about ending their marriages. Some of the interviewed mediation specialists and court experts believe that women resort to khul hastily over petty reasons such as a disagreement over the colour of upholstery in the conjugal home. This scepticism about women's rationality, particularly when it comes to decisions about divorce, is also accompanied by practices that some mediation specialists and judges use when they attempt to reconcile disputants. A common practice is to warn the female disputant of the difficulties and stigma that await her if she becomes a divorced woman. In one of the observed court sessions, for example, the senior judge tried to persuade a plaintiff to reconsider her divorce claim by warning her that her young daughter would probably have a difficult life with limited marriage prospects and respectability if her mother became a divorcee through khul. In addition, this legal discourse depicts female sexuality as the object of her husband's control. It is assumed by lawyers and judges that it is men's legal obligation to guard the sexual honour of their wives. Thus, lawyers' briefsand court judgements often contain legal claims that are based on this notion. However, the texts of the substantive laws, while affirming men's financial obligation towards their wives, do not assign husbands an obligation to protect the sexual honour of their wives.


Excerpted from Feminisms, Empowerment and Development by Andrea Cornwall, Jenny Edwards. Copyright © 2014 Andrea Cornwall and Jenny Edwards. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Negotiating Empowerment
Andrea Cornwall and Jenny Edwards

1.Legal Reform, Women’s Empowerment and Social Change: The Case of Egypt
Mulki Al-Sharmani

2.Quotas: A Pathway of Political Empowerment?
Ana Alice Alcantara Costa

3. Advancing Women’s Empowerment or Rolling Back the Gains? Peace Building in Post-Conflict Sierra Leone
Hussaina J. Abdullah

4. Education: Pathway to Empowerment for Ghanaian Women?
Akosua K. Darkwah

5. Paid Work as a Pathway of Empowerment: Pakistan’s Lady Health Worker Programme
Ayesha Khan

6. Steady Money, State Support and Respect Can Equal Women’s Empowerment in Egypt
Hania Sholkamy

7. Changing Representations of Women in Ghanaian Popular Music
Akosua Adomako Ampofo and Awo Mana Asiedu

8. Subversively Accommodating: Feminist Bureaucrats and Gender Mainstreaming
Rosalind Eyben

9. Reciprocity, Distancing and Opportunistic Overtures: Women’s Organizations Negotiating Legitimacy and Space in Bangladesh
Sohela Nazneen and Maheen Sultan

10. Empowerment as Resistance: Conceptualizing Palestinian Women’s Empowerment
Eileen Kuttab

11. Crossroads of Empowerment: The Organization of Women Domestic Workers in Brazil
Terezinha Gonçalves

12. Women’s Dars and the Limitations of Desire: The Pakistan Case
Neelam Hussain

13. The Power of Relationships: Money, Love and Solidarity in a Landless Women's Organization in Rural Bangladesh
Naila Kabeer and Lopita Huq

14. Women Watching Television: Surfing between Fantasy and Reality
Aanmona Priyadarshini and Samia Afroz Rahim

15. Family, Households and Women's Empowerment through the Generations in Bahia, Brazil: Continuities or Change?
Cecilia M. B. Sardenberg

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