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Women's Rights, Gender, and Public Power

8 October 2005

I would like to take up Rosemary Bechler's invitation to think through some of the issues raised in the Women's Hour debate yesterday between fellow blogger Inge Relph (former chair of Womankind and member of the 1325 working group) and Robert Whelan (of the think tank Civitas), particularly in relation to the article by Srilatha Batliwala 'Women transforming power?' that Rosemary posted on the blog on October 6.

Srilatha is spot on in her claim that we as feminists need 'to articulate more clearly what engendered public power and policies look like' so that the inclusion of women into political processes affects a feminist transformation of politics rather than a coersion of women into what might be called patriarchical politics (for example, see Women, Peace, and Security in the Cultural Sphere).

Yesterday's debate between Inge and Robert offers an opportunity to point out one way in which the engendering of public power and policies works in relation to the question of rights. Listening to that debate live yesterday with a small group of women, all of us were struck by how Robert crafted his argument in support of human rights as a way of arguing against women's rights. Robert's argument is that human rights are universal rights, belonging to all humans, and that this therefore makes women's rights not just superfilous but 'special' and (as Rosemary has pointed out) 'Western'. As he put it, 'I'm an old fashioned child of the Enlightenment, and I think human nature's pretty much the same all around the world and that rights apply to men and women as members of the species homo sapien. I'm not in favor of dividing women off and saying we have to look after their rights in a particular way or that they should have more rights or we need to have special provisions in the constitition or whatever. I think we give everybody universal human rights and try to make sure that they're upheld.'

Robert's position makes several suspect assumptions -- that rights are universal (and presummably easily universalized) to humans, that this universal claim to human rights is based in human nature, and that if human rights are not taken up this is not a systemic problem but an individual one. Translated into the debate between human rights and women's rights, what we have here is a suggestion that the trouble with women is NOT that they have been systematically excluded from political participation but that they have failed to claim their human rights and uphold them. By implication, it follows that it is silly to then grant women even more, extra special rights when they can't even effectively exercise the rights they already have, the rights that are already available to them.

Sadly, Robert's position is all too familiar. It is another example of blaming women for being failed by political systems that repeatedly marginalize them. And, extra sadly, it is very clever. For by first suggesting that man and women are equal and therefore have equal access to rights and then by implicitly blaming women for ineffectively claiming their rights, no attention whatsoever needs to be directed toward considering how political mechanisms function to withhold these rights from women in practice (practices that range from a masculine understanding of 'human nature' as if this were neutral to the constitutional denial of voting rights to women).

Inge's reply firmly redirected the debate to the realities of these failures. Invited to respond to a question about quotas, Inge said, ' I'm personally not deeply in favor of quotas, but it has been shown to be a useful tool. I certainly would rather go for Robert's view that its based on human rights and that there is a natural equity. Sadly, the reality is not the case.' And then she gave examples.

What got left unsaid because of the constraints of time and of radio formats is how, even before we get to debate real-world examples, often the debate has been compromised because of the gendered terms in which it has been cast. Inge only had the opportunity to embrace the idea of human rights as universalized and no time to take apart the gendered assumptions that informed Robert's particular articulation of his idea of universal human rights. I suspect that while this was clear to the vast majority of us following this blog and probably to the vast majority of Women's Hour listeners, for some Robert's position sounded reasonable, rational, and neutral. It was 'reasonable and rational', but its reason and rationality were very gender specific, and therefore it was not neutral. But by appearing to some to be neutral, it illustrates how the engendering of public power and policies work to make it seem reasonable, rational, and neutral to deny women rights, particularly the right to political participation.

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