by Catherine Warrick. Burlington: Ashgate, 2009. 214pp. Hardback. £55.00/$99.95. ISBN: 9780754675877.

Reviewed by Stefanie Nanes, Department of Political Science, Hofstra University. E-mail: stefanie.e.nanes [at]


How do governments pursue legitimacy? More specifically, how do relatively new regimes, governing diverse societies, pursue that elusive goal? In her new book, LAW IN THE SERVICE OF LEGITIMACY: GENDER AND POLITICS IN JORDAN, Catherine Warrick argues that careful tailoring of the legal system is one means by which states pursue legitimacy. While a state’s functional competence is important, “the most fundamental element of legitimacy, particularly in developing countries, is the aspect of cultural appropriateness” (p.4). Warrick’s attention to the relationship between culture and political system has its political science roots in Almond and Verba’s classic study, THE CIVIC CULTURE: POLITICAL ATTITUDES AND DEMOCRACY IN FIVE NATIONS, while her specific focus on state legitimacy returns to Michael Hudson’s ARAB POLITICS: THE SEARCH FOR LEGITIMACY. Of course, neither of these books took gender very seriously. Noting that “women’s social roles are politicized as women’s roles in a way that men’s are not politicized as men’s roles” (p.5), Warrick ties together gender, culture, law and the quest for legitimacy. The book takes culture seriously but does not reduce all political phenomena in Jordan to culture. Nor does it rely on the facile clichés that are common even in some academic literature about the Middle East.

It is not entirely clear, however, how the author is using the term “culture,” as it is never formally defined. Neither is it clear why it is specifically through the legal regulation of women that regimes choose to legitimate themselves (or are compelled to by their societies). While the author is certainly correct in noting that the nexus between culture and legitimacy has yet to be fully investigated, it is worth asking why it is the Muslim Middle East that so often comes under this type of analysis. As it stands, the Middle East seems to be the region forever trapped by its “culture.” It would be remarkable if someone took up Warrick’s call and looked at political culture and contested state legitimacy in the West. The current Tea Party movement in America comes to mind as an excellent possibility.

Warrick’s book picks up where Laurie Brand’s WOMEN, THE STATE AND POLITICAL LIBERALIZATION: MIDDLE EASTERN AND NORTH AFRICAN EXPERIENCES left off in 1998. Brand’s work (in which Jordan is one of three case studies) examines women’s political status in Jordan in the context of a liberalizing transition. Although Warrick dots her book with references to Jordan as a democracy, or a possible democracy in progress, the liberal opening in Jordan has stalled and even retreated in some respects (Lucas 2003, Ryan and Schwedler 2004). This [*228] point does not necessarily undermine the book, as Warrick’s analysis sheds needed light on the current state of affairs in Jordan. As such, it is complementary to Amira Sonbol’s recently published WOMEN OF JORDAN: ISLAM, LABOR AND THE LAW. Sonbol’s work takes up the contradiction of Jordanian women’s high literacy rates but low rates of participation in the work force, concluding that the legal structure and cultural factors in Jordan limit women’s participation in all aspects of the public sphere. While Sonbol asks “what explains Jordanian women’s low rates of labor force participation given their high rates of literacy,” Warrick asks a question with the causal arrow pointed in a different direction: “how does the state employ gendered laws to stay in power?”

To answer this question, Warrick lays out her book in three parts, roughly divided into theory (Part I), areas of the law that impact women specifically (Part II), and a concluding section on formal and informal institutions that complete the picture of women’s political standing in Jordan (Part III). The first two chapters in Part I introduce the book and lay out the theories and concepts that inform the study, including tradition (and modernity), hegemony (specifically the two hegemonies in Jordan, “royal-liberal” and “traditional”) and Habermas’ theory of legitimation crisis. The third chapter introduces the key concept that will inform the remainder of the book: the dual legal system. Like many Arab countries, Jordan has a dual legal system, which incorporates elements of both religious and secular law (usually of European origin). Dual legal systems “are neither accidental nor anomalous but rather represent purposive choices by the state for dealing with a host of political issues, particularly the need for legitimacy. Dual legal systems provide a flexible framework for social regulation, the exercise of state power and the maintenance of popular legitimacy in various sectors of society” (pp.42-3). This duality is central to Warrick’s argument and to the Jordanian state’s quest for legitimacy. Beginning with its creation in 1921, Jordan has had to satisfy disparate societal elements, traditional and modern, in a delicate balancing act of regime maintenance. Through its dual legal system, the Jordanian regime satisfies some part of each of these constituencies most of the time, and thus maintains its legitimacy. The author does an excellent job of subtly disputing many commonly held assumptions about the Arab/Muslim Middle East. She rejects the overstatement of the “Islamic-ness” of law in Arab states, provides evidence that shari’a law is contested and changing over time and establishes that religion is not the same as tradition. One primary concern about the theory section, however, is that there is no theoretical treatment of gender and law. Given that a central argument of the book is that the legal management of women is central to the regime’s legitimation practices, some theoretical treatment of gender and the law seems to have been in order.

The four empirical chapters in Part II give a wide sense of women’s legal status as it relates to the criminal code (Chapter 4), nationality law (Chapter 5), personal status law (Chapter 6) and the quota for women in parliament and the program for women in the military [*229] (Chapter 7). The criminal code discriminates against women in two notable ways: by allowing a rapist to marry his victim to escape punishment and by granting a vastly reduced sentence (3-6 months) to men who murder their female relatives in crimes of honor. In each case, it is “not the rights of women, but the nature of society (that) was the question considered relevant in evaluating the law and its purposes” (p.83). A woman who has engaged in sexual relations outside of marriage (even suspected sexual relations, in the case of honor crimes, or forced sexual relations, in the case of rape) is considered destabilizing to society, culturally speaking; society’s balance is restored when that deviance is erased, either through the woman’s marriage or murder. These are difficult subjects to convey to a Western audience; Warrick is to be commended for her thoughtful and disengaged analysis. Jordan’s nationality law, like nationality laws in most Arab countries, prescribe that nationality can only pass through men in their roles as husband and father. Jordanian women may not pass their citizenship to their husbands or children, making nationality law the clearest way the Jordanian state considers men and women different kinds of citizens (p.107).

The chapter on personal status law addresses a key issue for all women in the Middle East, where marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance are governed by religious law. More accurately, personal status law is governed by one particular version of religious law adopted by the state at a given point in time, for its own ease and legitimation purposes. In doing so, the state “lends its authority in support of this body of social regulation,” but avoids contestation as it claims to enforce divine will (p.114). The final chapter in this section describes Jordan’s recently implemented quota for women in parliament and its program for women in the army. Warrick’s work on the quota contributes nicely to the developing literature on gender quotas in the Arab world (Abou-Zeid 2006, Howard-Merriam 1990). The section on the program in the army is particularly valuable given how little has been written on the subject. Having just completed my own field-work interviewing women who were elected to municipal councils in Jordan, I noted that several of these councilors had served in the army and they tended to be among the more assertive members. The success of this program in the army (usually a conservative body in any polity) at the urging of the monarchy (also, usually a conservative force) in advancing women’s participation provides a tidy example of the bundle of contradictions that characterize Jordanian politics. The chapters in this section are all well researched and extensively documented. Taken together, they provide a detailed understanding of the legal challenges that women face in Jordan.

The first chapter in Part III offers a broad overview of the organizations and institutions that constitute the women’s movement in Jordan. The following, and penultimate, chapter offers a creative lens for understanding the possibility for beneficial change on behalf of women in the absence of actual legal change. Using non-legal (although neither illegal nor extra-legal) means, Jordanian individuals and institutions work to transform “the practical landscape of the [*230] law,” which “has been altered in ways that both improve women’s legal protections in the immediate term and will likely serve as a basis for progress in the longer term” (p.161). The recently created Family Protection Department of the Public Security Directorate is a case in point. While no law has been created or changed to address domestic violence, this program aids female victims of domestic abuse, while also creating a slow transformation in the views of police officers who were previously less-than-sympathetic to victims of domestic violence. As Warrick points out, however, the rhetoric of “family protection” has its costs. While “protecting family unity” is probably the only culturally appropriate rhetoric available to address these issues, this very language may trap women in violent domestic situations to keep families intact.

This book is an up-to-date, in-depth, carefully researched examination of how regimes use gendered laws to maintain their legitimacy and the legal challenges women face in Jordan specifically. As such, it makes contributions to women’s studies, Middle East studies and comparative legal studies. Warrick’s analysis of dual legal systems and presentation of the emergence of the rule of law in a developing country should be of particular interest to legal scholars.

This would be an excellent book for a number of audiences, including undergraduates studying the Middle East, policy practitioners who work on gender in the Middle East and law students interested in comparative law.

Abou-Zeid, Gihan. 2006. “The Arab Region: Women’s Access to Decision-making Process across the Arab Nation.” In WOMEN, QUOTAS AND POLITICS, ed. Drude Dahlerup. London. Routledge, 168-93.

Almond, Gabriel and Sidney Verba. 1965. THE CIVIC CULTURE: POLITICAL ATTITUDES AND DEMOCRACY IN FIVE NATIONS. Little, Brown and Company.


Howard-Merriam, Kathleen. 1990. “Guaranteed Seats for Political Representation of Women: The Egyptian Example.” WOMEN & POLITICS 10 (1): 17-41.

Hudson, Michael. 1979. ARAB POLITICS: THE SEARCH FOR LEGITIMACY. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Lucas, Russell E. 2003. “Deliberalization in Jordan,” JOURNAL OF DEMOCRACY 14 (1): 137-44.

Ryan, Curtis and Jillian Schwedler. 2004. “Return to Democratization or New Hybrid Regime?: The 2003 Elections in Jordan.” MIDDLE EAST POLICY 11 (2): 138-51.

Sonbol, Amira. 2002. WOMEN OF JORDAN: ISLAM, LABOR AND THE LAW. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

© Copyright 2010 by the author, Stefanie Nanes.