This article analyses the legal processes of recognising customary and religious (Muslim) marriages in South Africa's constitutional democracy. It argues that the best interpretation of the Constitution requires laws that address cross-cutting issues of recognition and redistribution relating to religion/culture and gender, and that the best way to achieve this is through a ‘pluralistic solidarity’ that enables dialogue on how to secure cultural and religious recognition without undermining the rights of women. It examines how the different processes of cultural/religious law reform in South Africa have become sites of struggle over the meaning of collective and individual identity, public/private power, citizenship and rights, and gender and democracy, and how particular sociopolitical conditions, ideological struggles and overarching conflicts and interests have shaped each process of law reform. Thus it distinguishes between the ideal and the possible, the normative and the strategic, in law reform. It notes the conditions under which the incomplete process of recognition of Muslim marriage law has seen a greater deference to religious norms and private regulation than customary law reform, which saw a greater institutionalisation of gender equality norms. The article concludes by emphasising the open-ended nature of legal processes, the possibilities of using courts to challenge ongoing inequalities in religion and custom, and the ever-present role of politics in legal outcomes.