Elizabeth Brownson, Palestinian Women and Muslim Family Law in the Mandate Period (Syracuse University Press, 2019).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Elizabeth Brownson (EB): As a historian intrigued by interdisciplinary sources and approaches, I am especially (and rather haphazardly) interested in gender issues, women’s status, Palestinians, social history that illuminates non-elites’ lives, and imperialism. For this book, I connected these fields by examining Palestinian women’s status during the British Mandate period (1920-1948). During my initial research, I examined any sources I could get my hands on, from colonial British government documents to shari‘a court records and interviews, but I focused on the court cases for the book. A Fulbright-Hays dissertation fellowship enabled me to carry out most of the research, primarily using the al-Aqsa Library in Jerusalem, but also the Israeli state archives and the National Archives in London.
More importantly, I wrote the book because there has been little scholarship produced on Palestinian social history, and particularly on Palestinian women, during the Mandate period. This reality is at least in part, if not primarily, because of Israel’s tight restrictions on Palestinians’ movements to and within Israel, as well as within the occupied Palestinian territories, thus obstructing their access to archives and other sources.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
EB: The book examines Palestinian Muslim women’s experiences and negotiations within the Jerusalem Shari‘a Court during the British Mandate (1920-1948), offering new insight on their perceptions of Muslim family law. My research on wife-initiated maintenance claims, divorce, and child custody cases from Jerusalem and its surrounding villages expands on scholarship that demonstrates Muslim women were historically active participants in shari‘a courts and their legal affairs. In nearly all of the cases in the study, the female plaintiff appeared in court on her own initiative and most often she argued her own case, demanding her rights within, and sometimes beyond, Muslim family law. In addition, my interviews with Palestinian women seniors, many of whom were born during the Mandate, suggest that most women understood their fundamental rights in shari‘a during this period.
The book sheds light on Palestinian women’s understandings of the shari‘a court system and their legal status during this period. In doing so, the study uncovers a number of gendered strategies that women employed to obtain financial benefits or to otherwise further their interests within a male-privileged structure. The book also demonstrates the most common circumstances under which women tended to be successful in each type of court case. Another objective of the study is to examine change and continuity in the shari‘a court system from the Ottoman era to the British Mandate period. The book analyzes the ways in which Mandate-era judges followed either the classical Hanafi law of the Ottoman period or the new family law code of 1917 (the Ottoman Law of Family Rights), which shari‘a courts first applied in Palestine during the Mandate.
Despite some important changes, the court proceedings suggest there was overall continuity from the Ottoman era to the Mandate period, which leads to the question of why neither the British nor Palestinians sought to significantly reform the existing Muslim family law system in this period. The British hardly prioritized improving colonized women’s status, and they were certainly not interested in further antagonizing Palestinians. The Palestinians sought to preserve the one indigenous institution that they still controlled while their nationalist aspirations were threatened by both British rule and increasing numbers of Jewish immigrants.
Palestinian Muslim women had few alternatives to using the patriarchal family law system under British rule in order to redress grievances with their husbands, particularly if family interventions were unsuccessful. Palestinian women resisted the courts’ injustices every day, however, and they exploited it to their own ends whenever they could. In some ways, the court served to protect women’s interests within the context of family law and the family itself, while in others it aimed to reinforce men’s authority in their family relationships. Also, men had significant financial obligations that went along with their systemic privileges, and other factors, such as family influence and economic realities, tended to shape the extent to which Palestinians actually adhered to Muslim family law. This book shows how these factors often contributed to greater status for women, compared to their legal standing, but they could also undermine women’s rights at times.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
EB: One of the guiding principles for my research has been the goal of illuminating Palestinian Muslims’, and especially women’s, lives during the British Mandate period by exploring their access to and experiences in important institutions including the Muslim family law system, education, and health care. I have also examined systemic injustices that Palestinians experienced while living under British colonial domination.
My previous work focused on Palestinians’ experiences pertaining to education and midwifery during the Mandate period. “Colonialism, Nationalism, and the Politics of Teaching History in Mandate Palestine” (Journal of Palestine Studies, 2014) shows that British education policy was a source of constant frustration for Palestinians. The shortage of schools, the lack of local control over the curriculum, and the marginalization and de-politicization of Palestinian history constituted major grievances. The article also demonstrates that education policy was constructed to maintain the underdevelopment of Palestine and to hinder state-building efforts that could compete with those of the Zionists. “Enacting Imperial Control: Midwifery Regulation in Mandate Palestine” (Journal of Palestine Studies, 2017) argues that in restricting midwives’ autonomy, the colonial administration not only infringed on their livelihoods but also curtailed Palestinian women’s economic opportunities. While Palestinian midwives successfully used a number of creative tactics to resist government attempts to control them, the restrictions placed on them limited general access to healthcare, especially in rural areas. In an era of unprecedented state reach, however, officials were far more concerned with monitoring midwives than with expanding Palestinians’ access to much needed health care, ultimately privileging the Yishuv in this sphere, as in so many others.
These studies informed and contributed to the larger arguments in this book, particularly that Palestinians had little incentive to overhaul the one indigenous institution that they still controlled in the context of British rule, given the colonial policies that controlled their education systems and health care providers. Also, Palestinian women were unlikely to contest the patriarchal shari‘a courts while socioeconomic opportunities were minimal for most of them. Although there were new job and educational opportunities for a few, the vast majority of Palestinian women did not benefit.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
EB: I hope anyone interested in women’s status and history, Palestinians, family law, social history, or imperialism will read this book. There are numerous harmful misconceptions about Muslim women, shari‘a (the book focuses on the Muslim family law aspect of shari‘a), and Palestinians, and I would like to help rectify this. The reality is so much more complex than most realize. While Palestine is very much in need of a unified, reformed family law (of course the lack of one has a great deal to do with the Israeli occupation), it is also a progressive leader regarding the inclusion of women in the ranks of the Muslim family law courts. Palestine has unprecedentedly appointed four female shari‘a court judges over the last decade, most of whom favor reform. I interviewed two of these judges for this book, along with Shaykh Tamimi, the former Chief Islamic Justice, and the mufti of Hebron.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
EB: I have a chapter in an edited book, Britain in the Islamic World: Imperial and Post-Imperial Connections, coming out soon. The chapter is entitled "Legislating Gender in Mandate Palestine: Colonial Laws on Midwifery, Employment, and Marriage."
I am working on a project on younger (late teens and early twenties) Palestinians’ views on Muslim family law reform