The workshop on ‘Law, Orientalism and Citizenship’ was held on 7th November 2013 as part of Oecumene’s Fourth Symposium.
The workshop centered around a paper presented by Lisa Pilgram
examining the socio-legal practices of British Muslims in relation to family law. Pilgram provided an account of an incipient legal field which she labelled ‘British Muslim Family Law’, foregrounded its hybrid character which draws upon both English and Muslim legal frameworks, and proposed it as a site for the development of hybrid legal subjectivities and the creative performance of British-Muslim citizenship. Her presentation was followed by two extended responses by Samia Bano (SOAS) and Morag McDermont (University of Bristol) and an open discussion involving all participants.
Pilgram’s paper, based on her ongoing doctoral research, primarily drew upon qualitative interviews with legal practitioners providing these hybrid legal services. Drawing upon this material, she argued that British Muslims were engaged in a creative negotiation of their British and Muslim identities by making use of this hybrid legal field. More broadly, she positioned her work as challenging a long tradition of legal orientalism. Western accounts of Islamic law, partial and essentialist, tend to portray it as the legal ‘other’ of the West. Through her focus on the practices, experiences and understandings of law which reveal creative merging and navigations between English and Muslim legal orders, Pilgram attempted to unsettle orientalist presumptions of incompatibility between Western and Muslim law and occidentalised and orientalised forms of political subjectivity.
Samia Bano provided the first set of comments on the presentation. Bano raised a note of caution about presuming a homogenous community of British Muslims. She indicated that the migrant Muslim community is quite heterogeneous and that there is therefore a need to qualify claims about a coherent ‘community’ practising British Muslim family law. Bano also felt that inequalities and issues of power within the community should not be sidelined. In particular, she felt that gender inequalities needed to be foregrounded. Which members of the community have the agency and autonomy to function within the new field of British Muslim family law? She felt that these issues should not be lost from view when seeking to challenge legal orientalism.
Morag McDermot provided the second set of comments. McDermot applauded Pilgram’s work for enriching the literature on legal consciousness and citizenship. She appreciated the focus away from the letter of the law to understandings and experiences of law. She did however indicate that it would be analytically productive to differentiate between the experiences of the legal professionals offering the services and the users of the services. Investigating the legal consciousness of these two distinct segments would put forward different questions. More broadly, she argued that the new legal field should be investigated not simply as the site of individual identity practices but also of explicit political action.
The wider discussion, which followed, re-affirmed the value of studying the emergent legal field while keeping in view the differences and inequalities characterising the community of users. The workshop ended with a clear recognition of the need for more empirical research on the subject.
Report by Pawas Bisht