Gender Studies

States and Women’s Rights: The Making of Postcolonial Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco

Mounira M. Charrad, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. 341 pages.

In her preface, Mounira Charrad traces the genesis of her study to her concerns as a sociologist regarding the inadequate analytical models used to account for the origin of political organization in the “predominantly classbased and capitalist societies” Maghribi societies. Charrad proposes “kinship” and tribal ties as more appropriate sociological categories for acquiring a good understanding of the foundations of social relations in Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. She focuses on three distinct historical periods: precolonial, colonial, and post-independence. Her investigation centers on documenting the historical relationship between the process of nationbuilding and state-formation, and the codification and articulation of a unified family law that replaced numerous (and sometimes conflicting) forms of customary law competing with Islamic law.

The book combines historical, sociological, and geographical data and analytical concepts in order to frame the investigation’s main subject. The subject is covered in three main parts divided into nine chapters, in addition to an introduction and a conclusion. The text is supplemented with tables and maps documenting linguistic and geographic features of the Maghrebi states under study. The book concludes with a useful glossary of transliterated Arabic words, chapter notes, a selected bibliography organized conveniently under five main headings, an author index, and a subject index.

Of central interest to Charrad’s book is family law as it was developed in the aftermath of independence and its implications for women’s rights. She links the fate of women’s rights to the policy makers’ political affiliations and tribal allegiances: “Family law raises questions that are at the intersection of kinship and state.” Charrad argues convincingly that family law, and by extension legal stipulations regarding women’s rights, did not exist in their own right but were one of the stakes at play in the continuous struggle for political power between various specific contending factions.

The author’s central argument rests on the presupposition that, historically, only kin-based formations and tribal solidarity provided a basis for political mobilization and action during and after resistance to colonial rule. She explains that these states’ faced a common political life: a form of central government found itself (albeit in varying degrees) challenged by tribal resistance to its control and interference. In this, Charrad’s comparative account has the advantage of providing a useful theoretical embeddedness in previous sociological and historical studies of the region.

She recalls the historical fact that this feature of political life (the tribal/central government dichotomy) was constant during the three historical periods being examined, although it played itself out in different political contexts and assumed different configurations and degrees of tension. Charrad’s account of precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial tribal organization and power dynamics is well-documented, informative, and compelling.

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