Ella Houston

Lancaster University


Mulki Al-Sharman. Feminist Activism, Women’s Rights, and Legal Reform. 2013, Zed Books


In ‘Feminist Activism, Women’s Rights, And Legal Reform’, Mulki Al-Sharmani edits a collection of chapters focused on feminist issues and aims with the law. Particularly focusing on the Middle East, Latin America and Asia, legal reforms and the socio-political context that harvested them are critically analysed. This book examines the social, political and cultural backgrounds in which binary oppositions that consistently devalue women are performed. This volume charts the historical background of women’s political and legal status and outlines key events and legislations that significantly contributed to legal reform and feminist aims. The work and activist efforts of women are strongly draw upon as pivotal actions in the legal processes that aim towards socio-political inclusion. This on-going debate strongly contributes to the theoretical understanding and knowledge of legal reform and women’s rights whilst also voicing a rallying call to feminist activists in the struggle for political and social justice.

This book offers strong deconstructions of binary oppositions and legislations that serve to oppress and dehumanise women. By clearly focusing on the political and legal positions of women in the Middle East, Latin America and Asia, the chapters in this volume excellently provide theoretical insights and historical underpinnings which are strongly outlined as precursory to legal reform. Beyond this, the lived experiences of women are centralised as dominant within the evaluation of the implementation of legislations that aims towards gender justice. For example, the relationship between feminist activism and legal reform is reviewed alongside critically informed analysis of fixed binaries and misconceptions that pervade cultural imaginings of what it is to be a woman and politically and legally empowered. In Chapter Three, Al-Sharmani draws distinct parallels between legal ideological frameworks, social and cultural contexts, and reforms that follow in religious and political arenas. This discussion actively draws attention to the complexity of legal reforms and the achievement of social justice for women, whilst highlighting the obstacles and nature of law in hegemonic societies.

Chapters that specifically focus on certain laws, political and religious practices are listed in this volume. Careful attention to the discrepancies that arise when dominant figures in hegemonic societies take charge of interpreting legal reforms that are generated to work towards gender justice are succinctly detailed. Chapter Two contains Susanne’s Dahlgreen’s powerful documentation of the two Yemeni family law reforms and the public debates that have surrounded each. Particular emphasis on the growth of women’s rights in a society where gender inequality and the marginalisation of women has traditionally existed powerfully predicates a close account of the emergence of women’s rights and feminist activism in socio-political arenas. Further to this, the whole volume’s emphasis on fostering the work and efforts of women and feminist activists against political and legal tides that have traditionally obscured gender justice is a strong movement in the aim of repositioning countries of the global South in the disciplines of Feminist and Development Studies.

This volume strongly creates a collective interpretation of the complex nature of legal reform and interpretation that has, both past and present, disempowered women in society. In Chapter One, Nahda Shehada outlines how the conceptualisation of law and legislations is a key factor in the implementation and practical social change that follows and affects the everyday realities of women. Drawing upon the case of Islamic family law in Palestine, Shehada clearly documents the significant cultural and social struggles that have provided a context to public perception and discussion of family laws. This example serves to support the outstanding focus and commitment to deconstructing historical and cultural climates that have both contributed and supported misconceptions and injustices facing women in legal arenas. Indeed, this book shines in the documentation of instrumental feminist strategies in the struggle for social justice. A powerful example of this is found in Chapter Four which contains Sohela Nazneen’s account of her research into the Uniform Family Code which was demanded by feminist activists in order to answer to the many injustices faced by women in Bangladesh communities. The final section, Chapter Eight, authored by Takyiwaa Manuh and Angela Dwamena-Aboagye provides an excellent insight into domestic violence legislation in Ghana with striking figures that detail the abhorrent violence suffered by women. This chapter is further testament to the strong theme in the volume of pressure from feminist activists in securing victories for women’s rights in the global South.

A highlight of this book is certainly found in the careful and responsible commitment to the deconstruction of texts and cultural contexts in which gender injustices take place and are supported. By applying the process of deconstruction to social meanings and practices that oppress women and create obstacles to gender justice within societies, the volume offers accounts of the historical and cultural background that predicate social injustices and silence the voices, political and legal activities of women. Chapter Five, authored by Arzoo Osanloo excellently analyses the discourses and contestations surrounding family law that are part of a complex and multi-faceted debate surrounding the implementation of gender justice and legal objectives. This triumph also leads to a point wherein the volume could critically build upon its documentation of feminist activism and legal reform. It is suggested that this book could expand its critical development of law by inclusion of cultural texts that exist or have existed in the societies that are subject that analysis. By doing this, an otherwise illuminating and rigorous account of the position of women in socio-political fields would be developed by highlighting the language, terms and ‘signs’ that actively contribute to public discussions and preconceptions surrounding law reforms and the lived realities of women in the communities.

Developing the point of textual analysis as an approach that would further illuminate the realities and subjective experiences of women, Chapter Seven, by Silvia de Aquino provides a deeply insightful and meaningful account of the experiences of a Brazilian woman, Maria da Penha’s horrendous experiences that have led to legal reform in her country. By documenting the struggle of Maria da Penha that led to the creation of pivotal legal change for women, the author successfully enters into discussion and thought on what it is to be an embodied subject of a society that has traditionally ignored the oppression and injustices faced by women in their everyday lives. Indeed, this book is considered to provide a fair and accurate representation of the victories and challenges experienced by women in the area of legal reform. In Chapter Six, Jessica Carlisle charts the everyday experiences faced by women that are often underrepresented and given little consideration in Moroccan courts of law. This information displays a level of understanding that develops and theorises actual cases with legal and feminist perspectives and issues.

To summarise, this book deserves a clear and pronounced recommendation for women, academics and political activists that are interested in women’s rights and legal reform. The clear positioning of perspectives from the global South marks this volume as a much needed development in the chartering of feminist issues and aims in socio-political fields. In particular, the emphasis on unpacking the misconceptions and binaries which pervade common understandings of legal reform and issues contributing to gender injustice mark this book as a necessary development in the path to merging theoretical and academic debate with feminist activism. Furthermore, reading of this book is essential for those who recognise that reforms designed to recognise women as political and legal subjects are part of a wider move towards feminist revolution.

Ella Houston


I have just started a PhD in the Division of Health Research at Lancaster University. My thesis focuses on the representations of disabled women in Anglophone advertisements. I hold a BA and MA in disability studies from Liverpool Hope University. My research interests surround feminist-disability studies perspectives on culture. Specifically, how an understanding of disability enriches cultural knowledge, and vice versa. I am also very interested in mechanisms of power in society that perpetuate binary oppositions that serve to ‘fix’ disabled women into categories that are not of their own choosing.