Sex, Law, and Sovereignty in French Algeria, 1830–1930

by Judith Surkis

"Sex, Law, and Sovereignty opens up new ways to understand debates about religious and sexual pluralism, and marvelously demonstrates how attention to the paradoxical effects of instability and the workings of transgression, scandal, and crisis, lead to critical analytic perspectives."—Todd Shepard, Johns Hopkins University, author of Sex, France, and Arab Men, 1962–1979

"This is a masterful study of the ways in which sex and law were inextricably intertwined in the elaboration of French rule in Algeria. Its great virtue is to demonstrate in careful detail, with an impressive range of material (from court records to novels), exactly how the conquest of Algeria repeatedly challenged the very ideals of the secular universalism in whose name colonization was carried out."—Joan Wallach Scott, author of Sex and Secularism

During more than a century of colonial rule over Algeria, the French state shaped and reshaped the meaning and practice of Muslim law by regulating it and circumscribing it to the domain of family law, while applying the French Civil Code to appropriate the property of Algerians. In Sex, Law, and Sovereignty in French Algeria, 1830–1930, Judith Surkis traces how colonial authorities constructed Muslim legal difference and used it to deny Algerian Muslims full citizenship. In disconnecting Muslim law from property rights, French officials increasingly attached it to the bodies, beliefs, and personhood.

Surkis argues that powerful affective attachments to the intimate life of the family and fantasies about Algerian women and the sexual prerogatives of Muslim men, supposedly codified in the practices of polygamy and child marriage, shaped French theories and regulatory practices of Muslim law in fundamental and lasting ways. Women's legal status in particular came to represent the dense relationship between sex and sovereignty in the colony. This book also highlights the ways in which Algerians interacted with and responded to colonial law. Ultimately, this sweeping legal genealogy of French Algeria elucidates how "the Muslim question" in France became—and remains—a question of sex.

Judith Surkis is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. She is author of Sexing the Citizen.


  • publisher
    Cornell University Press
  • publisher place
    Ithaca, NY