Feminist Advocacy, Family Law, and Violence against Women

Feminist Advocacy, Family Law, and Violence against Women


Feminist Advocacy, Family Law and Violence Against Women: International Perspectives/ 2019/ Routledge

Edited by Mahnaz Afkhami, Yakin Ertürk, and Ann Mayer.

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Around the world, discriminatory legislation often referred to as family law prevents women from accessing their human rights. This book demonstrates how women across the world are contributing to legal reform, helping to shape non-discriminatory policies and to counter current legal and social justifications for gender-based violence. Using case studies from around the world and interviews with prominent women’s rights activists, the book provides a complex global picture of current trends and strategies in the fight for a more egalitarian society.

The book takes case studies from Brazil, India, Iran, Lebanon, Nigeria, Palestine, Senegal, and Turkey, using them to demonstrate in each case the varied history of family law, and the wide variety of issues impacting women’s equality in legislation. Interviews with prominent women’s rights activists in three additional countries are also included, giving personal accounts of the successes and failures of past reform efforts. Overall, the book provides a complex global picture of current trends and strategies in the fight for a more egalitarian society.

These findings come at a critical moment for change. Across the globe, family law issues are contentious. We are simultaneously witnessing an increased demand for women’s equality and the resurgence of fundamentalist forces that impede reform, invoking rules rooted in tradition, culture, and interpretations of religious texts. The outcome of these disputes has enormous ramifications for women’s roles in the family and society. This book tackles these complexities head on, and will interest activists, practitioners, students, and scholars working on women’s rights and gender-based violence.


Book Excerpt


Introduction by Mahnaz Afkhami

Early in my tenure as Secretary General at the Women’s Organization of Iran (WOI),(1) I traveled with a small group of women to some forty towns and villages around Iran. We wanted to find out what would be most useful to the women themselves. What were their priorities? What were their most important challenges and needs? In every town or village we went to schools, factories, farms, homes, prisons, city councils, teachers’ associations – anywhere to learn about women’s lives and the challenges they faced.

The experience was often excruciating, sometimes exhilarating, but always instructive. In Abadan, I talked to a woman of twenty who had killed the sixty- year-old husband who had raped her repeatedly since she had been given to him in marriage at the age of nine. On a dusty, winding street in Yazd, we passed a woman who was crying. We stopped the car and asked her why she was crying. She said she was the legal advisor for the WOI branch in Yazd and her husband had just beaten her, forbidding her to set foot in the WOI center. In Lorestan, a young woman at the WOI center told us she had started a class teaching recitation of the Quran because that was the only subject women in the community were allowed to come to the center to learn: “We first have to get them to come out of the house and into the center before we can bring up anything else.”

The most important lesson we learned in all these exchanges was that the path to change was through political power and economic self-sufficiency. I felt the importance of this need – and the injustice of the system – myself after I had returned to Iran, when I went to open a savings account for my child with my own money. The bank manager said, “You can’t do that. You can open an account, but your husband has to co-sign, and he is the one who will be able to withdraw funds from the account, not you.” Even though it was my money, for my child, it took a male to make the decisions.

Each of the examples above shows an aspect of family law that impacts women’s lives negatively. This book demonstrates that more attention needs to be paid to the harms caused by family laws that leave women disempowered and vulnerable. Historically, gendered legislation has tended to limit women’s choice in almost all aspects of life – from marriage, divorce, custody of children, and control over their bodies, to inheritance, residence, travel, and work. It has invariably undermined women’s rights and harbored discrimination and violence against them. Family law has been the most vivid representation of gendered legislation and arguably the most potent justifier of gender-based violence (GBV).

This book is one outcome of the larger Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP) Family Law Reform project2 that aims to support the empowerment of women and other groups to prevent and over- come GBV through locally led research and national advocacy campaigns to reform family laws. The book, a joint project of IDRC and WLP, directs the reader to questions about how women, especially women in Muslim-majority societies, are faring in this life-determining intersection of culture and law at the dawn of the twenty-first century; what factors in culture and law, especially gen- dered legislation, both religious and secular, have moved us forward and which ones have kept us back; and what women can/should do – strive to do – to bring about positive change.

These questions have been a primary focus of WLP, a partnership of twenty autonomous women’s rights organizations in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Latin America, since its inception in 2000. This book, based on case studies by local scholars in eight countries in four regions, three in-depth interviews with scholar/activists involved in national advocacy for policy change, a comparative overview of the case studies and discussion of the multiple paths in family law adoption, and a final article on the form and effect of socio-political and religious backlash against women’s progress in the past few decades, is an effort to put these questions in context. A brief reference to its history will inform on the scope both of the research and the partnership’s activism that has led to this project.

After the groundbreaking family law reform in Morocco in 2004, WLP’s part- ner organization, Association Démocratique des Femmes du Maroc (ADFM), a leading force in the reform process, published the Guide to Equality in the Family in the Maghreb (Women’s Learning Partnership 2005).3 In the Guide’s foreword, Rabéa Naciri (2005: 3) states “democratization and modernization of the region’s countries are closely linked to the issue of relationships between men and women within the family” and refutes the idea that Islam by itself dictates the discrimina- tion embedded in existing family laws that perpetuate the violence women suffer on a daily basis.

The Guide presents a carefully crafted advocacy plan that discusses conflicts between discriminatory articles in the family law legislation and major international human rights documents, as well as scientific research on the health consequences of implementing discriminatory features of existing law.

A most helpful and important part of the work involved presentation of different and sometimes conflicting opinions of each of the four schools of Sunni Islam on specific articles of family law that help advocates to demonstrate that there is no definitive version of religious dictates on many of these legislative mandates.

WLP translated the Guide into English and launched it at the Association of Women’s Rights in Development’s (AWID) International Forum in Bangkok, Thailand in 2005, where WLP’s annual meeting of the partners was scheduled to take place in parallel with the AWID Forum. WLP also invited ten leading young activists from Iran to participate in a week-long leadership workshop and to dialogue with other partners. Iranians who had lost the advantages of their pre- revolutionary family law immediately after the revolution were eager to learn from the Moroccan experience and the Guide, which WLP had translated into Persian.

Back in Iran, in 2006, these activists organized the One Million Signatures Campaign for Reform of Family Laws, expanding the Moroccan advocacy tools by initiating a nationwide campaign that produced a variety of communication strate- gies, including an active outreach to a global audience through social networking and to local communities through face-to-face campaigning, kitchen-table meet- ings, door-to-door mobilizing, and widespread networking. Their special focus on including men in the movement achieved their 30 percent participation. Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, co-founder of the movement, describes the process in Iranian Women’s One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality: The Inside Story, translated into English and published by WLP in 2009.

In February 2009, Mussawah: Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family, a research and advocacy network for family law reform co-founded by WLP board member Zainah Anwar, was launched in Kuala Lumpur. The ADFM co-founders who had worked with Zainah for two years to prepare for the event, as well as several Iranian activists, joined other WLP partners to participate in the proceed- ings. The viral spread of concepts and strategies from Morocco to Washington, DC, to Thailand, to Tehran, to Kuala Lumpur, and subsequently around the world demonstrated the potential for creation of a viable global movement for change based on well-researched local activism that can be shared and expanded globally with speed and efficiency.

In 2010, in response to requests from our partners and their networks, WLP began to compile the Corpus of Laws of the countries in the Global South, detail- ing in several languages the constitutions, family laws, financial laws, penal codes, and related legislation that impacted the status of women and violence against women (VAW). The goal is to provide a legal and advocacy resource center for those engaged in preparing draft legislation and advocacy strategies for legal reform, based on the premise that universal human rights can be realized through contextual strategies for implementation. By categorizing documents by issue (and country), the Corpus will make it easier for scholars, activists, reformers, and citizens to find relevant documents and will provide access to successful reforms in relatively similar cultural conditions.

The activist experience and scholarly research that have culminated in the present volume will be instrumental in taking our work on family laws to the next stage. The case studies were conducted by researchers in Lebanon, India, Iran, Brazil, Senegal, Turkey, Nigeria, and Palestine. They provide a variety of contexts for comparative analysis. Among them are multi-ethnic, multi-religious societies (Lebanon, India), a theocratic state that has come into being in part as a backlash to modernity and expanded rights for women (Iran), a society living under decades of occupation (Palestine), a secular state (Turkey), two countries colonized by two culturally and linguistically distinct European countries (Francophone Senegal and Anglophone Nigeria), and a more developed society with secular laws but influ- enced by strong religious forces (Brazil).

The first draft of each case study, written by a native scholar, was discussed and evaluated by a group of local activists, religious leaders, media representatives, and policymakers who participated in workshops held in each case study country. The comments and reactions at the workshops were studied and integrated into the final draft. Due to political circumstances, the Iran workshop was held not in Iran but in collaboration with the Association for Middle East Women’s Studies (AMEWS) at the Middle East Studies Association’s annual conference in Boston, Massachusetts in 2016.

From the case study workshop discussions, we learned that whether the soci- ety studied was governed by a secular or religious government; had a Muslim, Catholic, or multi-religious experience; or was more or less affluent, the structure of gender relations were similar. In all cases, the man was seen as the head of the family. Men were seen as the “bread winners” and, in one way or another, con- trolled women’s economic activity and had a say over whether they could take a job outside the informal sector. Almost always, family legislation limited women on whether they could have a voice in their place of residence, guardianship of children, and ability to pass their citizenship rights to their husbands or children born outside their native land.

We also learned that the hierarchical and top-down decision-making character- ized by patriarchy are not only shared in families across the world but are replicated in educational institutions, the workplace, and politics. In fact, the structure of the family, the foundational unit of society, is replicated in communities and societies. Some workshop participants pointed to new research that has demonstrated that violence in the family is an indicator of problems in the area of national security and that inequality in gender relations is a valid barometer to measure a nation’s stability and security. Some pointed to the role of art, literature, and culture in strengthening the existing patterns. Many pointed to the role women played in perpetuating cultural practices that support patriarchy by implementing these prac- tices in celebratory ceremonies that mask their brutality. Many agreed that both genders are products of centuries of patriarchal indoctrination and that the structures are not created by one gender to abuse the other, but by the exigencies of earlier conditions when life expectancy, reproductive realities, and the economics of survival dictated a division of roles that has long outlived its usefulness.

The workshops helped formulate strategies for raising consciousness among populations and policymakers, not only about the injustice of the existing fam- ily laws, but also about their high cost in terms of development, prosperity, and security. They all recommended further research and comparative analysis on law reform efforts, and, equally important, on successful implementation of the laws.

The interviews with Asma Khader of Jordan, Rabéa Naciri of Morocco, and Hoda Elsadda of Egypt offer unique perspectives into the processes, development, and achievements of women’s movements with regard to family law reform in each of their countries in the last four decades, as well as lessons learned for the future. The three women share similarities in their careers, although they came to their focus on family law from different professional backgrounds and perspectives. Asma Khader began her career as a lawyer and came to realize that as important as legal aid was, a more vital need was for activist organizations that helped bring support, information, awareness, and agency to women. A lawyer could help a woman get a divorce, but only organized activist work would help her find her voice and gain the skills and the power she needed to sort out her life in mar- riage and divorce.4 Asma’s subsequent positions as head of the Jordanian Women’s Union, Minister of Culture, and Senator helped her weave together the many strands of knowledge, resources, and connections that enabled her to lead the movement for legislative change in Jordan.

Rabéa Naciri of Morocco began her career as an academic sociologist. Her public life began as a member of a progressive/left political party that saw gender discrimination as an integral part of inequality and class difference in society. Her party held that once these problems were solved at the societal level, discrimination against women would be eliminated. In the course of her scholarly work and social activism, she concluded that in fact the reality was the reverse – that addressing the issue of women’s inequality was the best route to reaching justice for all members of society. She then moved on to co-found ADFM and focused on family law reform as the underlying cause of discrimination in the private sphere as well as in the community and society.

Hoda Elsadda of Egypt is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature and co-founder of Hajar, a women’s studies journal in Arabic. She began her work on family law reform in 1993 as a member of a task force to revise the mar- riage certificate template in Egypt. She founded the Women’s Memory Forum, an organization that sought to produce alternative knowledge in history, culture, society, law, economics, and politics to challenge stereotypical discourses about women. These experiences led to her appointment in 2014 as one of five women and forty-five men from a wide range of backgrounds and interests on the com- mittee tasked to draft the new Egyptian Constitution.

Each of these three interviewees participated actively in building the scholarship required to offer viable legal, cultural, socio-political, and economic arguments for the reform of family legislation. Their four decades of struggle led them to emphasize that change in family relations requires a slow and lengthy process. It involves major upheaval in every aspect of life, radical alteration in many familiar and deeply entrenched practices, and the knowledge that only a holistic, all-inclusive approach will bring the desired results. They all refer to knowledge creation as an important, but not exclusive, aspect of the work. They agree that mobilization of men and women is an indispensable part of the effort. They point to the similarities in oth- erwise diverse societies in the structure of the power relations in the family. Their steadfast and decades-long work demonstrates that family law reform requires culture change that involves a lengthy and carefully crafted, multi-faceted struggle.

Yakın Ertürk’s long history of research and advocacy for human and women’s rights makes her overview article of special importance. Her cogent analysis of the case studies lends strength to her call for the revitalization and reaffirmation of the inter- connectedness of women’s resistance movements to achieve a feminist jurisprudence.

In the concluding article, Ann Elizabeth Mayer, Emeritus Professor of Law at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, reviews the backlash to the status of women in four widely diverse countries: Russia, the United States, Iran, and Turkey. She observes that politicization of religion, whether by those with some level of commitment to a faith such as in Turkey and Iran, or by leaders who have shown no such commitment, is a common route to the reversal of rights for women. She also points to the recent developments in the practice of VAW through social networking tools and the use of digital communication as a means of bullying and harassing women.

VAW is a social phenomenon. It is a product of historically rooted gender inequal- ity that has become embedded in culture and law. Culture structures a society’s view of life – how it defines values, determines facts, and creates beauty. As in all else, it is a function of social relations and is changeable. Some of the case studies demonstrate how laws reflect the primacy of cultural values; whereas, in others, law can be seen as resulting from power and politics. Law is a manner of decision-making: how a soci- ety structures the patterns of relationship among its members. As with culture, law is also changeable: as time moves on, people change; new values, facts, and perceptions emerge; and power relations assume new forms. The interaction of culture and law determines the social structure that frames the condition of social existence, affecting men and women’s lives from the time they are born to the time they die. Conversely, men and women can affect and structure the conditions that frame their lives.

The work presented in this anthology reaffirms our decades-long research and advocacy indicating that women, who are half of the population of the world, are by definition half of all races, ethnicities, sexual diversities, religions, cultures, and abilities. Subgroups of women bring to the global experience every other experi- ence of injustice, in addition to what they live with as women. They also create culture and sustain it through their roles as mothers, caretakers, primary educators, and keepers of tradition. History has made the patriarchal system that has ruled the structure of families and the architecture of human relationships obsolete. The struggle for change must begin at the roots. Women and men, whose emotions, personalities, and well-being are limited by the archaic roles assigned to them, must come together to shape a new way of experiencing life, work, and leisure by think- ing beyond equality and creating a new shared vision for the future.


  1. The WOI was founded in 1966 by a 5,000-member assembly of Iranian women from diverse backgrounds and regions, gathered through consultation, brainstorming, and negotiation. Its mission was “to raise the cultural, social and economic knowledge of the women of Iran and to make them aware of their family, social and economic rights, duties, and responsibilities.” I became the WOI Secretary General in 1970.
  2. The project is supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).The project’s objectives are to:
    • Contribute to the development of locally led research – including the promotion of moderate interpretations of Family Law – on culturally specific and effective strategies to reform Family Law and to prevent and counter gender-based violence (GBV).
    • Develop and use comparative knowledge on best practices in Family Law reform to inform advocacy efforts.
    • Using the research and knowledge generated on Family Law, build the capacity of local actors to launch national advocacy campaigns.
    • Develop a global coalition of activists who can call upon one another’s assistance, knowledge, and resources to support efforts toward ending GBV.
  3. This innovative advocacy tool for reform of the family law in Muslim-majority societies was the first publication in WLP’s Translation Series;WLP translated the Guide from the original Arabic to English and Persian. In each of its thematic modules, the Guide presents the current state of the law, then proposes religious, human rights, sociological, and domestic legal arguments for reform, well-supported by relevant data.
  4. As Asma pointed out in her interview for this volume, the repeal of Article 308 resulted from a long and significant campaign that included research to learn how much people knew about it, its impact on women’s lives, and whether they agreed that it should be abolished – as well as advocacy based on the research.


Khorasani, Noushin Ahmadi (2009) Iranian Women’s One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality: The Inside Story, Women’s Learning Partnership Translation Series, Bethesda, MD: WLP.

Naciri, Rabéa (2005) “Foreword to the Guide,” Guide to Equality in the Family in the Maghreb, authorized translation of Dalil pour l’égalité dans la famille au Maghreb, Copyright 2003 by Collectif 95 Maghreb-Egalité, Chari Voss (trans.), Ahmad Kazemi Moussavi (ed.), Women’s Learning Partnership Translation Series, Bethesda, MD: WLP.

Women’s Learning Partnership (2005) Guide to Equality in the Family in the Maghreb, author- ized translation of Dalil pour l’égalité dans la famille au Maghreb, Copyright © 2003 by Collectif 95 Maghreb-Egalité, Chari Voss (trans.), Ahmad Kazemi Moussavi (ed.), Women’s Learning Partnership Translation Series, Bethesda, MD: WLP.

Book Reviews


To be released soon

Book Endorsement & Praise

‘This revolutionary book offers a blueprint for reform of oppressive family laws in a variety of global contexts, secular and religious, progressive and traditional. This is a handbook to be dog-eared by activists and a fascinating read elucidating how change happens even in the most traditional societies.’

Madhavi Sunder
Professor of Law
Georgetown University Law Center
Washington DC, USA

‘Born out of the Women’s Learning Partnership’s (WLP) global campaign for family law reform, this anthology represents the richest compendium of comparative research on family laws. It combines rigorous research with clear objectives, drawing upon lessons learned and developing tools for advocacy and action. An essential resource for academics and activists alike.’

Deniz Kandiyoti
Emeritus Professor of Development Studies
School of Oriental and African Studies
University of London
United Kingdom

‘This collection of comparative studies provides a valuable road map through the labyrinth of family laws as they define the status of women in some countries of the Global South, and of the feminist battles to reform them. The aim of these battles, though different from country to country, is ultimately one: to create new laws designed not only to provide gender equality in all matters, but also to protect women from the violence to which they are so often subjected.’

Jean Said Makdisi
Writer and Activist

“Enlightening and heart-wrenching simultaneously, Feminist Advocacy is truly a cross-cultural tour de force, bringing together the best of research and advocacy. It covers systematic violence and human rights abuses against women across many cultures and goes directly to the roots: it is all in the family laws. It is a must read.”

Shahla Haeri
Associate Professor of Anthropology
Boston University, USA


Memorable Quotes