ArticlesVolume 16, Number 2 (2007)

Legal Pluralism and Women’s Rights: A Study in Postcolonial Tanzania


Shindano is a sixty-year-old woman who lives on the island of Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania.1 She has been residing in the small village of Mkokotoni, where she has had to survive without support from her husband Abu for the last five months. After five years of marriage, Abu ordered Shindano out of his home, telling her to “leave [his]┬áhouse and go back to be with [her] fellow dogs, slatterns, and lunatics.” While Abu initially supported her for a few months, he has not helped her financially for some time. Shindano now seeks to dissolve her marriage to Abu in the local kadhi’s court, claiming that Abu’s statements and actions constitute a divorce under Islamic law. The court denies Shindano’s request because Abu never uttered or wrote the appropriate Islamic divorce formula. She is ordered to return to her husband and treat him well; the court orders Abu to support his wife and respect her.

This story is an example of a typical divorce proceeding within the kadhi’s court system of Zanzibar. Had Shindano been a man, however, or a non-Muslim, or a resident of mainland Tanzania (“Tanganyika”), the result of this proceeding may have been very different. Courts in Tanganyika and Zanzibar each recognize and enforce the right of Muslim men to unilaterally divorce their wives under Islamic law. Yet, Tanganyika’s family law additionally provides for a uniform, secular marriage dissolution process, which is available to both men and women regardless of religious affiliation. In Zanzibar, marriages between Muslims are dissolved solely in accordance with principles of Islamic law, while non-Muslims do not have any official statutes to govern their divorce proceedings.