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We are the ones

About the author
Rosemary Bechler is main site Editor of openDemocracy.

All events of this kind have their own shape and dynamics. If Day One was an eager and passionate Tatiana’s letter, not to Onegin, but to an already cynical yet surely reclaimable democracy – we seem to have collectively matured overnight. There are three major themes to this great day’s proceedings: lessons from some extraordinary women who have run for and held political office, strategic thinking from women reporting unforgettably from the front line of war-torn societies, and the sliding into place of the last gargantuan building block for our overhaul of democracy – the battle for women’s human rights.

There can be no-one better to kick off this latter investigation than Shirin Ebadi, with her lawyerlike clarity anchored in the starkness of the Iranian crossroads, and her profound humanity: “The government of a majority won in free elections in a true democracy does not have the power to behave as it wishes: to oppress women, neglect the homeless, disregard other religions or minority choices. Many of the dictators of the world, like Hitler, gained power in elections. Democracy has a framework in which it is practised, or it becomes anti-democracy – its legitimacy derives from these two things which must come together, the votes of the people and respect for human rights.”

She has three points to make about this benchmark of democracy. She wants us to note that when it comes to our unalienable human rights it is important to remember that democracy is “not an absolute concept - a country may be relatively democratic. Look at Saudi Arabia where women do not even have the right to drive their car. We have elections in one month in Iran, but candidates are vetted by the authorities and have to qualify to stand. But we are more democratic than Syria whose presidency is inherited at birth...” There is a crystalline logic to what follows from this: democracy is not born, it is made, by democratic people. In a courtroom twist far more dramatic than any TV whodunit, Ebadi continues, “It starts with us. We are responsible for non-democracy in our countries. We are the ones.” She relents with a womanly closing move that turns out to be more devastating than what has gone before: "Democracy has to be taken care of like a flower. You have to water it, and put it in the right light to stay alive. You cannot pour water on it and forget about it for a month. Democracy has to be protected daily – why? Because we know that power, all power, likes power and will work to increase it. We should not let our governments do what they want. We have to have supervision.”

Charlotte Bunch, next up, from the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership in the USA turns out to be exactly what we need in that regard. She has clearly spent the last twenty years as an indefatigable monitor of the endless inventiveness on both sides of the battle for women’s human rights, the trials and tribulations, the advances that are strokes of genius and the misdemeanours of so many UN member-states. She takes each of Ebadi’s points in turn:

“I would like to frame my comments today primarily around how I think women can use the international human rights system in pursuing deep democracy or substantive democracy in the context of our understanding in the last twenty years of feminism. What we have been doing and must continue to do is to constantly redefine, reinterpret and expand these concepts from the perspective of women’s lives. That means bringing women’s lives into the picture. It does not mean that we are not also concerned with men’s lives. But we view the violations that men experience in a different way, from the perspective of what we know and experience as women.

Look at the vitality of the women’s human rights movement over the last twenty years. We really do now understand violence against women as a human rights issue: twenty years ago human rights organisations would not have accepted that. We understand reproductive rights. We heard in many different voices yesterday about the critical interrelationship between women’s exercise of our political and civil rights, and their economic rights, between property and the ability to exert your rights. This is work women have been doing to reinterpret how we understand human rights, and in this conference we connect that to a more vibrant concept of democracy – something that women have also been working on. For me, this means primarily expanding our understanding of democracy to embrace the private as well as the public sphere."

There are two major challenges she wants to pick up from Ebadi’s opening words. The first concerns how we embed women’s rights into democracy. This, she argues, depends on how we approach the social rights of any individual whose viewpoint or lifestyle, whether as a result of their religion, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, or their political affiliations – may not be in line with the majority. It is a priority in general that we bring our experience (as the minority that isn’t a minority at all) to the creation of a new function for democracy whereby the rights of the people we don’t agree with are also respected. But there is a boomerang here we ourselves must deal with:

“We as feminists often experience this challenge directly in the very difficult position we are often placed in politically today, when the many groups that oppose women’s rights are very skilful in bringing other women to lead the opposition against our ideas about feminism and women’s rights. Once perhaps, we assumed that it was men who were opposing what we were calling for. We have learnt from our general experience that we have to find space for disagreement, find a way of ensuring that our democracy includes the diversity and vitality of all its voices. But this is one challenge I would like to put on the table: how do we, as women working for human rights in this moment work with the reality that, for various reasons, many women understand their own interests not to be with us? How do we work for the rights of women from our perspective in a way which is still respectful of those women, but does not allow their opposition to us to make us afraid or unable to articulate what we see?"

She reserves her remaining minutes for a second challenge which gradually, over these days, is surfacing like a benign submarine, a vessel bearing of a lot of our hopes for the future: the women’s human rights mechanisms that have been hard won through various human rights treaties and conventions. These are clearly dear to her heart:

“We have evolved a practise that is very vibrant - civil society engagement with governments through the shadow reports, the alternative reporting that women do for the CEDAW conventions or the Beijing platform or the UN Resolution 1325 peace processes. This is a model that should never be limited to once every four years when your government reports to CEDAW. We should think about all the places in the international system where governments are speaking for you and you might want to challenge what they are saying when they present facts about women or facts about their democracy in the UN setting.

I have seen many women over the years coming to the UN and getting more powerful about what they can take back to their country and demand from their governments through knowing more about what international promises have been made and how we can strengthen one another.”

This last point takes us back to the relativism of democracy, and perhaps a rather more uplifting example than a comparison of the relative merits of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria. For many of us here, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which as recently as 1979, was the first international human-rights instrument to explicitly define all forms of discrimination against women as fundamental human-rights violations, and the CEDAW mechanism, offer an exemplary model of unity in diversity, and how people should behave towards each other in a democracy.

What has been so crucial for this success has been the evolution of a ‘cultural pluralist’ position on women’s rights which continues to champion the universal nature of human rights while allowing for diversity and discretion in how these are interpreted and implemented in different contexts. Sub-national, national and international CEDAW campaigners, seeing how crucial it was for international human rights standards to be properly contextualised in each specific culture, rejected the notion of ‘strong’ inter-governmental enforcement mechanisms bringing ‘deviant states’ into compliance. Instead they set up a transnational implementation network open to the kinds of negotiation inspired by local knowledge. This recognised that the successful promotion of human rights requires a concept of human dignity and of self-determination on the part of the individual and the community. Charlotte Bunch sees this kind of mechanism as an exemplary model for a more general application:

“So I think this is the exercise of our democracy. This is our practise of human rights and democracy. It is not confined to elections. It is a question of monitoring, making sure that governments are doing what they say they should be doing.”

Our speaker is clearly frustrated that she can't go into more detail at this stage. But she knew she would be and came prepared. She invites all those who want to help her make those mechanisms more effective to lunch the following day. Deep democracy, it seems, never rests.


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