Best Practices: Progressive Family Laws in Muslim Countries

The RAND Corporation and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars began collaboration on this project in March 2005 under the joint leadership of Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, and Cheryl Benard, Senior Political Analyst and Director of the Initiative for Middle Eastern Youth at the RAND Corporation. A team of researchers compared the constitutions and family law codes of 12 Muslim countries -- Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, Pakistan, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey -- on topics ranging from issues of marriage and divorce to legal rights and violence against women. Research included a review not only of written laws but also of their application, with reference to secondary literature on the topic.

Access the joint report here

Many experts, both inside and outside the Muslim world, have identified retrograde societal practices as a major obstacle to the economic and social development of the region. The United Nations Development Program’s Arab Human Development Report found a clear correlation between authoritarian family patterns and the downgraded status of women on the one hand and the failure to overcome underdevelopment and stagnation on the other. Middle Eastern women, the report states, “suffer from unequal citizenship and legal entitlements, often evident in … legal codes.” Besides being unjust, this also results in a significant loss of human capital—shackling half the population and, with it, half the productive potential of society.

In many Islamic countries, written legal codes quite officially exclude women from basic human and civic rights, placing them into a status of lifelong dependency and subordination to the power of a male relative or husband. The law may even explicitly allow men to keep a wife or other female family member prisoner, preventing her not only from obtaining personal documents and from traveling but even from leaving the house. Other egregious laws include those that pressure a woman who has been raped to marry her assailant or that take away a woman’s (but not a man’s) citizenship if she marries a foreigner.

The goal of this project is to produce a concise, brief document that indicates “best practices” in the application and implementation of family law in Muslim countries. Thereby, we wish to make the positive developments that are occurring in the Muslim world’s legislative and judicial practice better known and available to other states and practitioners that are grappling with the same issues. We hope this overview will be helpful to lawmakers, legal practitioners, and civil society groups.

This document is not meant to be either prescriptive or an exhaustive record of all family law in all Muslim countries. Rather, it is a collection of “best practices,” touching on the issues that women and families have identified as being the most significant for their personal advancement and their quality of life and describing ways in which enlightened Islamic jurists have reconciled Islamic principles with contemporary ethical and social values to create forward-looking legislative practice.