Women's emancipation and human rights: "Can These Bones Live?"

Is the human rights movement just a couple of big Northern organisations?  The emancipation of women is one of the greatest human rights issues, but Meredith Tax says experts still think they can answer these questions without taking women's human rights work into account

Meredith Tax
9 June 2014

Are the ideas of human rights so elitist and out of sync with popular movements that we might as well just give up?

Like Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones, SOAS professor Stephen Hopgood has been raising these questions for some time.  In "Human Rights: Past Their Sell-by Date", he begins, "We live in an era not of triumph, but of the end times for universal human rights." Why? Because the US is losing its dominance in world politics and, in a new multi-polar world, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch will have less influence. “Human Rights are a New York-Geneva-London-centered ideology focused on international law, criminal justice, and institutions of global governance. Human Rights are a product of the 1%. The rest of the world, the 99%, sees human rights activism as one among many mechanisms to bring about meaningful social change"...

The trick of any argument is in how you define your subject.  If you start by ignoring grassroots and local groups, and turn the very idea of human rights into the property of two enormous transnational nonprofit corporations whose approach has concentrated on pressuring states, you will conclude that human rights work is Western and elitist.  Since noticing the existence of an autonomous women's human rights movement would undercut his argument, Hopgood ignores it.

But what the Beijing program of 1995 called "the empowerment and advancement of women, including the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief" has been a central issue in human rights since the 19th century, pursued in several distinct waves of feminist activism. In the nineties, this movement redefined itself in terms of "women's human rights." Unlike Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, it is not controlled from any central office; its vibrancy is expressed in a million websites, single issue campaigns, grassroots organizations, and local efforts that operate largely underneath the international media radar.  But these efforts are real and important and changing people's lives.

Marsha Freeman of the Human Rights Center at the University of Minnesota responded sharply  to Hopgood's "end times" article, noting that his model centered on "corporate human rights entities" and ignored women, and that even his rundown of the successes of the nineties left out the great "women's rights are human rights" breakthrough in Beijing and the work in Vienna and Cairo that led up to it.  She said:

"The model for addressing women’s human rights, South and North, differs greatly from the definition of human rights originally promoted by the corporate human rights entities and, indeed, still promoted by many states and institutions. The critical element of women’s human rights violations is discrimination, plain and simple. The historic battle to define violence against women as a human rights violation was framed not only as a matter of criminalizing the violence (which was itself a breakthrough in 1993 and in many places remains an issue), but of recognizing that women experience violence as a result of massive discrimination in all areas of life, from son preference and discriminatory family laws through discrimination in education and economic and political life. Women experience human rights violations as a result of not being considered fully human".

The Cold War human rights paradigm, which centers on civil and political rights, is severely limited in its ability to address such fundamental discrimination.  If pressured, its defenders may be able to stretch their minds far enough to include reproductive rights and state violence against women, but they recoil at talk of  non-state actors, economic and social rights, or religious and cultural discrimination. Aryeh Neier, founding head of Human Rights Watch and then of the Soros Foundation, says as much: "Human rights, in my understanding of the concept, are a series of limits on the exercise of power. The state and those holding the power of states are forbidden to interfere with freedom of inquiry or expression. They may not deprive anyone of liberty arbitrarily. They are prohibited from denying each person the right to count equally and to obtain the equal protection of the laws. They are denied the power to inflict cruelty. And they must respect a zone of privacy".

In this paradigm, all power belongs to the state. But what about the power of a father or husband to use violence on his dependents?  The power of an armed gang like Boko Haram to kidnap hundreds of schoolgirls? The power of a religious leader to condemn a woman to death by stoning?  Some violence against women can be addressed by demanding that the state enforce laws against domestic violence but what about wartime rape?  What about pogroms by one religious group against another?  What about the demonisation of lesbians and gays?  Forced marriage?  Genital mutilation?  Sexual harassment in the workplace? 

One of the great contributions of the feminist movement has been to insist that human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent, meaning, among other things, that women's rights are as important as men's and that you can't separate civil and political rights from social and economic ones the way Neier does.  Even Article 19, one of the lynchpins of the Cold War paradigm—"Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers"—has been reinterpreted to deal with issues like gender-based-censorship, the right to literacy, and the right to information whether or not one can read and write.  Stemming from the central insight that the personal is political, feminists have also emphasized that it is critical to deal with human rights violations by non-state actors, whether they be fathers, husbands, armed gangs, militias, or religious extremists.

Hopgood frames human rights as belonging to an elite, even appropriating Occupy's language of the 1%.  But this evades the central question, which is not what Amnesty and Human Rights Watch will do in a new political era, but how to root the ideas of human rights in the progressive social movements that need them.

Popular education is central to this task. How else can you work in situations of civil war and in societies where notions about individual rights barely exist, where women have been taught they are sub-human, where gays and lesbians are so despised they have to hide who they are?  As an Afghan activist told me, "In my country women don't even know they have rights, so education for girls should be compulsory and human rights must be part of the curriculum".

Last summer I was privileged to hear a speech by Fateh Azzam, founder of the Arab Human Rights Fund.  Discussing Arab spring in Egypt, he said there was very little interaction between older human rights advocates who knew how to write laws and use the international system, and the young activists who had tremendous creative energy and desire for change but no plan.  He said, "This points to a great need for capacity building".

Azzam's article, "In defense of 'professional' human rights organizations," reinforces this idea: "I disagree with the assumption that effective defense of human rights is an either/or proposition: to be broad-based grass roots social/political movements committed to longer-term vision of equality and justice, or institutionalized and career-minded professional advocates. The struggle for social justice requires both. Grassroots social movements can and should take up human rights as advocacy tools towards democratization and a more just and balanced social order. Indeed, everyone should do so. Such a social movement approach can exist side by side with the more 'professionalized' rights defenders working on specific cases of torture, land rights, forced evictions or freedom of expression. They play different and complementary roles".

Azzam calls for a process in which youth and women's movements and civil society groups intersect with human rights organizations so that they can learn from one another and develop a common view of what needs to happen.  Such synergy is essential to the future of the revolutions in places like Egypt and Ukraine.  It is also the answer to Hopgood's doom and gloom.  If the human rights movement can get out of its academic enclaves and office towers and reach across generational and organizational barriers, it will find ways to reinvent itself and get the popular strength it needs. 

A lot of that strength lies in local work being done by women.  Hopgood's version of human rights, which ignores this strength and work, has certainly reached its end-time.  But that doesn't have to be true for the rest of us.  As in Ezekiel, if we are inspired by prophecy, we can make these dry bones live.



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