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IA-Forum Interview: Madhavi Sunder

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International Affairs Forum: In regard to women’s rights in the Middle East, are there any countries making notable progress?

Madhavi Sunder: Right now, throughout the Muslim world, all eyes are turned to Morocco and Turkey, where women’s groups have had some tremendous victories in reforming family law. Family law is extremely important to everyone, but women in particular as these laws determine the minimum age for marrying, women’s status in the family, and rights to divorce and custody of children.

In Morocco women’s groups campaigned for more than a decade to reform their family law, known as the Moudawana. Under the old Moudawana, the law had stipulated that wives must obey their husbands and that the family was the responsibility of the husband alone; only husbands had discretion to divorce. The reformed Moudawana adopted in 2004 incorporated nearly all of the changes the women’s groups were seeking, including recognizing women and men as equals in a marriage, providing for equal rights to divorce to both women and men, and setting 18 as the minimum marriage age for both women and men (previously the minimum marriage age was 15 for girls and 18 for men).

Notably, the new Moudawana in Morocco is Islamic, egalitarian, and modern at the same time. Reformers in that country have actively sought to promote an egalitarian Islam that is dynamic, consistent with modern constitutional and human rights principles, and which reflects current lived realities.

Similarly, the last decade has witnessed major changes in women’s status under the law in Turkey. In 1998 Turkey adopted a law recognizing protection orders to combat domestic violence. In 2001 they enacted a new Civil Code that defines marriage as a partnership of equals; that same year Turkey passed a constitutional amendment that redefines the family as an entity “based on equality between spouses”. In 2004, Turkey reformed the Penal Code in ways that recognize gender equality and women’s right to bodily integrity and freedom from sexual violence. These reforms were the result of active participation over a number of years by coalitions led by more than one hundred Turkish women’s groups.

What is most exciting is that women throughout the Muslim world, from Indonesia to Malaysia to Pakistan, are looking at these successful efforts in Morocco and Turkey as models for reforms in their own home countries. Activists and scholars today are networking with one another, sharing legal arguments, reform strategies, and even religious doctrinal arguments and competing interpretive approaches to contest the notion of one homogeneous “Muslim” law that is oppressive to women. By showing that other Muslim countries, in particular, have reformed their laws to respect gender equality and Islam at the same time, activists in many countries are putting pressure on their own governments for legal reform. For example, the Moroccan activists began more than a decade ago with a “One Million Signature” campaign to protest the discriminatory laws in place at the time. Today in Iran, women have embarked on their own “One Million Signature” campaign to protest “gender apartheid” in their laws.


IA-Forum: How optimistic are you about the future of women’s rights in the Middle East?

Prof. Sunder: I am very optimistic. Last month I went to Kuala Lumpur to witness the launch of a global movement to reform Muslim family law and to claim Muslim women’s right to reinterpret Islam from within. More than 250 Muslim feminists from 47 countries gathered there for a five-day conference organized by the Malaysia-based feminist group called “Sisters in Islam.” The journalists, scholars, and grassroots community organizers attending the conference had a common goal and modus operandi: nearly all are using Islamic feminist reformist arguments to counter discriminatory laws and practices back home. The women—from Afghanistan, Gambia, Indonesia, Iran, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, and even Saudi Arabia, to name just a few of the countries represented there—came together to learn and share the best arguments to use as ammunition against religious mullahs or conservatives who argue for the status quo.

At the core, the women claim their right to read and interpret Islam for themselves. As the founding director of Sisters in Islam and the organizer of the meeting, Zainah Anwar, declared at the opening of the conference, “We are all experts here” with the authority “to think, to feel, to question what it means to be Muslim in the 21st century.”

This strategy of reform within Islam remains controversial, especially among many avowedly “secular” feminists, many of whom were at the conference. At the same time, as I argue in a draft book supported by a Carnegie Corporation, “cultural dissent” is a critical strategy for bringing about cultural and legal change. The reformers expose pluralism and dissent within Islam to demystify the experts (putting debating mullahs on Muslim satellite TV), network and share successful arguments and strategies (especially religious arguments) at meetings like this one, and declare women’s right to participate democratically in remaking cultural and religious meaning themselves. Today women activists in the Muslim world are negotiating the impasse between religion and women’s human rights in international law.

Islamic fundamentalism is a global phenomenon. So, too, is this movement to counter the hegemonic discourse on what it means to be Muslim. This movement, too, has grand ambitions. “Can we dare hope that within the next 10 years,” Anwar asked at the opening ceremony of the meeting in Kuala Lumpur, “that 25 more Muslim countries in the world will join Morocco in recognizing marriage as a partnership of equals, where we will have the equal right to marry, to divorce, and to the custody of our children?”


IA-Forum: You say you're optimistic about the future of women in the Muslim world. But which countries do you think are lagging behind in terms of women’s rights?

Prof. Sunder: The situation for women in countries such as Iraq and Iran has become even more fragile in the context of the U.S. occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus in countries such as Iran, where there had been some gains for women in recent decades, the space for activism and reform has again narrowed, with hardliners rising to power in part because of widespread anger at the West. So although Iranian activists, for example, have embarked on an ambitious “One Million Signatures” campaign challenging “gender apartheid,” many protestors have been arrested and jailed. In early 2009 the home and offices of Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi were attacked and many of her co-workers have been arrested, as well.

Another issue of deep concern is the situation regarding violence against girls’ schools and girls on their way to school in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The women and men in the Afghan Parliament who care about addressing such grave conditions and many more, including the issues of child marriages and women's health, are struggling daily to bring attention to these social issues and to pass helpful laws. But they need more support for their efforts, from the very top leaders in the country and from those of us outside the country, as well. President Obama in his Inaugural Address said to those of you abroad working for peace, "we support you." We need to lend our moral support and perhaps other kinds of support, as well, to these reformers seeking freedom, equality, and a better life for women and men in these countries.


IA-Forum: How do you think women can reconcile the notion of being independent women free to live life on their own terms (traditional Western feminist view) with the religious doctrine of Islam which has them hiding their faces and subordinate to their husbands?

Prof. Sunder: First let me emphasize that the values of freedom, equality, and human rights are not just Western feminist values but are also enshrined both within Islam, and within the local cultures, histories, and constitutional laws of many Muslim counties and communities. So a key strategy for women seeking religious meaning and community, and freedom and equality, will be to contest the false depiction of a monolithic Islam that mandates the oppression of women. In fact the history of Islam is much more heterogeneous, contested, and pro-woman and equality than this common vision suggests. Just highlighting this plurality of options, including pro-equality options, within Islam challenges the powerful claims of religious and political leaders that there is just one way to be Muslim.

I recently spoke to one young British Muslim woman. She was born in the U.K. and growing up, considered herself as Pakistani, not “Muslim.” But after September 11, and then later bombings in London, she and many others like her began to identify as Muslim first. She donned an Islamic veil for the first time in her life, thinking that’s what being “Muslim” required. But this woman then told me that after a friend questioned her about the veil, she began to read more and more, from multiple translations of the Qur’an to scholarly writings on the subject. She eventually learned that there is no mandate that a Muslim woman wear the veil—this is a personal choice. And she chose then to take off her veil. My point is that she learned for herself that there are options within “Muslim” identity and that individuals can choose what’s best for them even within a religious context.

But I also want to emphasize that reformers are not only arguing for plurality and rights purely from within the religious discourse. Women activists in Morocco and elsewhere have successfully pointed to changed social facts – such as more women going to college, and working – which also challenges archaic laws premised upon a family structure where men were the primary earners. Women can help to seek religion and rights, faith and freedom, by pointing to model Muslim nations or communities that have paved a way for establishing more egalitarian approaches.


IA-Forum: What challenges do you think women in the Middle East in particular will face in modernizing their laws (as in Morocco and Turkey)?

Prof. Sunder: There are many challenges but let me highlight three.

First, there is still much work to be done to distinguish those practices that are the result of divine will, and those which derive from human interpretation of religion. The Enlightenment has been called “the great separation” for separating religion from the state. I call “the next great separation” the act of distinguishing that part of religion which is ineffable, and divine, and that which is the result of human interpretation. For example, in the Muslim world today, pro-equality activists increasingly distinguish between Shari’ah, or divine law, and fiqh, which are man-made laws. Once laws are exposed as the result of particular interpretations, and of men living in a specific time and place, then we may more easily recognize these laws as contestable and thus eligible for reconstruction. So this is the first challenge—showing people that even “religious” laws are contested, debatable, and eligible for change.

The second challenge will be in recognizing the authority of activists, and women in particular, to challenge traditional religious interpretations. Many will challenge women as not having traditional religious training and credentials. But women are increasingly answering this challenge, declaring the right of all people’s to read the Qur’an themselves and to learn, debate, and interpret religion for themselves, rather than merely deferring to traditional authorities.

Finally, women and other pro-equality activists in the Muslim world face frequent accusations that their arguments are “Western” or “foreign” and “un-Islamic.” To challenge this argument, Muslim women are networking with other Muslim women all over the world, showing that the reforms in places like Morocco and Turkey are Muslim and progressive at the same time. This evidence helps defeat the argument that equality is un-Islamic.



Madhavi Sunder is a visiting professor of law at the University of Chicago

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