Being asked to speak on 'women's rights and democracy'

7 October 2005

The Women’s Hour programme this morning gave Inge and her opposite number seven minutes on ‘women’s rights and democracy’, with Martha Carney, a well-known household name in interviewing for the BBC. The programme was billed like this:

"This month is the fifth anniversary of UN  Resolution 1325, which calls for the full and equal participation of women in  conflict prevention, peace processes and in drawing up democracies. But the  former CIA Middle East specialist Reuel Marc Gerecht commented recently that  equal rights between the sexes is not a precondition for the growth of  democracy. So do women’s rights matter?

Martha is joined by former chair of Womankind and member of the 1325 working group Inge Relph, and Robert  Whelan of the think tank Civitas."

Robert Whelan kicked off by saying that he didn’t see why women’s rights should be particularly privileged by such calls as in Resolution 1325, for example in post-conflict situations where people were trying to build or rebuild democracy: it was a question of universal human rights. He was of course in favour of women’s equality – but not if this made out that their rights were any different from anyone else’s... He was sounding more plausible than on a previous contribution to Women’s Hour two years ago, when he was advocating a return to social stigma as the only way to combat one-parent families...

Inge pointed out that this depended on your understanding of democracy, but hers was one that required the participation of the people – and how could you understand a democracy that missed out half of the population? (She might have said ‘more than half’ in many post-conflict situations... Some of you may be able to listen to the programme if you like... and see how it unfolded from there.)

But I just wanted to flag up a few points about both the BBC’s and Robert Whelan’s approach to this brief conversation - because I thought they were rather typical of the latest version of what Srilatha describes in her article as the clever way in which ‘patriarchy’ neutralises the challenges against it:

  • The opening premise of the programme - that there was some distinction to be made between women’s rights and human rights, and that one could be privileged at the expense of the other - goes against the underlying premise of the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which was precisely the first international human rights instrument to explicitly define all forms of discrimination against women as fundamental human rights violations -  that was what made it the most far-reaching international commitment of governments working for gender equality to date in 1979.
  • Interestingly, Robert Whelan really had it in for CEDAW, which he described as worse than compromised by the kinds of governments who had promptly signed up in support of it, despite their awful human rights records. Martha Carney agreed that this tended to nullify its impact. Later, Whelan complained that the people who needed to be affected by these treaties never were – I don’t think he can really have it both ways... But he tried to, and couldn’t answer Inge when she asked what would be a better way of proceeding.
  • But this allowed him to make another point which he seemed very keen on – that the United States had refused to sign up to CEDAW – and been much criticised for this – the US, he explained, simply doesn’t sign these things.. And look at women’s rights in the USA in comparison, and how vastly superior they were ...

This fed into another, more general point, whereby the UN was taken to task for churning out meaningless – the implication was – self-serving - treaty-rhetoric at a level which put it completely out of touch with anyone over whom it could hope to have any influence...

So, the implication was – why should anyone in the middle of a conflict situation, bother their heads about anything quite so empty of meaning and distracting as women in the first place, and their rights as guaranteed by treaty in the second ? And moreover – why should anyone bother about UN Resolutions which only existed on paper...

  • Lastly, having pretty well reflected the interests of ‘the men who get on with the things that really have to be done’ when others are messing around making a nuisance of themselves, for example, raising issues about constitutions that get in the way of a settlement... Whelan came up with the predictable challenge that all this emphasis on women was very much a western concern anyway and an imposition on peoples who from Ancient Greece onwards, had not shared the enthusiasm for women’s participation in society – and should not have this thrust upon them.

That, of course, is a huge debate – one so important for all of us, with so much richness to it, that I only wish women around the world, from whatever faith or no faith background – really could get engaged in discussing these issues right away, the sooner the better, in this blog, in other parts of openDemocracy – and in every other forum.  The world would be a better place for it. But for that to happen – as Inge pointed out – women have to be allowed to have a voice and encouraged to have one, and they have to be able to speak openly and safely.

The ‘insidious’ nature of the way this point was made, was that it purported to be out of consideration, and ‘on behalf of’ women in non-western countries – dividing us down the middle, and serving very well to counter our challenge – a much more demanding challenge I think – which is, ‘If you seriously want to recommend democracy all over the world, what you have to make possible is the participation in democracy of all the people – regardless of gender, class, faith, colour, sexuality, and all the other categories of possible discrimination. Otherwise you are not serious about democracy... And you probably have to start with peace...’

I take that to be something like the challenge that underpins UN Resolution 1325 -  what do you think?

PS By the way – if you are interested in CIA Middle East specialist Reuel Marc Gerecht, so is James Wolcott of Vanity Fair - http://jameswolcott.com/archives/2005/08/the_shame_game_1.php

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