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Reviewed by:
  • Islamic Law, Gender and Social Change in Post-Abolition Zanzibar by Elke Stockreiter
  • Nathalie Arnold Koenings
Islamic Law, Gender and Social Change in Post-Abolition Zanzibar, by Elke Stockreiter New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015; pp. xv + 277, $99.00 cloth.

The past decade has seen the publication of a number of excellent historical and anthropological texts that illuminate previously little-explored but crucial aspects of Zanzibar’s colonial past. Consonant with a growing trend in Islamic studies, several works have paid particular attention to courts and to court documents as important sources of information about participants’ perceptions of and contributions to shaping social discourse.1 Several of these have newly textualized women’s lives, their material concerns, their negotiation and performance of social status, and the texture of their agency.2 Zanzibar has historically been a highly plural and variously stratified society, and its legacy of slavery has long been explored and debated by both outside scholars and Zanzibaris; recent works have also weighed in on questions of identity and identity formation in fresh and creative ways.3 Elke Stockreiter’s densely argued and nuanced examination of over 60 years of Islamic kadhi court documents from Zanzibar, written with particular interest in what these suggest about the effects of abolition, is a sophisticated and highly welcome contribution to this currently [End Page 159] flourishing literature. Deploying a refined understanding of Islamic law, Stockreiter undertakes a substantive and intricate exploration of the kadhi court as an institution, the people who sought redress there, and the issues that most moved them. While maintaining a close focus on the Zanzibari legal context, Stockreiter reveals a far-ranging knowledge of legal history, across the African continent as well as the Middle East and Southeast Asia. This complex and fascinating book is by no means an introductory text; it will be of great interest to scholars in a broad range of fields, including legal anthropology, Islamic studies, African history, and gender studies, as well as to students of East Africa and the Indian Ocean World.

Stockreiter’s principal interest lies in accessing and highlighting women’s post-abolition presence and agency as these are suggested by kadhi court records over time, starting in 1897 and ending just prior to the Zanzibar Revolution in 1963. Not all family law cases in Zanzibar were resolved in kadhi courts, as other methods of dispute resolution existed (for example, the practice of consulting neighborhood and community elders, as well as petitioning kadhis in their homes rather than at court). The court records are necessarily partial, and it is hard for a reader to gauge how representative the cases for which documentation is available are of disputes addressed in other fora. Nonetheless, Stockreiter takes readers on a richly detailed and convincing thematic journey through the intimate and naturally polarizing fields of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and the management and contestation of the terms of personal debt.

Writing against the long-standing and obscuring proposition that Zanzibari women’s lives have been shaped above all else by patriarchies both Islamic and colonial, Stockreiter is emphatic about kadhis’ explicit recognition of women as legal persons and economic actors (as is inscribed in sharia law), and about women’s thoughtful and intentional assumption of these roles. Stockreiter’s research shows that women of all backgrounds found in kadhi courts a forum that enabled them to declare, establish, and seek to protect their rights. Women came to kadhi courts with their own economic and social survival in mind; certainly they came as wives seeking assistance and redress, but they also came as claimants in inheritance cases and as property owners themselves. Circumspectly, Stockreiter insists on the partial nature of the sources, and on the multiple ways in which any one case or litigant might be viewed. Nonetheless, the women whose actions and intentions we glimpse are engaged and agentive. In kadhi courts, [End Page 160] Zanzibari women proved themselves highly capable of understanding and exploiting differences between various schools of Islamic thought; securing skilled and appropriate representation; denying husbands financial gain or loaning money to them; managing their reputations through attentiveness to social expectations of piety; and, overall, insisting on their views...


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pp. 159-165
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