Materialism, Contention, and Rebellion : The Changing Demands on Marriage in Colonial Zanzibar

This paper will trace constructions of gender and sexuality during the British colonial period in Zanzibar through the lens of Islamic courts, known as kadhi’s courts along the East African coast. Whereas Middle Eastern historians have innovatively drawn on legal records to access voices of historically marginalized groups, such as women and slaves, for the last three decades, Africanist scholars have yet to explore the wealth of Arabic legal records to reassess our understanding of gender relations in Muslim sub-Saharan Africa. The onset of ‘modernity’ in the legal sphere, introduced by the colonial authority in Zanzibar from 1890 onwards, produced a new field of tension and competition for religious identities and ‘modern’, westernised family values versus ‘traditional’ ones. Focussing on the realm of family law (marriage, divorce and property cases), this paper will explore how women and men reshaped their relationships by drawing on colonial and Islamic ideologies as well as colonially introduced legal avenues to improve their socio-economic status. It attempts to outline strategies employed by Zanzibari women and men to engage with social, religious, political and economic changes affecting their families and ‘Islamic identities’ during the first half of the twentieth century. Court records from the early twentieth century indicate the wide range of bargaining-discourse which was denied by colonial administrators and Western scholarship until recently. Situating gender discourse in the kadhi’s courts within theories of Islamic law and customary practice, this paper will account for dynamics of gender relations and reassess female agency within patriarchal structures. Its arguments will engage with the wider body of literature on gender and courts in Africa and the Muslim world in the colonial period.

Elke E. Stockreiter is Assistant professor in the department of history of the University of Iowa. She is the author of Irreconcilable Predicaments: Kadhis, Colonial Officers and Social Change in Post-Abolitionary Zanzibar Town (book manuscript, in progress), Co-editor with Anne K. Bang and Sean R. O’Fahey. Arabic Literature of Africa, Vol. III B. Leiden: Brill, forthcoming ; “Child Marriage and Domestic Violence: Islamic and Colonial Discourses on Gender Relations and Female Status in Zanzibar, 1900-1950s” in Domestic Violence and the Law in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa, ed. Emily Burrill, Richard Roberts and Elizabeth Thornberry, p. 210-241, Athens, Ohio University Press, 2010 ; “British Kadhis and Muslim Judges: Legal Innovation and Role Reversal in Zanzibar’s Colonial Judiciary”, Special issue, New Directions in East African Legal History, Journal of Eastern African Studies (peerreviewed) submitted “Islamisches Recht und sozialer Wandel: Die Kadhi-Gerichte von Malindi, Kenya und Zanzibar, Tanzania”, Stichproben. Wiener Zeitschrift für kritische Afrikastudien 2, n° 3, 2002, p. 35-61.


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