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Her Day in Court: Women?s Property Rights in Fifteenth-Century Granada

Author(s):Shatzmiller, Maya
Reviewer(s):Lydon, Ghislaine

Published by EH.NET (April 2009)

Maya Shatzmiller, Her Day in Court: Women’s Property Rights in Fifteenth-Century Granada. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. ix + 277 pp. $29 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-674-02501-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Ghislaine Lydon, Department of History, University of California, Los Angeles.

Maya Shatzmiller’s latest book is a study of women’s rights to property in the final years of Muslim Spain. It will be of great interest to scholars from across fields and time periods because of the author?s focus on Muslim women’s legal sources and the breadth of her comparative historical analysis. Shatzmiller, a medievalist of the Islamic world, examines a collection of 95 documents dated from 1421 to 1496 that were transcribed, translated and edited in 1961 by Luis Seco de Lucena (Documentos ar?bigos-granadinos). These records are primarily contracts drafted by Muslims in Granada during and a few years after the Spanish Reconquista. In addition, Shatzmiller consulted other sources, including the well-known collection of fatwas compiled by the sixteenth-century jurist Ahmad b. Yahya al-Wansharisi and a wide array of Islamic legal references to interpret her case studies. The book?s most important contribution is that it brings to light the various ways that Muslim women acquired, lost and protected their property rights through marriage and family exchanges, and in the marketplace.

Her Day in Court is divided into three sections (organized according to the topics addressed in the legal sources), preceded and followed by an introduction and a conclusion. After briefly describing her sources, Shatzmiller’s introduction reviews several Maliki legal reference manuals available to Muslim judges in fifteenth-century Granada. She lays out the extent of women?s property rights, namely their rights to own, sell, donate and inherit property, which were exceptional when compared to the rights of contemporaneous non-Muslim women.

Part one, entitled ?Rights and Their Acquisition,? is the largest section of the book. Appropriately, the first chapter deals with the question of the brideprice (al-sadaq), which is the amount paid by the groom to the bride as part of the marriage contract. In many ways, it was a reverse transaction to the dowry of Christians and Jews. It was at the consummation of the marriage that a Muslim woman?s status changed from minor to adulthood, and she thereby achieved her full rights to property. In theory the sadaq was a married woman?s personal property, but it was the subject of multiple forms of contestation in divorce, widowhood and even during marriage. Shatzmiller analyses two marriage contracts and several fatwas to discuss sadaq payments, and the claims to it by women?s fathers. She documents the practice of paying the bridewealth in two installments which she contends was ?a deviation from the strict Qur?anic rule? that became the norm in Maliki legal practice (p. 23). With regards to their rights to such property, she argues that the father of the bride (or her brother as in the first case presented in the chapter) usually pocketed the first installment made by the groom. A wife?s acquisition of the second installment of the brideprice typically was indefinitely deferred with the contract?s stated payment date not respected. Shatzmiller then concludes that while women were entitled to the bridewealth, in practice they often were denied their rights to this property.

In Chapter 2 Shatzmiller discusses women?s property acquisitions and property transfers in the form of ?gifts,? while Chapter 3 deals with inheritance law in which Muslim women had legally guaranteed claims that were usually respected and enforced in Granada. Here she argues that, with the exception of charitable endowments (waqfs) in which women tended to be short-changed, the equitable practice of Islamic inheritance law served to protect their property rights. In Chapter 4 Shatzmiller discusses what she terms ?delayed acquisitions,? or the multiple ways by which families allocated property away from potential inheritors.

Part two of the book, ?Body and Soul,? contains two chapters. In Chapter 5, where she develops a conceptual approach to a Muslim woman?s body as property, Shatzmiller discusses the rights of mothers and wives to receive maintenance fees, breastfeeding pay and child custody from their husbands, and she examines the different legal positions held by jurists concerning such entitlements. Chapter 6 draws attention to the very interesting problem of the status of property right transfers in cases of religious conversions from Islam to Christianity and vice versa.

The last section of the book, entitled ?Economy and Class,? contains two chapters focused on women?s economic activities, namely their wage labor and commercial transactions. Chapter 7 begins with an examination of how Islamic legal traditions treat wage labor contracts on the same basis as sales contracts. Shatzmiller sees women?s ability to engage in wage labor as a measure of their emancipation, based on a review of early modern European historical literature. She concludes that Muslim women?s right to join the labor force was upheld by fifteenth-century jurists despite the fact that it ?transgressed the mores of women?s conduct? (p. 174). In Chapter 8, where she offers a clearer picture of market activity in fifteen-century Granada, Shatzmiller discusses women?s ?sales and loans? of property, namely in real estate, land, and irrigation rights. She introduces her chapter with a partnership agreement drawn between two women to purchase a store in Granada?s central market. If Islamic contractual law was ?gender-blind,? as Shatzmiller contends with due reason, then one wonders what explains that the legal practice in Granada was for women to employ male legal representatives to stand in for them during the drafting of their contractual agreements. Perhaps this was part of the local legal culture in Granada, where the noble Muslim women whose activities are documented in the sources lived under forms of seclusion.

Her Day in Court, is a very useful and informative book, however, Shatzmiller?s sources do not allow her to make too many generalizations. In fact, her statement ?that unlike other court records, they show a higher degree of women?s [legal] involvement in Granada than anywhere else? (p. 1) is somewhat unconvincing for several reasons. First, the high volume of legal records concerning women in Granada is consistent with patterns of legal activity elsewhere in the Muslim world (Layish, 1982; Meriwether, 1999; Peirce, 2003; Rappaport, 2005; Sonbol, 1996; Tucker, 1998, 2008; Zilfi, 1997). It is precisely because, as Shatzmiller recognizes, women?s property rights were so well defined in Islamic legal traditions that women with resources could best engage in protecting their rights and generating a paper trail. Secondly, that a portion of the 95 documents of Seco de Lucena?s collection were drawn from the archives of a convent where resided the nuns of the Comendadoras de Santiago (1961, vii), and that two other documents published by the same Spanish Arabist and examined by Shatzmiller were found in the Colegio de Ni?as Nobles, or noble girls? college, of Granada, must further account for the high percentage of female content. Still, Shatzmiller?s intriguing claim that ?the documents show a rise in the size of women?s property ownership? (p. 180), while quite plausibly linked to property ownership transfers in the turbulent period of the Reconquista as she explains, deserves to be confirmed against a larger data set.

Finally, this reviewer would have wished the author had provided a description of the political regimes and legal systems in Granada to allow for a better appreciation of the sources. It would have been helpful, for instance, to get a sense of both the roles played by Muslim judges, jurists and scribes in the drafting of legal agreements and how all of these legal service providers interacted with the Nasrid monarchy and later the Christian authority. Moreover, a description of the so-called Islamic court of Granada, its location and operation, is missing from this study. In fact, it is worth pondering if it is accurate to describe Islamic legal practice in Granada as emanating from a single house of law and whether Islamic law was not, instead, dispensed by individual Muslim judges and legal scribes. Given their reliance on legal documents to protect property rights, one wonders about the levels of literacy and legal knowledge of the women and men described in the sources, and if, as elsewhere in the Muslim world, they may have engaged personally in drafting some of their own contracts in the presence of the appropriate number of witnesses, since the mediation of a judge was not a priori required, with the exception perhaps of divorce cases initiated by women. But such remarks should not detract from the importance of this informative study that will cause historians to consider Muslim women?s property rights and their documented participation in the economy of late Muslim Spain, and generate a comparative framework for other researchers of the early modern world.

Ghislaine Lydon is the author of On Trans-Saharan Trails: Islamic Law, Trade Networks and Cross-Cultural Exchange in Nineteenth-Century Western Africa (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Middle East
Time Period(s):Medieval