Organized Panel Session
Religious law in Asia and elsewhere is commonly understood as deeply conservative and unfriendly to women, even when it is reform-oriented and “this-worldly”. This paper challenges that understanding. It does so by engaging the practice and lived entailments of Islamic family law, divorce, and gender pluralism in Malaysia, a Muslim-majority nation that in recent decades has seen the emergence of a large Malay-Muslim middle class, the rise of companionate marriage, and the valorization of variably inflected discourses on rights. Ethnographic fieldwork and archival research I have conducted since the late 1970s reveals that Malaysia’s sharia courts are more timely and flexible in responding to women’s claims than in decades past and are also more inclined to punish husbands who transgress sharia family law bearing on women. In addition, women nowadays have far more access to resources for negotiating marriage, extricating themselves from loveless or otherwise untenable unions, and dealing with the uncertainties and precarities that may follow. This is not to say that women and men experience marriage, divorce, or the sharia juridical field as social equals; they do not. But this situation is changing in ways that benefit women as long as they embrace increasingly salient and restrictive codes of obedience and heteronormativity. More broadly, this paper problematizes tensions between Islamic law and women’s rights that are the subject of considerable scholarly debate and also contributes to our understanding of the complex entanglements of law, politics, and religion.