August 29, 2016

The Personal is Political: Gender Identity in the Personal Status Laws of the Gulf Arab States

An Emirati family walking after a rain storm in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

This paper examines personal status law in the six Gulf Arab states, and the limitations PSLs impose on women’s autonomy and the role of women within the family. PSLs have restrictions on women’s autonomy in three areas in particular: marriage, divorce, and child custody. The gendered nature of PSL is an extension of the political values inscribed in constitutional laws and the customary patriarchal norms. The paper examines constitutional articles in each state that deal with PSL and draws on the roles assigned for men and women in the family and the state’s part in promoting those roles. PSLs are claimed to be based on Islamic references, however secular codes are included when there is a political need, such as enforcing a nationality law or public health concern, but not necessarily to protect women’s rights in the family. Selection of particular Islamic schools of thought was based on what was customarily practiced in each state rather than on finding a more responsive code for the best interests of women. The states’ entries into international commitments and treaties have influenced the codes detailing the minimum age of marriage but not to the extent of protecting a child’s best interest.