Seeking Gender Justice in a Globalizing Age

Senthorun Raj, "Women's Human Rights," Australian Feminist Studies 28.77 (2013): 327-329

Internationally, the pursuit of gender justice and women's rights in the context of human rights advocacy has been a fraught political, legal and cultural project. Exploring the development of transnational feminist advocacy in the context of a number of international legal developments, Niamh Reilly's Women's Human Rights (2009) urges us to consider the transformative potential of cosmopolitan feminism in securing an end to violence, inequality and discrimination against women around the world.

Reilly's ‘global’ political project begins by identifying a central problematic in furthering women's human rights: can universal human rights norms be mobilised in non-oppressive or exclusionary ways? (4) She begins by charting the largely neoliberal institutional development of human rights discourse in global governance. For Reilly, the cleaving of civil and political rights from economic, social and cultural rights reflected the preference for an individualist rather than institutional approach. That is, much of western Europe and North America preferred a human rights model built on state ‘restraint’ (i.e. allowing free speech) rather than one that mandates ‘positive’ or resource-intensive obligations (i.e. provision of health care). This conceptual division was subtended by a focus on human rights accountability solely in the public sphere (25–29). Considered together, her work identifies that the public/private and individual/institutional divides worked to exclude women from human rights discourse, since most of their experiences of injustice occurred in domestic contexts, exacerbated by a lack of institutional support (33).

Reilly's first two chapters challenge these historical limits by bringing cosmopolitan feminist theory and activism into conversation with international human rights law. Rather than disavowing universal human rights as an intrusive or neocolonial project with respect to individual states, Reilly argues that the relationship between the ‘universal’ and the ‘particular’ ought to be ‘understood as an ongoing, multilevel process of negotiation, and not a fixed and polarised binary’ (36). While noting the changing subject positions within transnational advocacy for ‘women's human rights’, she suggests that the emerging solidarities between activists in various socio-geographic locations evince the potential for advancing a feminist project that can bridge the connections between the global and local (8). Cosmopolitan feminism, therefore, is not confined to a strictly legal project. Rather, her recurring references to grassroots activists, international non-government organisations, United Nations forums and academics remind us that a normative approach for progressing or defending women's human rights requires multifaceted engagements.

By outlining the development of a number of international legal instruments supporting women's rights, Reilly invites us to (re)consider the extent to which a global human rights paradigm can be characterised as an ethnocentric neoliberal imposition. Starting with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women 1979 (CEDAW), developed during the UN Decade for Women, Reilly commends the radical push in the 1970s to move beyond formal legal equality and redress the structural inequalities that inhibit women's dignity. In particular, she emphasises that this document was the first of its kind proscribing discrimination in areas of both public and private life, noting that states were accountable for condoning the actions of non-state actors in the perpetration of violence against women (60–61). Specifically, the convention draws attention to gendered dimensions of social life that enable sexual slavery, forced pregnancy, sexual harassment and domestic violence. Moving to the World Conference in Human Rights in Vienna in 1993, Reilly illustrates the broad collaborations facilitated in preparation of the event: regional meetings in Tunis, Costa Rica and Thailand; sub-regional forums held by the Women in Law and Development in Africa; and a ‘strategic planning’ session run by the US-based Center for Women's Global Leadership. Effectively, these coalitions traversed the rudimentary North–South divisions, human rights NGOs, grassroots women's networks and UN agencies (74). Reilly reminds us that dismissing such political projects as ‘Western’ in orientation erases the cross-cultural genesis of the global campaign for women's human rights. Even though Reilly's point is astute, her considerable emphasis on international institutional dialogues (particularly those related to UN bodies) limits her ability to canvass some of the more disparate forms of the ‘bottom-up’ advocacy/activism she is interested in progressing. Indeed, how these grassroots conversations were enabled in their local contexts is not comprehensively discussed in her previous chapters.

Reilly's final three chapters explore a number of transnational feminist advocacy projects and the progress/limits associated with them. This section of the book covers the challenges that arise from acknowledging the systemic history of violence while refusing to cast women as perpetual victims. While the recognition of women's vulnerability to sexual violence in conflict and the establishment of tribunals to prosecute it as a crime against humanity was a momentous step forward in international criminal law, little progress has been made at local levels to facilitate the participation of women in post-conflict transitions. Primarily, the resurgence of patriarchal traditionalism coerces women to resile from exercising political agency and urges them to occupy more subordinate roles (114).

Moreover, Reilly notes that there has been disjuncture between humanitarian and rights-based approaches to issues of gender social justice. While development narratives recognise the material conditions that impact on the lives of women, they rely on a humanitarian ethic that often sees women as passive recipients of paternalist protection (122). Correspondingly, rights-based rhetoric emphasises the need for individual agency, but the neoliberal underpinning often obscures the structural impediments to the exercise of such agency (125). In responding to the limits and possibilities of both approaches, Reilly stresses the need for a fused human rights development paradigm. For example, this could include recognising the obligations on states to provide access to quality health care while removing legislative impositions on women seeking to exercise their reproductive autonomy (130–138).

Despite the promising policy advances that have been made at the UN, Reilly highlights that progress on women's human rights has been stymied by the rise of ‘fundamentalisms’. Cautioning against an orientalising politics that castigates the ‘Third World’ for its ‘traditional values’, she notes that religion remains a key locus for inhibiting the sexual and reproductive autonomy of women (144). Instead of subscribing to a ‘Western’ liberation narrative or conceding a culturally relativist respect, Reilly gestures to a local feminist praxis that contests such fundamentalisms. Drawing on the advocacy work of the organisation Women Living Under Muslim Laws, for example, she notes that instead of accepting a homogenising claim of culture or identity, such an organisation works within the local scriptural and ideological context to critically challenge attempts to silence women (142–143). Embracing a critical sensitivity to local situations while advancing transnational commitments to women's human rights is crucial. Despite the analytic appeal of such an ethic, Reilly does not fully elaborate on the discursive or ethical conditions that are necessary to define these ‘universal’ commitments.

Reilly's wide-ranging attempt to combine institutional, activist and historical analysis of transnational feminist advocacy and women's human rights is admirable. However, at times, the breadth of its coverage limits the depth of analysis that the author is able to undertake. Despite this, Women's Human Rights is a concise text that generates a number of important conversations about the possibilities and challenges in pursuing a feminist vision of human rights.

Reviewer: Senthorun Raj, University of Sydney

© 2013 Senthorun Raj