How Does Polygamy Challenge Islamic Feminism? Gender Equality and Group Rights in Mayotte

Thursday, 14 July 2016: 10:06
Location: Hörsaal 33 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Melanie HEATH, Sociology, McMaster University, Hamilton, ON, Canada
Debates over whether there can be an Islamic feminism have flourished in feminist circles. Susan Moller Okin incited controversy in her 1999 essay when she questioned the compatibility of multiculturalism, and the support of patriarchal religions like Islam, with the goal of attaining gender equality. She offered the example of France’s approach to polygamy, which allowed immigrant men from former colonies in the 1980s to bring multiple wives to France, as reflecting a deep and growing tension between feminism and multiculturalism. Polygamy is a contested issue within Islam. Some argue that Islam approves limited polygyny, allowing a man to marry up to four wives, only when he can provide for the family and treat all wives justly and fairly. Seeking to institute this understanding of polygyny, Islamic feminists have mobilized to tighten the procedures for these marriages (Shuib 2005).

This paper offers the case of Mayotte—a French department where 95 percent of the population is Muslim—to ask how does polygamy challenge Islamic feminism? Mayotte is an archipelago located in the Indian Ocean. The name comes from the Swahili word for Mahore, Maote, and the Mahore identity is based on Comorian, Malagasy, French, and Creole cultural traits. In a 2009 referendum, the population overwhelmingly approved accession to become the 101st department of France, taking effect in 2011, when new polygamous marriages were banned under French law. According to the Overseas Territories Minister Marie-Luce Penchard: “The ordinance puts a definitive end to inequality between men and women.” This paper draws on interviews with Mahoraise polygynous women, activists, and government officials to problematize this simplistic formula of how to end gender inequality. It considers the complicated role of Islamic feminists in negotiating a position on this cultural practice that continues unofficially under the radar of the French legal system.