Of rights and risks: are women’s human rights in jeopardy?

Human rights instruments have enabled women’s movements to access a normative and analytic framework for fighting discrimination, and rights discourses have been deployed to legitimise women’s demands for social and economic rights, political representation and well-being. Maxine Molyneux spoke to Deniz Kandiyoti about the new trends and threats to women’s rights and UN frameworks.

Maxine Molyneux
21 January 2013

Deniz Kandiyoti: As we enter 2013, we are assailed daily by news of violence against women, as well as sharp popular reactions against these incidents. Yet the climate for a level headed discussion of gender equality and women’s rights seems more unfavourable than ever at the international, regional and national levels. Shall we start with what is happening at the international level?

Maxine Molyneux: Yes, there are certainly some very worrying trends. We are at some distance from the high period of liberal internationalism in terms of human rights and democracy. The spirit of optimism that accompanied both the successive waves of democratisation in various parts of the world, and the gains made by the international women’s movement during the Beijing process, had drained away by the latter half of the 1990s, and even more so after  9/11 when women’s rights were caught up in the so-called 'war on terror'.

While almost all governments have signed up to UN frameworks on women’s rights, and there have been many positive changes as a result,  there has also been growing resistance to rights agendas and diminishing trans-national activism in support of women’s rights. One indication of this was the passing without notice of the Beijing Plus Ten (B+10) events in March 2005 in marked contrast to the Fourth World Women’s Conference in 1995 held in Beijing which was attended by more than 30,000 participants. No full-scale international conference could be contemplated for B+10 for fear of risking the gains won in Beijing and strenuously defended in the Beijing Plus Five negotiations in 2000. B+10 was confined to an intergovernmental meeting where the mood was defensive, and the main achievement – an important one - was to re-affirm the broad consensus encoded in the Platform for Action approved ten years earlier. And there are now concerns about holding a 5th Women's World Conference in case those gains are overturned.

What explains these changes? Two things are significant here: one is that there has been a critical reassessment of the Beijing process itself, with doubts variously expressed as to its representivity, the content of its proposals, and the universalist pretensions of the overall project. All these questions can be and should be debated, but ultimately there may be no agreement on core values. The strongest critiques of international rights frameworks coming  from within the relative safety of the Western liberal democracies are joined by positions allied with varieties of anti-imperialist, religious and/or conservative positions and these are less interested in discussion than in rejecting the very premise of universal rights. So where these ideas have influence, they have helped to weaken commitment and have divided activists.

The second important factor is one far less widely analysed and discussed in these debates over human rights - namely the growing influence of illiberal, religious and conservative forces worldwide. In recent decades these became increasingly effective in the battleground over women’s rights and at the very moment when women’s movements were losing their vitality, purpose and leadership. It is striking that in contrast to the outpouring of critiques of feminism, trans-national women’s movements and advocacy, there has been so little commentary on, or analysis of, the trans-nationalization of conservative forces and their international alliances, often but not always religious in character, mobilizing against women’s rights.

For all their limitations, human rights instruments have enabled women’s movements to access a normative and analytic framework for fighting against discrimination, while they reframe taken-for-granted socio-economic injustices against women as human rights issues.  The  efforts to change family and property laws, reduce the age of marriage to protect girl children, make domestic violence a legal offence, establish quotas for women’s political participation, make rape in conflict zones a crime against humanity  - all show how rights discourses can be deployed to legitimise women’s demands for the improvement of their legal status, social and economic  rights, political representation and well-being. In many parts of the world these gains are now under attack or have been lost.

There is a great deal at stake for women in rights discourses, but also for all people who suffer from discrimination and inequality. I would stress one important point here. Political discussions of women’s rights are too often confined to the rights and wrongs of the UN system and its frameworks and the national machineries and NGO sectors that are involved in implementation. There needs to be some recognition of the broader meaning and history of oppressed groups' demands for rights. The aspirations for equality,  justice and respect, the core principles of human rights, have arisen across history and cultures. We have only to think of the demands that animated slave and caste uprisings, anti-racism and labour movements, to see that rights and justice are modern aspirations that are common to humanity as a whole. Feminism is one movement for social justice and citizenship among many.

But if women’s rights are to be part of a genuine global conversation, they require some translation and adaptation to local contexts. The trans-nationalization of debates about ‘gender justice’ has accompanied the growth and diversification of the global women’s movement, which has established the idea of feminisms in the plural. Today there is greater awareness of the political and ethical dimensions of the interface between global instruments and local settings than at the onset of the Beijing process and this has opened a critical space for dialogue as evident in the World Social Forum and other international associations.

DK: If gains in women’s rights are weakening at the international level the ways in which these broader trends manifest themselves in the everyday lives of men and women are country and region specific.

MM: Indeed, debates over women’s rights have become more intensely regionalized in recent years, demanding closer scrutiny of the particular context within which they are framed and fought for. Citizenship, the contract between individuals and the state, has come to have a more particularist character - especially with the rise of identity politics, such as indigenous movements in the Americas. There is a strong demand from segments of the popular classes for respect for difference, for laws and customs that are valued. Legal pluralism has become more acceptable to many governments, and although there are risks for women if cultural identity or religious interpretations undermine their equality claims, respect for cultural difference does not have to be ‘bad for women’ if it is accompanied by a commitment to core human rights or the principles they embody. The danger for women, as for others, is when cultural/religious particularisms suppress or fragment polities and prevent the development of citizen movements that could effectively pursue rights agendas and challenge unjust laws and authoritarian regimes.

Afghanistan and other parts of West Asia illustrate other problems for women’s rights where gender relations and liberal rights discourses have become politicized through external intervention or through deeply corrupt secular dictatorships.

Of course it can be politically convenient for governments (and some religious or identity-based political movements) to oppose women’s human rights on the grounds that they are  an alien western imposition, while at the same time gaining popularity by invoking the values of a ‘lost world’ which also happen to be profoundly (or selectively) undemocratic and illiberal. The strongest denunciations of human rights often come from those who are all too ready to oppress their own people, especially if they are female or dissenters of any kind, yet who call upon human rights instruments when it suits them. Such double standards seem all too often to go unchallenged.

DK: The upheavals of the 'Arab spring' have, yet again, thrown open the whole question of the effects of post- authoritarian transitions on women’s rights. How do you think this plays out?

MM: What is interesting is that it was during these political crises that popular discontent and women's demands were able to find expression in a more universal language of democratic reform. As in democratic conjunctures in Latin America, when authoritarian rule is challenged and reform movements erupt, social movements can acquire considerable influence over events. In Egypt and Tunisia the revolutions brought a partial reconfiguration of politics that allowed women's demands some space of articulation, even among the more conservative and religious elements, which seemed for a moment to bow to pressure and allowed women some voice and presence, although more adverse trends are now becoming apparent. This might be read as an example of how reform in women’s rights depends both on universal values and on democratic politics. 

DK: One supposes that the situation is less worrying in Latin America?

MM: Yes, in Latin America the context is quite different in several important respects: Latin America’s principal political referents are derived from the Enlightenment tradition and are secular not religious, even though religious conservatism has become a significant political force. Latin America has had a peaceful and a consensual transition to democracy which is now consolidated, and the majority of countries are centrist or left of centre. Conservative religious forces have gained power within sections of the populace and populist leaders are finding it useful to embrace religion. Opus Dei representatives, Pentecostalists and hard line Catholics are increasingly represented in government. Yet women’s rights advocates have been able to defend rights and to make some gains through recourse to the law in those countries with robust legal institutions and independent judiciaries. This has happened even in the most difficult case of reproductive rights. Against the organised might of the churches, feminists won abortion rights in Colombia in 2006 by invoking women’s constitutional rights through an appeal to the Supreme Court. Without robust democratic institutions, but sometimes also when they exist, the danger is that conservative forces are able to effectively institutionalise and secure their power base stifling channels of opposition. Politics, culture and religion is a deadly combination for women's rights.

If this is the fate of the 'Arab spring' it may nonetheless be difficult to erase the appeal of human rights. Although many governments try to do so by invoking their Western origins, it is unconvincing to argue today that ideas of rights and justice are quintessentially of “the West”. In an increasingly trans-nationalized world, they have acquired both local and regional resonance. Concepts of rights and justice have a complex and diverse genealogy, and even Liberal conceptions of rights with their origins in the West, have been contested, radicalised, extended and pluralized over the course of their history, in part through the efforts of  social justice movements – some of which were active in these very same contexts as are now denying them local validity. 

DK: One of the features of the Arab revolutions has been much publicized attacks on women. How do you explain this phenomenon?

MM: There are several linked elements - the radicalism of revolutions is often expressed through overturning the values and institutions of the previous regime. These illiberal semi- secular democracies of the Middle East were modernising regimes and they brought in some positive changes in women’s rights. Gender relations were also changing as a result of the processes of modernity, sometimes in ways that offended conservative sensibilities. The explosion of rage against these regimes expressed a widely shared disgust at their extravagant kleptocracies, sham democracies and painful neglect of the conditions under which the majority of the population were living.  All this provided politically organised religious radicalism with fertile ground.  

The violence against the women demonstrators has many tributary currents – some of it came from ascendant political organizations, some was spontaneous. It was made  possible by weak,  absent or complicit law enforcement which allowed these groups and individuals to  act with impunity.  In essence it was seen as punishing women for their transgressive behaviour and  to put them in ‘their place’ - that is, off the street and silenced as political actors and citizens. Women it seems are only deserving of protection when they submit to the terms of male guardianship.

Violence against women appears to be on the increase. It seems to be associated with greater brutality with new phenomena such as the serial murders of young women workers in Mexico and other parts of Central America. There are laws everywhere against violence against  women but they are usually ineffective for a whole variety of reasons. In Latin American democracies women have gained many formal rights, but lack many substantive rights. In relation to violence as far as safety on the street is concerned - a civil right - there is little attention paid to women’s vulnerability to attack. In many countries where the rule of law is patchy, and police reform is long overdue, violent perpetrators can all too often act with impunity. This occurred most strikingly in the case of the femicides in Mexico where the  sadistic brutality of these murders was  ‘performed’ by men in groups by enacting a violent sexual torture on young women workers and mutilating their bodies. No one was prosecuted and attempts to bring indictments routinely failed. Mexico, and now Guatemala, have been  brought before the Inter American Human Rights Court for failing to bring prosecutions for these murders.

Violence and other forms of attack on  women, are not the result of  lingering ‘traditional mentalities’ but are associated with some of the disruptions and cultural forms brought by modern processes of economic and social change. It is, after all, the fastest growing economies, China and India, that account for nearly 80 per cent of all ‘missing women’ in the world. Here it is a question of weighing the gains of modernity against its darker side, a theme dramatically present in the history of the 20th century. If we think about what the darker side of modernity has brought to women we cannot neglect what is happening to sexuality. We have never had more sexual freedom at any  time in modern history but how are women placed in relation to these new freedoms? What is the significance and social impact of the growing sex industry and of the fact that pornography is using ever more violent and extreme depictions of sexual gratification -acted out mostly on women?  Should we not be concerned that this is becoming normalised in public culture through novels, games and film as merely another form of ‘playful phantasy’?  One wonders what the consequences are of the greater threat of the illegal sex industry, now a multi-billion global phenomenon, and entering new markets all the time. Whether pornography is illegal or legal, across the world young men, many with little prospect of a good education or jobs, sit in internet cafes watching this stuff – what impact is it having on their own relationships with women? How can women who lack means or independence defend themselves if men’s desire is shaped by images of violent sex?  Women are also active in these spaces but are also extremely vulnerable to its risks.

DK: Despite incontrovertible evidence of violence and intimidation targeting women, it is increasingly difficult to find a common language to address these issues. The political fragmentation of  platforms for women’s rights now seems greater than ever. What in your view have been the main drivers behind this state of affairs?

MM: One factor is that differences among women, of class, education, belief and identity have been played upon by religious and nationalist forces. One example is through moral discourses surrounding  reproductive rights. In Latin America conservative religious forces have mobilised women around abortion issues, assisted by idealised projections of motherhood, a strongly emotive referent and an important cultural status for many women who may in other respects lack social standing and respect. It goes without saying that this idealisation does not generally translate into safe motherhood or into women’s political power and influence.   

Sexual and reproductive rights are divisive issues and a particular and predictable focus of this conservative trend. States and parties with conservative agendas have been actively supporting the accreditation of anti-choice NGOs whose numbers and influence have been growing in recent years. But having said that, societal attitudes have liberalised and these forces have been less successful in bringing behaviour into conformity with the harsh laws that they support. 

Another challenge is the 'adoption' by so many women of oppressive and patriarchal norms and practices as their own. We have on the one hand, the sexualised identity of laddishness, pole dancing, highly sexualized dress etc. where male fantasies are seemingly embraced as though they represent a form of liberation. And on the other, we see increasing numbers of women appearing to embrace the wearing of the full hijab out of choice when many other women from the same culture find it oppressive. So, at different ends of the spectrum, it makes a common language hard to find.  

DK: What are the burning, unresolved questions all this leaves us with?

MM: There are many old but still valid questions, and there are new questions that have arisen in regard to new social and political developments.

Old questions concern political effectiveness - how can social justice and human rights movements bring positive change in a period of history where social and political inequality has reached unprecedented levels and power elites have become unaccountable and socially irresponsible. For legislative change to curb that power, and tackle its consequences, we turn to the institutions of democracy, parliaments and political parties. These are the representative institutions of government and still have some power to bring about change. It worries me that political parties remain so unattractive to young people and to many other people who are concerned about these developments. Part of this is due to the fact that in many parts of the world parties have failed to reform themselves, and with the exception of Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT) we have few examples of new parties succeeding in breaking the mould. Brazil’s political dynamism should give us food for thought. 

In recent years we have seen social movements organising around environmental and other issues, and new generations are becoming active in pursuit of greater accountability from governments and social and economic justice. Women are strongly present in these movements and some are leaders like the Chilean student movement’s 24 year old Camila Vallejo who describes herself as a communist.  There are also welcome signs of growing activism by young feminists around a wide range of questions – including pornography and violence, advertising imagery, employment and abortion rights. These movements  are an example of  youth discontent but also of its disengagement from parliamentary politics.

The new communications industries have drawn millions into conversations around the world and we have seen that they can play an important role in democratic struggles, at least for a time. But without representative power in formal political institutions it is difficult to see how these new ways of doing politics can secure sustainable change on their own.  In the proliferating spaces for politics today, it seems that women’s rights and justice advocates whether women or men need to be present in a whole range of locations  to have their voices heard, including at the centre of  the institutions of power if they are to defend or build on such gains as may have been achieved.


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