Legal Change and Gender Inequality: Changes in Muslim Family Law in India


  • Narendra Subramanian is an associate professor of political science at McGill University; he can be reached at

    The author wishes to thank Josh Cohen, Lawrence Cohen, David Gilmartin, Akhil Gupta, Wael Hallaq, Donald Horowitz, Nazia Yusuf Izuddin, Werner Menski, K. Sivaramakrishnan, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Sylvia Vatuk, and four anonymous referees for their comments on earlier drafts; and Ashok Kotwal, Tuli Banerjee, K. Sivaramakrishnan, Akhil Gupta, and Tambirajah Ponnuthurai for providing opportunities to present the article. Research support came from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the International Development Research Centre, and the Fonds pour la Formation de Chercheurs et l’Aide a la Recherche. Research was undertaken in full accord with all pertinent Canadian regulations governing the conduct of human subjects’ research. Earlier versions of the article were presented at the Association for Asian Studies Annual Meeting (March 5, 2004), the University of British Columbia (April 15, 2004), the Association for the Study of Nationalities Convention (April 14–16, 2005), the Workshop on the Post-Liberalization Indian State, Stanford University (June 5–6, 2005), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (February 23, 2006).


Group-specific family laws are said to provide women fewer rights and impede policy change. India's family law systems specific to religious groups underwent important gender-equalizing changes over the last generation. The changes in the laws of the religious minorities were unexpected, as conservative elites had considerable indirect influence over these laws. Policy elites changed minority law only if they found credible justification for change in group laws, group norms, and group initiatives, not only in constitutional rights and transnational human rights law. Muslim alimony and divorce laws were changed on this basis, giving women more rights without abandoning cultural accommodation. Legal mobilization and the outlook of policy makers—specifically their approach to regulating family life, their understanding of group norms, and their normative vision of family life—shaped the major changes in Indian Muslim law. More gender-equalizing legal changes are possible based on the same sources.