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Human Rights of Women: National and International Perspectives.

As preparations proceed for the 1995 World Conference on Women, feminist human rights scholars and activists face a historical moment of great opportunity and serious challenge. Two recently published collections of papers on "women's rights as human rights" provide excellent support for the project of developing the theoretical and practical underpinnings of feminist human rights.(1) Neither Human Rights of Women: National and International Perspectives nor Reconceiving Reality: Women and International Law claims to survey definitively the full range of issues that face women with respect to the international law of human rights; no single book could do so. Both books do address challenges to feminist analysis of international law by traditionalists who reject the reformation, reconceptualization, or replacement of sacrosanct concepts and institutions. Ironically, however, the most important challenges facing feminist human rights scholars and activists are internal ones as we attempt to define, and make effective, human rights for women. Papers that address these internal struggles make up the bulk of both collections.

The contributors to the more comprehensive work, Human Rights of Women, address three major themes: 1) the legitimacy and strategic relevance for women of human rights concepts; 2) questions about the cultural or ideological universality of women's human rights concerns; and 3) the effective implementation of human rights approaches in improving the status of women. The book includes contributions by 22 scholars, organized into five sections. It begins with an impressive introduction by Rebecca Cook titled "Women's International Human Rights Law: The Way Forward," that includes aspects of Cook's own significant contributions to feminist analysis and that ties together the major themes of the conference proceedings on which the book was based. The articles in the second section elaborate general theoretical concerns, while the third and fourth sections discuss selected international, regional, and national approaches. In the final section, contributors discuss specific human rights violations of particular significance to women and strategies to address them.

The first challenge for feminist human rights scholars is to explore and legitimate the basis for a separate focus on "women's rights as human rights." Human Rights of Women builds on earlier work, primarily in law review articles, that has attempted to elaborate theoretical foundations for feminist analysis of human rights.(2) The collection alerts us again to the enormous scope and serious nature of the harms endured by women throughout the world, including domestic violence, violations of reproductive rights, and various forms of gender-based discrimination under both secular and religious legal systems. Most contributors to the book argue that the traditional international human rights regime has failed either to recognize these harms as violations of human rights or, if they are recognized, to adequately address them.

Given its previous failures therefore, many contributors express discomfort with the use of rights discourse. Hilary Charlesworth, for example, provides an excellent discussion of the fundamental critiques of rights discourse that have been posed by critical legal studies, feminist, and cultural identity scholars. She notes that "recourse to the language of rights may give a rhetorical flourish to an argument, but provides only an ephemeral polemic advantage, often obscuring the need for political and social change."(3) The mere recognition of "women's human rights" means little without an understanding of the contexts in which such recognition occurs.

An equally powerful evaluation is offered by Adetoun Ilumoka:

The discourse of rights has had little resonance for the majority of African women, and the national and international rules and procedures for enformcement of rights have rarely been their arenas of struggle. The language of freedom, justice, and fair play has had greater resonance among the "masses" in Africa than has the language of "rights," especially in relation to struggles against social and cultural practices. This may be partly because women have generally not seen themselves as organizing in opposition to men, but for social justice.(4)

Another contributor, Celina Romany, strongly critiques traditional models of human rights that would prioritize violations committed directly by the state in the "public" sphere over violations to which women are subjected in the "private" sphere of hme and family. Still, most contributors, including Charlesworth, Ilumoka, and Romany, believe that human rights concepts could play important roles in improving the status of women. For example, rather than discarding the useful role of human rights discourse in "the eradication of legal privilege," Romany argues that feminists should reconceptualize rights discourse.(5)

A second test for feminist approaches to human rights law will be to resolve, or work with, the tensions over whether women's human rights norms are universal or culturally-relative. As Adetoun Ilumoka points out, "to talk of universal women's rights presumes a self-conscious, coherent group of persons that cuts across class and cultural lines and has an identity of interests."(6) Most feminist human rights scholars and activists are optimistic about the future of a global women's rights movement after having lived through a series of inspiring events: the United Nations End of Decade Conference on Women in Nairobi in 1985; the Global Tribunal on Violations of Women's Human Rights at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993, and the widespread ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Much of this optimism stems from observation of the critical role that grassroots nongovernmental women's organizations have played in moving women's rights forward. Nevertheless, those events have also exposed significant underlying tensions across racial, cultural, and class divisions. If "women's human rights" fail to reflect the diversity of women's experiences, they either will remain benignly irrelevant to the lives of the majority of the world's women, or more ominously, replicate the imperialistic tendencies of a patriarchal human rights system.

Just as the tension between universality and cultural relativism remains a conundrum of human rights scholarship generally, it will not be conclusively resolved by the development of a feminist analysis of human rights alone. However, it is essential to move the perspectives of women from developing countries "from margin to center" in the discussion of feminist theory. It is a particular pleasure, therefore, to find that Cook's collection attempts to meet this necessity by including the perspectives of feminists from different cultures and nationalities.(7) Feminists from the Sudan, Canada, Australia, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, the United States, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Ghana, Chile, India, Costa Rica, and Colombia all contribute to the effort. Human Rights of Women begins a truly cross-cultural dialogue among feminists that reflects analyses of major theoretical concerns as well as regional and national strategies.

At the general theoretical level, Radhika Coomaraswamy exposes the difficulties posed by western feminist rights discourse in her chapter, "To Bellow Like a Cow: Women, Ethnicity, and the Discourse of Rights." She discusses ideological, cultural, and class barriers to the protection of women's human rights that must be addressed before human rights law can claim to be an empowering tool for all women.

The book illustrates that feminists from developing countries do not uniformly reject the usefulness of universal human rights norms for women in their countries. Sara Hossain's chapter analyzing women's rights in South Asia, for example, concludes that "it is imperative to insist on the incorporation of universally accepted norms to prioritize the rights of women over those of the traditionally defined community."(8) She observes, however, that the "popular legitimization" of such norms within the relevant country is essential for their implementation. Similarly, Asma Haleem and Abdullahi An-Naim, both Sudanese human rights scholars, discuss the importance of addressing specific religious and cultural contexts internally in conjunction with appeals to international human rights norms.

A final task facing feminist human rights scholars is to make human rights an effective tool for women. Chapters by Rebecca Cook and Andrew Byrnes take on the general issue of reinterpreting or strengthening existing human rights instruments to take better account of violations of particular concern to women. Many of the contributors, including Romany, Rhonda Copelon, Kenneth Roth, and Joan Fitzpatrick, discuss specific ways to address violence against women (particularly domestic violence) under international human rights law.

Maria Isable Plata discusses the role of human rights and the strategies adopted by a women's organization, ProFamilia, to protect women's reproductive rights in Colombia. Sara Hossain suggests ways to legitimize international standards in South Asia in order to reform "personal laws" that prioritize culture over the well-being of women in that region. Kathleen Mahoney outlines problems of gender bias in the Canadian courts and discusses strategies to educate the judiciary on questions of gender equity.

For many feminists in the developing world, the appropriate implementation of human rights inextricably involves changes in fundamental societal relations that harm women. Too often however, the prospect for changes in international economic relations are ignored in feminist human rights discourse. Akua Kuenyehia's chapter is therefore a particularly welcome contribution to a book on women's human rights. She argues that additional focus should be placed on the human rights impact on women of "structural adjustment programs" in developing countries that are advocated by international economic institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Kuenyehia argues that deliberate international economic strategies that result in the inability of women to meet their basic needs also constitute violations of women's human rights.(9) Addressing basic needs, she believes, will help to "free the women to look at issues of other rights." Florence Butegwa raises similar concerns in a chapter discussing land rights for African women.

Reconceiving Reality

Reconceiving Reality is less ambitious on coverage of human rights issues than Human Rights of Women, but was intended to cover other aspects of international law as well. The book is divided into three parts. The first part addresses "The Current State of Feminist Analysis of International Law" and addresses whether there should be a single grand feminist theory of international law.

Hilary Charlesworth begins the discussion by noting that "feminist analysis has only just begun in international law."(10) She resists the urge to elaborate a single, essential definition of feminist analysis, but notes that the diverse approaches of feminists do "to varying degrees all acknowledge the silencing of women and the deafness of traditional systems of knowledge to women's voices."(11) She believes that the multiplicity of diverse, sometimes contradictory approaches to international law could co-exist under the rubric of "feminist analysis." Noting also that these approaches may risk alienating traditional legal scholars of international law, she urges that the risk is well worth taking.

Moira McConnell argues that the desire to create a separate feminist theory of international law without returning to challenge the fundamentals of international law itself may ultimately harm women's interests:

I understand the act of designation as an imposition of discrimination and power ..., resulting in marginalization. Indeed, given that gender-based divisions are themselves inherently suspect, it strengthens my view that to accept this categorization whilst purporting to propose alternatives, normalizes and validates this situation as opposed to shifting the paradigm. Yet it is in the questioning of the game as well as the rules that the power of women's and other hitherto unvoiced interventions, be they in art, history, politics or legal analysis, exists.(12)

In commenting on the views expressed in the first section of the book, Catharine MacKinnon makes a friendly, but uncompromising argument for the necessity of theory. She argues that the process of collective, systematic feminist analysis such as that developed in the book does create theory. She identifies three common theoretical themes in admittedly very different papers by Charlesworth, Barbara Stark, and McConnell: 1) "the hand of men ... behind the international legal order, with consequences for the status and treatment of women;" 2) "the diversity of women's experience leading to the disruption of categories, the complexity and instability of concepts and also of the world;" and 3) "the need for change."(13)

MacKinnon argues that feminist theory is "not a luxury" in that it could have a critical impact on the lives of real women. For example, she argues that the deconstruction of the public/private distinction holds important implications for the accountability of those who order or execute the rape of women in the service of "ethnic cleansing":

[T]he analysis I have offered is not "indeterminate." It is not "tentative." It is not characterized by "ephemerality," "discontinuity," or "fragmentation." How much "constant rethinking" does the fact of genocide need? The theory I have presented has not exemplified the luxury of withholding commitment, a refusal to be pinned down, nor can it rest on the margin of anything. Is this a problem? Do we want "chaotic" war crimes trials? Is there some "easy categorization" here we need to resist?(14)

The second part of the book more deeply explores feminist concerns about the public/private distinction. Interestingly, Karen Engle contributes a "critique of the critique." She notes that many feminists argue either that the public/private distinction in international law excludes violations which take place in the "private" sphere (identified with women) and therefore cannot be responsive to women's needs, or they argue that international human rights does regulate the private sphere, but simply uses the public/private dichotomy as an excuse to avoid addressing women's concerns. Engle then goes on to question the underlying assumptions in the categories she described:

Concentrating too much on the public/private distinction excludes important parts of women's experiences. Not only does such a focus often omit those parts of women's lives that figure into the "public," however that gets defined, it also assumes that "private" is bad for women. It fails to recognize that the "private" is a place where many have tried to be (such as those involved in the market), and that it might ultimately afford protection to (at least some) women.(15)

The final section of Reconceiving Reality focuses on feminist approaches to the international law of armed conflict and international relations. It includes a particularly innovative chapter by Robin Teske on an interdisciplinary approach to power in which she manages to seamlessly combine aspects of quantum physics, ecology, and chaos theory in an essay urging feminist legal scholars to willingly give up "the illusion of control" and take multiple approaches to international relations.

Both Reconceiving Reality and Human Rights of Women are valuable and essential additions to the small, but growing, library of resources on women's rights as human rights. They are also excellent resources for the international human rights classroom. Reconceiving Reality includes a short, but useful, foreword on "Teaching Women's International Human Rights Law" by Anne Tierney Goldstein. Human Rights of Women contains an extremely helpful human rights instrument ratification chart and list of resource organizations.

The recognition of feminist analysis of international human rights law is of relatively recent origin. These collections provide a roadmap of major issues; they point "the way forward." Both demonstrate that feminist analysis of international human rights is not only legitimate, but also thick with issues that warrant further study and action. Most importantly, they demonstrate that the world need not remain quite such an unsafe place for women; feminist women and men can use the existing tools of international law or make new tools to create positive change.

(1.)HUMAN RIGHTS OF WOMEN: NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL PERSPECTIVES (Rebecca J. Cook ed., 1994) [hereinafter HUMAN RIGHTS OF WOMEN] draws on papers presented at the Consultation on Women's International Human Rights Law, University of Toronto, in September 1992 and is published under the auspices of the "Pennsylvania Studies in Human Rights" series. RECONCEIVING REALITY is a collection of papers and commentaries presented by the Women in International Law Interest Group at the 87th Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law in April 1993; it is issued as part of the Society's "Studies in Transnational Legal Policy" series. In addition to human rights, it covers other topics in international law and international relations.

(2.)See Hilary Charlesworth et al., Feminist Approaches to International Law, 85 AM. J. INT'L L. 613 (1991); Rebecca J. Cook, Women's International Human Rights: A Bibliography, 24 N.Y.U.J. INT'L L. & POL. 857 (1992).

(3.)Hilary Charlesworth, What are "Women's International Human Rights?" in HUMAN RIGHTS OF WOMEN, supra note 1, at 60.

(4.)Adetoun Ilumoka, African Women's Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights--Toward a Relevant Theory and Practice, in HUMAN RIGHTS OF WOMEN, supra note 1, at 319.

(5.)Celina Romany, State Responsibility Goes Private: A Feminist Critique of the Public/Private Distinction in International Human Rights Law, in HUMAN RIGHTS OF WOMEN, supra note 1, at 90.

(6.)Ilumoka, supra note 4, at 312.

(7.)For other collections on the human rights of women that include perspectives of women from both the North and the South, see OURS BY RIGHT: WOMEN'S RIGHTS AS HUMAN RIGHTS (Joanna Kerr ed., 1993); EMPOWERMENT AND THE LAW: STRATEGIES OF THIRD WORLD WOMEN (Margaret Schuler ed., 1991); SISTERHOOD IS GLOBAL: THE INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S MOVEMENT ANTHOLOGY (Robin Morgan ed., 1984).

(8.)Sara Hossain, Equality in the Home: Women's Rights and Personal Laws in South Asia, in HUMAN RIGHTS OF WOMEN, supra note 1, at 486.

(9.)Akua Kuenyehia, The Impact of Structural Adjustment Programs on Women's International Human Rights: The Example of Ghana, in HUMAN RIGHTS OF WOMEN, supra note 1, at 423.

(10.)Hilary Charlesworth, Alienating Oscar? Feminist Analysis of International Law, in RECONCEIVING REALITY: WOMEN AND INTERNATIONAL LAW 1 (Dorinda G. Dallmeyer ed., 1993) [hereinafter RECONCEIVING REALITY].

(11.)Id.

(12.)Moira McConnell, Feminist Theory as the Embodiment of Marginalization, in RECONCEIVING REALITY, supra note 10, at 63.

(13.)Catharine MacKinnon, Comment: Theory is not a Luxury, in RECONCEIVING REALITY, supra note 10, at 84.

(14.)Id. at 91.

(15.)Karen Engle, After the Collapse of the Public/Private Distinction: Strategizing Women's Rights, in RECONCEIVING REALITY, supra note 10, at 143.
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Author:Lewis, Hope
Publication:Human Rights Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1995
Words:2954
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