Women’s Strategies for Negotiating Divorce in Mandate Palestine

By Elizabeth Brownson
Submitted to Session P5011 (Women, Islam, and Family Law, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper will examine strategies that Palestinian women used in court as they sought to secure their interests in wife-initiated divorce cases from the 1920s and 1930s Jerusalem Shari’a Court. Additionally, it draws on interviews with Palestinian women seniors to provide insight regarding their perceptions of Muslim family law, their legal status, and the importance of women’s awareness of their rights. The high number of wife-initiated divorce cases during this part of the Mandate period in itself exemplifies Kandioyti’s concept of patriarchal bargaining, which describes circumstances in which women are able to benefit in some respect by negotiating within a male-privileged system. But while these women were able to obtain divorces, wife-initiated divorce was (and is) not the ideal divorce situation for a woman. This is primarily because women nearly always had to give up their financial divorce rights when they initiated it, particularly the deferred dower and maintenance during the waiting period, and they often gave up child support as well. And the fact many women began their divorce proceedings as maintenance cases suggests that it was challenging for women to convince their husbands to divorce even under these conditions.
But my findings demonstrate that female plaintiffs were able to maneuver within the court system to some extent by means of legal strategies. One notable tactic was the woman volunteering to pay child support in order to obtain a divorce from her husband, but returning to court and requesting child support after the divorce. Perhaps the most common device was beginning her divorce case by requesting maintenance in court. This gave a woman an excuse to drag her husband into court if he was unwilling to agree to divorce, and in many cases she was then able to persuade him to consent to it.
Expanding on the scholarship that demonstrates Palestinian women were historically active participants in the shari’a court system, this paper analyzes women’s strategic negotiations and the circumstances under which they tended to succeed in wife-initiated divorce cases from the 1920s-1930s Jerusalem Shari’a Court. The cases also convey some ways in which Palestinians felt and thought about family law during this period. In particular, my interviews with Palestinian seniors citizens (or non-citizens rather) shed light on how Palestinians perceived their roles and obligations within the family and their gendered rights.