Feminine perspectives

A stereotype-defying woman herself, this law professor will study how other bold women are transforming Islam from the inside

Madhavi Sunder studies issues at the point where culture and law intersect.

Madhavi Sunder studies issues at the point where culture and law intersect.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Growing up in New Jersey, Madhavi Sunder was always active and outspoken—and annoyed by stereotypes that portray Asian women as just the opposite: homely and submissive.

“Stereotypes are just that—stereotypes,” said the Indian-American. “They don’t even begin to describe the dynamism of any time in history.”

As an undergraduate at Harvard University, she defied that stereotype and fought to expose injustices against all women. A feature she wrote about date rape for the campus newspaper proved to be a catalyst for the formation of a commission that examined the issue and developed a new policy. Her senior thesis tackled discrimination against female journalists at The New York Times.

Now a professor at UC Davis’ King Hall School of Law, the 36-year-old Sunder remains interested in women’s issues and their role in shaping the culture of their world. With $100,000 in funding from the Carnegie Corp., she’s preparing to embark on a two-year project that will take her around the world—including to the United Kingdom, Malaysia, India, Morocco, Egypt and France—to research the ways in which Muslim women are reforming their faith to reconcile it with modernity.

“We typically see the West as the producer of all these great concepts like freedom and equality,” said Sunder, who is a Hindu. “My intent is to show that women from these Muslim communities are taking the old Enlightenment the next mile … and are at the forefront of this work.”

Sunder’s boldness was inspired in part by her maternal grandmother, who took care of her for a year in India while her physician parents completed their residencies in the United States.

“Her dynamism and courage are both things that have gone down in our family history,” said Sunder, noting that her female relatives in India are strong activists also inspired by her grandmother. “She’s been an inspiring figure for me.”

A college tennis champion and president of the student government, Sunder’s grandmother also earned an advanced degree in physics from a top university, got her doctorate and became a professor. These are remarkable achievements for any woman but even more so considering this was in India at a time and in a culture in which women rarely accomplished such things. She also married the man of her choice while her four older sisters had arranged marriages as teenagers.

Sunder practiced intellectual-property law in New York after graduating from Stanford University Law School, but her interest in cultural dissent led her to teaching and the opportunity it affords to conduct her own research. Her findings reveal that oftentimes, the law doesn’t give individuals freedom to redefine their culture.

“Law is not very well equipped for getting involved in these debates because it has a conception of culture as static,” Sunder said. As an example, she cited the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2000 that sided with the Boy Scouts in barring troop leaders who were homosexual because the Scouts deemed the leaders’ sexual orientation as inconsistent with Boy Scouts culture. The court gave the leaders the power to define their culture, even if that meant excluding gays.

“The Supreme Court in the Boy Scouts case didn’t look at the fact that 50 percent of the membership was pro-gay and supported [having gay members],” she pointed out.

It’s a similar concern about the rigid intersection of law and culture that got Sunder interested in how Muslim women are affected by it and how many are doing something about it. In many Muslim societies, the leaders have been the ones to interpret Islam and impose their own practice of the religion on the people. “Law tends to side with the fundamentalists rather than reformers and dissenters,” Sunder said.

The Taliban is a notorious example: “The Taliban was committing grievous human-rights violations, but the international community failed to get involved. Everyone threw their hands up in the air and said that it was religion, and we can’t interfere with Islamic principles,” said Sunder. “They took [the Taliban’s] claim that it was the right interpretation.”

This kind of fundamentalism is a major reason Muslim women are taking the lead in redefining the faith, Sunder believes. Bringing women’s perspectives into historically male interpretations is more challenging than simply abandoning religion and seeking freedom outside of Islam.

From her own family’s history, Sunder knows that cultural dissent doesn’t come without a price. Her grandparents were ostracized because their marriage wasn’t arranged, a secret that was kept even from their children.

Muslim reformers as well have faced criticism. One is Amina Wadud, an Islamic-studies professor from New York, who in 2005 led a mixed-gender group in prayer, breaking with tradition that bans women from that role. The reaction from many Muslims was negative. “It’s not easy to go against the traditions,” Sunder said.

Muslim women like Wadud, who risk disapproval to modernize Islam, are the subject of Sunder’s research that she expects to publish as The New Enlightenment: How Muslim Women Are Bringing Religion Out of the Dark Ages.

“The biggest challenge will be trying to convey the diversity of Muslim women’s experience around the world while at the same time trying to find unifying themes in their work,” said Sunder. “Muslim women are not a monolithic group.”

Indeed, women in different countries have very different experiences with Islam and the law. The Taliban in Afghanistan required women to cover from head to toe, as do some present-day governments in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. Patriarchal cultural traditions also have played a role in shaping how the religion is practiced. France and Turkey, however, have led efforts to prohibit women from wearing the hijab, or Islamic head covering.

Other differences, such as class and education, play a part in reformers’ effectiveness. Wadud, who studies and teaches the Koran, had some leverage. But not all would-be reformers can make similar claims about their credentials.

Sunder is eager to meet these women and learn their strategies for reform on the issues she speaks so passionately about.

“These women are not just engaged in strategic law reform. They are re-theorizing the way we understand freedom itself. They argue that we are not free until we have equality in the private spheres of culture and religion and an equal right to religion.”