Feminist IR 101, Post #8, Human Rights

May 31, 2011

Controversial feminist lawyer Catherine MacKinnon titled her latest book Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues. MacKinnon was, of course, referring to a feminist campaign to have women’s rights recognized as human rights (see, e.g., the work of Charlotte Bunch) …but what struck me about this title is the normalcy it implies – like, questioning women’s humanity (and thus their eligibility for human rights) is as commonplace as any other international dialogue.

Feminist work on human rights has been very diverse – and by no means only a project of Feminist IR. Women, and feminist groups, have been interested in human rights generally and women’s human rights specifically for as long as we have a history of those organizations existing. Somewhat unlike the study of war through feminist lenses, feminist IR is not pioneering into new territory when it thinks about human rights issues. So what is feminist IR work on human rights? And why does it matter?

A caveat before exploring this question in more detail: of course, the boundaries between “feminist IR” and feminist work in political science more generally, or even between feminist work in political science and “feminist theory” or “gender studies” or “women’s studies” or even “queer studies” is not as clear or sticky as I draw it here for illustrative purposes. At the same time, I want to be clear in making the argument that feminist IR approaches not only have something to contribute to IR’s understanding of human rights but also to feminist theorizing about women’s rights as human rights.

Since this post is aimed largely at an IR audience, though, I’ll focus on the latter: what can feminist IR tell us about human rights? Feminist IR work has done a lot of thinking how human rights are conceptualized internationally. Feminist IR scholars have demonstrated that, often, when it comes to gender issues, universal international agreements about what humans should be provided devolve into relativist “exceptions” to how women ought to be treated to accommodate cultural difference. Likewise, feminist analysis has demonstrated that international discourses often omit or even countermand “human rights” which might be important to women, including but not limited to reproductive rights, prenatal health care, sexual rights, and rights associated with (often forced) migration. Feminist work has shown that women are often not (in legal terms) “similarly situated” to men on a host of other human rights issues – they are differently affected by labor rights issues, citizenship rights issues, domestic violence issues, and the like.

That empirical work has led feminists to be at once critical of unreflected notions of human rights (particularly from a postcolonial perspective) and concerned with the empirical realities of women’s lives, especially as they are constantly impacted by gender subordination. A growing feminist literature, then, tries to grapple with (in Brooke Ackerly’s words), human rights in a world of difference. Feminist work like Ackerly’s looks to navigate a space for a universal conception of human rights through feminist lenses paying attention to difference and diversity with methodological rigor and precision.

This work through gendered lenses has implications not only for the meaning of human rights, but also the politics of human rights advocacy and enforcement; the laws that provide for and/or inhibit human rights; advocacy for ending gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and other subordinations; and broader epistemological and ontological assumptions about the role of people in global politics.

So what does this mean if you are asked to read or review feminist work on human rights? While the implications as a whole are too broad to discuss, I will lay out a couple of ideas that might help in digesting this work from an unfamiliar perspective. First, it is not a methodological mistake or cognitive error when feminist work on human rights, when focusing on women’s human rights or women’s rights as human rights, does not compare women to men. Instead, the focus on women (as embodied and as performed) is often intentional – women as women are often the subjects of feminist work on human rights. A great example I just read is a book called Terrorizing Women, edited by Rosa-Linda Fregoso and Cynthia Bejarano, which looks at the practice of feminicide (the killing of women based on gendered power relations) in Latin America. The object of study was the violation of women’s rights; a comparison to men, when it happened, was not only politically but methodologically secondary.

Second, gender-neutral discourses of human rights often have gendered implications. Feminist scholars have often looked beyond the letter of the law to how the law is meant, performed, or practiced to see that the omission of gender words doesn’t make gender irrelevant. For example, one might deduce from the fact that the word “women” appears only twice in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (both as a part of the phrase “men and women”), a gender analysis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is uncalled for, since gender is irrelevant to it. Feminist analyses of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, however, have showed that the Declaration is deeply gender biased, and nowhere more than in its omission of gender-specific language or acknowledgment of gender subordination. So feminist work on human rights that analyzes documents, laws, or practices that don’t mention gender isn’t crazy – it is, in fact, a very important part of thinking about how gender and human rights interact. This is related to, in Hilary Charlesworth’s terms, searching for silences.

Perhaps finally for this post, feminist IR work on human rights is not just about women and gender. Instead, feminist work includes analyses of race, gender, and nationality – looking at the different axes across which human rights issues impact, and are impacted by those factors. For example, feminists like Anne McClintock have shown that women’s symbolic place in (gendered) nationalisms has negative implications for women’s reproductive rights. Laura Shepherd and I just finished an article examining the ways that cisprivilege is a key logic of contemporary airport security practices, and the rights of trans- people are often violated at airports in the name of anti-terrorism.


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Laura Sjoberg is British Academy Global Professor of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway University of London and Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Her research addresses issues of gender and security, with foci on politically violent women, feminist war theorizing, sexuality in global politics, and political methodology. She teaches, consults, and lectures on gender in global politics, and on international security. Her work has been published in more than 50 books and journals in political science, law, gender studies, international relations, and geography.