Women’s rights in repetition: Nation building, solidarity, and Islam in Zanzibar


Women’s rights are commonly understood as having emerged out of major women’s conferences from the 1970s onward and as aligned with major UN conventions. But contemporary women’s rights in Zanzibar reflect a longer history of women’s movements on the isles and a greater diversity of influences, including socialist state feminism in the 1960s and the increasing engagement of activists with a transnational Islamic feminist network.

This dissertation explores historical continuities and discontinuities between three women’s movements in Zanzibar, beginning with a socialist state feminist movement in the 1960s that presented women as embodying umoja [unity] and as at the front lines of building and developing the nation. Second, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, in the wake of a global human rights and democratization movement that swept across Africa, a media-based women’s movement emerged on the isles. Women journalists affiliated with the Tanzania Media Women’s Association (TAMWA) translated transnational women’s rights ideas into a Zanzibari cultural context, in the process imbuing them with language and imagery from the socialist past. Third, in the mid-late 2010s, Zanzibari women’s rights activists engaged with a transnational Islamic feminist network as they sought to reform the archipelago’s Islamic kadhi’s courts. Representing a departure from UN understandings of women’s rights, Zanzibari civil society activists relied most heavily on Islamic feminist arguments in their 2017 kadhi’s court reform efforts.

In my dissertation, I put forth several arguments related to rights and memory. Underlying my whole dissertation is a methodological argument that women’s rights are best understood from an ethnohistorical approach, using historical and anthropological sources and methods. In Chapter 1, I additionally argue that Zanzibari women’s understanding of rights—which are often packaged with language from the socialist 1960s—are heavily informed by their own political alignments and by memory. Using a case study approach, I argue in Chapter 2 that one woman’s appropriation of historical language during a millennial media-based women’s movement did not represent her endorsement of the past but rather her efforts to mediate collective memory. I argue throughout my dissertation that anthropological frameworks for understanding human rights should incorporate historical memory as a central analytic concept.

In Chapter 3, I transition from relying primarily on archival evidence and a few oral histories to relying on participant observation, media sources, and key informant interviews. I chronicle the efforts of a coalition of Zanzibari women’s rights activists to reform the archipelago’s Islamic legal system, during which they relied on a transnational Islamic feminist network emerging from Sisters in Islam in Malaysia. Activists passed some reforms but were unable to convince lawmakers to allow women to serve as kadhis [Islamic judges]. In their efforts to reform the kadhi’s courts, activists relied both on transnational Islamic feminist arguments and on transnational women’s rights conventions, which highlighted the limits of transnationalism in a local context. Moving forward, activists plan to harness an increasingly faith-based umoja in their continuing efforts to ensure the right of women to serve as kadhis.

Chapter 4 is similarly ethnographic and explores the grassroots social involvements of a non-elite woman from the Tanzanian mainland in a women’s madrasa [Islamic studies group] and in a women’s vicoba [savings cooperative]. Her negotiations of agency across different social groups are multiple, nonlinear, and often contradictory, which reflects relational understandings of rights and obligations as well as the multiplicity and diversity of Zanzibari communities. It also highlights the continuing resonance of gendered language, ideas, and imagery from the socialist past, even in the midst of a deeply rooted Islamic revival. The future for women in Zanzibar will depend in part on how they negotiate multiple solidarities—that often come with different expectations and obligations—in their daily lives.

Dissertation related publications

“Anything that Departs from Justice to Injustice is Not Part of the Shari’a:” Women’s Rights Activism and Islamic Legal Reform in Zanzibar

I am contributing a chapter in an upcoming volume to be published by Lexington Books in 2020 about African women’s networks.

Zanzibari women’s rights activists have been organizing for reforms to the archipelago’s Islamic kadhi’s courts for over a decade, including an especially controversial reform that would allow women to adjudicate Islamic legal cases as kadhis [judges]. In their kadhi’s court reform efforts, activists networked nationally and transnationally, cultivating spiritual umoja [solidarity] as a national coalition and as part of a transnational Islamic feminist network. In 2017, Zanzibar’s House of Representatives passed a law incorporating many of their reforms but not a stipulation that would allow women to become kadhis. In response, women’s rights activists produced a few strategic texts, calling on the president to delay in signing the bill and appealing to Zanzibar’s Organization of Muslim Clerics (JUMAZA). Activists tried and failed to establish peaceful relations with JUMAZA, which ultimately impeded their ability to pass more meaningful reforms. Moving forward, Zanzibari women’s rights activists are working to nurture a cadre of young women Islamic scholars, who will be prepared to become kadhis when the law changes. They envision a future in which young women scholars of Islam will bring about a depatriarchalized Islamic legal system through an ability to empathize with women litigants and a deep knowledge of their faith.

Building the Nation and Mediating Collective Memory: Exploring the Roles and Representations of Zanzibari First Lady Fatma Karume, 1964-2018

I am also working on an article about Zanzibar’s first first lady, Fatma Karume, for a special journal issue on African first ladies.