Despite a substantial body of scholarship arguing otherwise, countries of the Middle East and North Africa remain for many the home of women’s oppression par excellence, the headscarf a metonym for patriarchy. Against this background, “women’s rights,” “women’s empowerment,” and other related concepts imply forceful normative assumptions about who wields power and who can exercise rights, and regional scholars focused on gender, including Lila Abu-Lughod (1990, 2013), Fida Adely (2009, 2012), and Saba Mahmood (2006), interrogate the assumptions that render some women “empowered” and others not.

Katja Zvan Elliott’s Modernizing Patriarchy expands on critiques of normative modernizing agendas targeting women by examining the category of “women” as it functions in policy. She asks who, exactly, is targeted in efforts to bolster women’s rights—specifically, in Morocco’s 2004 reforms of the family...

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