restricted access Gender and Islam in Africa: Rights, Sexuality, and Law ed. by Margot Badran (review)
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Reviewed by
Margot Badran, ed. Gender and Islam in Africa: Rights, Sexuality, and Law. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2011. Distributed by Stanford University Press. ix + 324 pp. Glossary. Bibliography. Contributors. Index. $60.00.Cloth.

In this pathbreaking interdisciplinary collection, Margot Badran brings together scholars from almost the entire continent—including West Africa, North Africa, South Africa, and the Horn—to render visible connections and contrasts that are frequently lost in the balkanization of work on Islam. This volume goes a long way toward showing the centrality of gender dynamics to the contemporary ferment over how to define a modern Islamic future in Africa, and it places women as agents and interpreters of Islam at the center of these debates. Rather than simply celebrating female agency as an end it itself, the authors provide sensitive studies of how women negotiate complex discursive and political terrains.

The volume opens with Beverly Mack's vivid depiction of female scholarship in a Sufi milieu through an examination of the life and words of a Nana Asma'u. Similarly, Ousseina Alidou's exploration of the life and words of an Islamic commentator on radio and television in Niger sheds light on the broader sociopolitical context and the processes that favor the emergence of authorized female scholarship. In a particularly striking contribution, Sa'diyya Shaikh provides a close study of how South African Muslim women come to interpret Islam in light of their experiences of gender violence in marriage. Terming this situation "embodied tafsir," she argues that some women developed a kind of alternative Islamic ethics that emphasizes humanity and justice and rejects the patriarchal ideology of feminine submission in marriage.

A number of the contributions consider transnational movements and cultural flows to show, in interesting ways, both the globally interconnected [End Page 211] nature of Islamic subjectivities and their historical specificity. Lidwien Kapteijns explores the contours of "moral womanhood" in Somali popular songs before and after the collapse of Somalia, showing how the figure of the "moral woman" shifted from one in which women's traditional Somali qualities and clan identity were featured to one in which their Islamic purity became central. In a refreshing glimpse of the specificities of Islamic missionization by the originally South Asian Tabligh Jama'at in The Gambia, Marloes Janson explores some of the contradictions of a movement that combines feminine marital domesticity with an imperative to evangelize. Heike Behrend offers an entertaining exploration of a Hausa remake of Titanic—a promising vehicle for an extravaganza revisiting themes of arranged marriage and romantic love which ultimately flopped because it was neither "authentic" nor "original."

In the most theoretically honed contribution to the volume, Raja Rhouni argues persuasively that Fatima Mernissi "ultimately reinforce[d] foundationalist thinking" (84) by limiting herself to the reasoning of fiqh . Rhouni proposes instead a "postfoundationalist islamic [sic] gender critique" that would situate Islamic tradition in the context of history and culture (84). While activists in Nigeria have had encouraging success in overturning hudud convictions using the logic of fiqh , Margot Badran notes that many women she interviewed nevertheless resent the ways in which male scholars have interpreted shari'a to constrain women rather than emphasizing the themes of justice, accountability, and fairness: "Women repeatedly stressed the need for women themselves to interpret the Qur'an and fiqh, the core project of Islamic feminism" (205).

The final contributions to the volume take up the legal issues involved in the definition of Islamic marriage. As Julie Pruzan-Jorgensen notes in her essay on the revision of the Mudawana in Morocco, "the main obstacles to reform can be profound societal disagreements of the interpretation of family law—and over who has the right to make such interpretations" (255). In her study of secret marriage in Mauritania, Corinne Fortier shows that both women and men find ways of interpreting Islamic jurisprudence in order to tailor it to their own interests. While the tensions over family law reform are often cast as epic struggles between conservative Islamists and modern feminists, Benjamin Soares shows that the failure of the secular Malian state to recognize the religious marriages of the overwhelming majority of the population has made it...