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Women’s Legal Agency and Property in the Court Records of Late Nineteenth-Century Brava


Drawing on the Islamic court records of Brava, a small Indian Ocean port city on the southern Benadir coast of Somalia, dating from the period 1893–1900, this essay analyzes the legal agency and economic roles of the women of Brava and sheds new light on social (especially family) relations in this town. The qāḍī’s court records give evidence of married women’s fully recognized (even if qualified) legal personhood and their full-fledged financial and economic agency. The free, married women of Brava of this period contributed fully and autonomously to the economic endeavors of their families and also interacted with non-related businessmen in and beyond Brava. They also had the legal and social capacity to defend their interests in court and to get a fair hearing in accordance with the law. Given that both Somali women’s history and East African legal history suffer from a scarcity of concrete evidence for this time-period, the aspects of everyday life in Brava that come into view in the town’s qāḍī’s court records are of great interest.


En s’appuyant sur les archives judiciaires islamiques (1893–1900) de Brava, petite ville portuaire de l’océan indien sur la côte méridionale de la Somalie, cet essai analyse l’agency juridique et le rôle économique joué par les femmes de Brava et jette en même temps un nouvel éclairage sur les relations sociales (surtout familiales) dans cette ville. Les archives judiciaires du qāḍī témoignent de la personnalité juridique (même si celle-ci est qualifiée) reconnue aux femmes mariées et de leur agency financière et économique à part entière. Les femmes mariées libres de Brava de cette période ont contribué pleinement et de manière autonome aux efforts économiques de leurs familles et ont également interagi avec des hommes d’affaires en dehors de leur famille dans et au-delà de Brava. Elles disposaient également d’une compétence juridique et sociale pour défendre leurs intérêts devant les tribunaux et pour obtenir un procès équitable conformément à la loi. Étant donné que l’histoire des femmes somaliennes et l’histoire juridique de l’Afrique de l’Est souffrent d’une rareté de sources concrètes pour cette période, les aspects de la vie quotidienne à Brava qui sont visibles dans les archives de la cour du qāḍī sont d’un grand intérêt.

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Francesca Declich , “‘Gendered Narratives,’ History, and Identity: Two Centuries along the Juba River Among the Zigula and Shanbara,” History in Africa 22 (1995), 93122.

Mohamed Fadl , “Two Women, One Man: Knowledge, Power, and Gender in Medieval Sunni Legal Thought,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 29 (1997), 185204.

Lidwien Kapteijns , with Maryan Omar Ali , “The Discourse on Moral Womanhood in Somali Popular Songs, 1960–1990,” Journal of African History 50 (2009), 101122.

Elisabeth McMahon , Slavery and Emancipation in Islamic East Africa (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Scott S. Reese , Renewers of the Age: Holy Men and Social Discourse in Colonial Benaadir (Leiden: Brill, 2008).

Erin E. Stiles , An Islamic Court in Context: An Ethnographic Study of Judicial Reasoning (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009).

Elke E. Stockreiter , Islamic Law, Gender and Social Change in Post-Abolition Zanzibar (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Judith Tucker , Women, Family, and Gender in Islamic Law (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

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History in Africa
  • ISSN: 0361-5413
  • EISSN: 1558-2744
  • URL: /core/journals/history-in-africa
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