Personal Status Law Reform

Benjamin Thomas White

in The Emergence of Minorities in the Middle East

Published by Edinburgh University Press

Published in print July 2011 | ISBN: 9780748641871
Published online March 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780748653287 | DOI:
Personal Status Law Reform

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This chapter provides an account of the French attempts to reform personal status law in Syria, and also discuses their failure and what the controversy reveals about the much larger issues of state transformation. The first part explains the function of personal status law in general terms, showing how it raised questions going far beyond the merely personal. The rest of the chapter looks at the issue from three different perspectives. First, it outlines French attempts to reform personal status law in Syria during the mandate – attempts which failed in the 1920s and the 1930s, in each case leading the High Commission to decide that the question should be left to the legislation of local governments. The chapter also identifies the development of a sense of being a minority among certain populations. Next, it turns to the Syrian communities affected by the reform, and places those effects in the wider context of the development of nation-state. Rather than involving ‘minorities’ from the onset, this is one of the areas where the changing nature of the nation-state made the concept of minority meaningful. Finally, the chapter focuses on the opposition to the reform among Sunni Muslim ‘ulama’, showing how minority's paired concept, majority, fitted into that opposition. This controversy illustrates the process by which both of these categories became meaningful, but at the same time highlights the dangers of taking them as objective categories for analysis.

Keywords: personal status law; state transformation; nation-state; minority; opposition; Sunni Muslim; majority

Chapter.  21504 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Society and Culture

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