Blog of the IACL, AIDC

a network of constitutionalists from countries throughout the world

Book Review: Constitutions and Gender, Helen Irving (ed.), Edward Elgar 2017

 Dr. Lourdes Peroni reviews the recent publication of Constitutions and Gender, edited by Helen Irving.  Dr. Peroni is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Ghent University, Belgium, Faculty of Law.


 Constitutions and Gender, edited by Helen Irving of Sydney Law School, is the first handbook dedicated specifically to the theme. The Handbook makes a major contribution to a field that, though “still young and emerging,” has witnessed important shifts in recent years (12). As Irving notes, the inclusion of the subject “constitutions and gender” in the Edward Elgar Research Handbooks in Comparative Law series is itself “a welcome and revealing development”(5). Aware that constitutions impact differently on women and men, the volume’s contributors discuss a rich variety of topics, from important classic feminist themes like reproductive rights and pornography to often overlooked ones like nationality and poverty. Nineteen chapters are grouped under five overarching themes: constitution-making, constitutional design, constitutional practice, constitutions and citizenship, and constitutional challenges.

In the constitution-making part, authors address key issues such as whether participatory constitution-making mechanisms empower women and advance gender equality (Suteu) and the implications for women’s equality of constitutions that shield customary laws from constitutional scrutiny (Bond). In the constitutional-design part, contributors focus, among others, on federal arrangements and gender (Vickers) and on tools developed to empower advocates of gender equality to engage in constitution-building processes (Allen).

The authors writing on constitutional practice address various fascinating questions. Jackson responds to what to make of the question “is there a general interpretive method likely to promote gender equality?”. Anagnostou addresses “why, how and to what extent” mobilization at the national, supranational and international levels has transformed gender equality in European national constitutions. And one thought-provoking question on which Baines concludes is “Would intersectional claims focused on race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, disability, age and/or other identities unite or divide women-dominated constitutional courts?”

In the “constitutions and citizenship” part, authors tackle important questions such as the constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples and its impact on indigenous women (Davis) and women’s access to citizenship/nationality (Irving). The constitutional challenges discussed in the last part, finally, include promoting gender equality within plural legal systems (Williams), the influence of patriarchy on constitutions (Kang), and regulating pornography and gender-based hate speech – the last a much-less-discussed challenge for gender equality (Gelber and Stone).

constitutions and gender image

Although their focus varies, many chapters grapple with the potential and limits of formal constitutional gender equality commitments to bring about real equality. Authors recognize that having equality provisions in constitutions is important. At the same time, they remind us that these formal achievements need to be assessed within larger political, cultural and social contexts. They invite us to think about the broad sources of inequality, including social and economic sources. In encouraging readers to reflect on gender (in)equality in theory and in practice, the contributors expose the differences (and links) between formal and substantive equality, between inclusion and transformation, between legal and social citizenship. On the whole, the Handbook serves as an important reminder that, in the words of one contributor, “women’s equal citizenship remains an unfinished project” (Rubio-Marin).

The Handbook is not just essential reading for legal academics and practitioners working on (comparative) constitutional law and gender. Experts from disciplines outside the law will also find it useful, especially those interested in constitutional gender issues related to policy, advocacy, and development. The Handbook discusses an impressive array of countries, including Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Germany, South Africa, Tunisia, and the United States. Some authors tie in developments in international law, such as CEDAW, and supranational jurisdictions, such as the European Union and the Council of Europe.

The remarkable breadth of topics covered in the Handbook illustrates that constitutions and gender cover vast scholarly ground. Envisioning the way forward, I join Cornelia Weiss in expressing the hope that Edward Elgar will take the opportunity of this handbook to publish a series of Research Books in Constitutions and Gender. Topical suggestions for the future are already on the table, including Weiss’s suggestions of sex-selective abortions and gender-based restrictions on freedom of movement. Irving herself suggests important “gender-and topics” such as women in the military and women and national security. Another topic “crying out for feminist attention” is gender-based hate speech, a form of speech that is spreading in social media but has not received sufficient legal and scholarly attention (Gelber and Stone). Constitutions and Gender acts as a valuable springboard for future concerted, critical and engaged scholarship on the gendered nature and impact of constitutions.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on September 9, 2017 by in Comparative law, Social rights, Uncategorized.
%d bloggers like this: