The contentiousness of the debate on educational reform pales, as we will see in this chapter, when compared to discourses on the reform of legal norms that specifically concern women. This is not unexpected. Issues relating to women are, after all, often intertwined with questions of “honor” in many conservative societies, making them more sensitive than almost anything else. Further, and despite the often ambiguous relationship between customary and shari`a norms, the laws of personal status (notably marriage, divorce, and inheritance) have been among the most widely practiced stipulations of the shari`a in premodern and many modern Muslim societies. This means that any threat to their continued functioning provokes strong responses from many quarters. At the same time, such things as polygamy and the shari`a's affirmation of male authority over women have often been seen, by non-Muslim observers and many Muslim modernists, as the very heart of what ails Islam and keeps it backward, with the result that these are precisely the laws that have borne the brunt of reformist initiatives at the hands of the modernizing governing elite.
My purpose in this chapter is not to recount the history of modernist initiatives vis-à-vis marriage, divorce, and related laws. Such measures have been described at length by a number of other scholars. My concern is, rather, to examine how the `ulama have debated the norms in question, specifically as they relate to marriage, in order to explicate how they have taken or resisted opportunities to reconsider the position of women in their societies. How have the `ulama negotiated the perceived constraints of their tradition and of customary norms, as well as other imperatives of their particular social, political, and religious contexts, in thinking about the position and rights of women? As will be observed, not a few among them are sensitive to the criticism directed at them, and at their religious tradition, on this score. How have such sensitivities shaped their discourses? How do the more conservative `ulama compare with those who are willing to break – and eager to be seen as breaking – with the inherited tradition on particular issues? How does the reformist language of those who do employ it in various contexts compare with the substance of their reformist concerns? What, finally, are some of the tensions and contradictions in the `ulama's discourses on the legal norms relevant to this discussion? These are the sorts of questions this chapter will be concerned with.