Seeking Gender Justice in a Globalizing Age

Reviewed by Doris Buss in Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 23.2 (2011): 705-9

In 1995, the Western media was abuzz with reports about the United Nations World Conference on Women being held in Beijing, China. Hilary Clinton, then wearing the title of First Lady of the United States, attended and gave a rousing, and controversial, speech in which she chastised the Chinese government for its human rights violations and then famously called for the recognition of women’s rights as human rights. Perhaps that recognition—“women’s rights as human rights”—does not strike the same resonant chord today as “yes we can,” but, at the time, Clinton’s speech was something of a barn-burner.

The media headlines from 1995, particularly in the Western press, reflected a mixed—to put it politely—reaction to the Beijing conference. For some, Beijing heralded a (possibly optimistic) change in gender dynamics and social relations: “ ‘Old Boys’ Network’ Be Warned: Women Are on the Move,” reported the Charleston Gazette (West Virginia),[1] “Beijing: The Surge of a Tidal Wave,” ran a headline in The Age (Melbourne).[2] For many other newspapers, Beijing represented the thin edge of a giant, dangerous, feminist wedge: “A Five-Cornered Battle of the Sexes Is Nigh,” warned the Sydney Morning Herald’s headline.[3] The US press, meanwhile, was preoccupied with Hilary Clinton’s China visit: was she standing up for American values or shepherding “a load of lesbians” to China?[4]

The hype around the Beijing Conference on Women confirmed a now routine pattern: talk of “women’s rights” leads to excitable predictions. Advance women’s rights and two results are possible: either the world will warp drive into an egalitarian utopia (and the possibilities here are inspiringly optimistic: the rise of a female economic power house; the end of child poverty; the breaking of taboos, silences, and chains of various forms; a rewriting of gender relations as we know them; and so on) or the world will be rendered asunder (“the family” will be destroyed; men will be impoverished; childhood will end; licentiousness will abound; religion (Christianity) will be treated as the new terrorism; and, and, and . . .).

It would appear that the stakes in discussions on women’s rights are high, and particularly so when these discussions take place in international contexts. Despite this (or maybe because of it), international arenas at which law and policy are formulated are generally seen as promising sites for feminist activism. And the period of the 1990s—the Beijing conference and its impacts on an array of legal and policy issues—is a key source for that optimism. During the 1990s, feminist activists and scholars were able to generate an amazing list of gains in international legal and institutional commitments to ending women’s inequality. These gains included the formal recognition that “women’s rights are human rights,” with a corresponding series of changes strengthening international protection of women rights such as the optional protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (to allow individual complaints), the appointment of a special rapporteur to investigate violence against women, and the “mainstreaming” of gender analysis in other human rights bodies.[5] Feminist lobbying efforts at other UN world conferences, such as the 1993 Vienna Conference on Human Rights, helped to build momentum to strengthen the international prosecution of rape, first by the Rwanda and Yugoslav tribunals and then by the International Criminal Court. And the steps taken by the United Nations Security Council to mainstream gender into its security and post-conflict work was a direct result of the Beijing Platform for Action. Clearly, this list of feminist-inspired “gains” could go on. The lobbying efforts of the 1990s, many of which continue into this new century, are generating a myriad of results, many of which are only just becoming visible. The newly established UN agency for women—UN Women—is perhaps the most recently visible culmination of years of lobbying by feminists and their allies.

In Women’s Human Rights, Niamh Reilly provides an engaging overview of some of that 1990s feminist advocacy and traces its enduring significance for multiple areas of women’s international human rights.[6] It is, I confess, a book I wish I had written. It is clear, authoritative, and covers off the main topics on women’s international human rights in a way that would engage both an upper-year student new to the area and a seasoned academic wishing to deepen her own understanding.

The book has six, topically specific chapters, and a substantive introduction that sets out Reilly’s “cosmopolitan feminism” framework. Reilly was a Ph.D. student at Rutgers University in the 1990s and worked with the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, headed by Charlotte Bunch, which was instrumental in launching the Global Campaign for Women’s Rights. In this capacity, Reilly was present at some of the key events in the 1990s, even working, according to her acknowledgments, as the co-ordinator of two tribunals on women’s rights—the first at the Vienna Conference on Human Rights and the second at Beijing (the first of these is the subject of a National Film Board documentary that is a must see for anyone interested in feminist international activism on violence against women).[7] Her insiders’ perspective gives her discussions of feminist activism at the United Nations (in chapters 3 and 4) a depth and context not usually found in other scholarly treatments of these topics. And she combines her first-hand experience with a solid academic foundation that places each subject in its broader context.

The first two chapters provide theoretically informed discussions that frame the rest of the book. Chapter 2, for example, begins with a thumb-nail sketch of “Kantian ethics and justice,” followed by a historical introduction to the development of international human rights instruments, and then an overview of key debates raised by feminists and some “Third World” critiques of mainstream human rights. I found the discussion here of Western hegemony and cultural relativism excellent, and it would make a useful addition to upper-year course materials on international human rights (though the discussion is, given the breadth of the book, short).

Chapter 3 begins the more substantive focus of the book and provides a succinct history of post-1945 advocacy and institutional developments by and for women at the United Nations. Reilly makes the welcome argument that the CEDAW, often dismissed as a limited, liberal feminist tool, has transformative potential, some of which is only just now evident. This chapter provides a reasonably detailed examination (given the length of the book, which weighs in at a trim 203 pages) of the outcomes and developments realized at the first UN conference on women in Mexico City (1975) and the UN Decade for Women (1976–85)—a period of feminist activism often overlooked in the literature. This discussion then sets up chapter 4, which is an in-depth discussion of feminist activism in the 1990s at UN-hosted events, such as the 1993 Vienna Conference (at which the first global tribunal on violations of women’s human rights was held).

My favorite chapter, though, is Chapter 6: Development, Globalization and Women’s Human Rights. In this all-too-brief twenty-three pages, Reilly draws together a coherent discussion of the “chasm” between the two paths of inter-national action on women: development and human rights. Reilly’s framing of this chapter in terms of a chasm is interesting, topical, and important. Her wide-ranging discussion—encompassing a brief history of “women and development”—the asymmetric relationship between economic, social, and cultural rights on the one hand and the more powerful “civil and political” rights on the other—and the Millennium Development Goals is clear and cogent, despite the extensive array of topics covered. This is an excellent and succinct treatment and would be a useful reading for an upper-year or graduate-level course on international human rights law and/or women’s rights.

There are occasional weaknesses in this book. Two of the chapters dealing with more recent developments and issues linked to women’s rights—conflict and post-conflict violence and religious “fundamentalism”—do not demonstrate the same coherence in treatment as the rest of the book. Chapter 5 on “Conflict and Post-Conflict Transformation,” for example, touches on the different topics of war crimes prosecutions, peace negotiations, and Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security.[8] The breadth of treatment is commendable, but there is little discussion of what links these developments together for women and, more pressingly, how the institutional developments and resource allocation among these different efforts poses problems for feminist activism. Working within a cosmopolitan feminist framework, Reilly can see the potential for transformative politics in the divergent developments of war crimes prosecutions and post-conflict peace and security initiatives. However, there is no discussion here of the limits to that transformative potential as it is currently unfolding “on the ground.” War crimes prosecutions, for example, have been important but arguably limited for women. They are very expensive and while popular with Western governments, often lack a meaningful commitment to economic and political redress for women post-conflict. Similarly, the final substantive chapter—“Fundamentalisms and Women’s Human Rights”—seems to diverge from the focus of the rest of the book. Once again, the author is ambitious in her reach—looking at the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in a few select states (Nigeria and Malaysia), the “head-scarf” debate generically (presumably—though this is not always clear—in Western states), and, finally, the rise of some conservative religious movements internationally. These topics are perhaps too disparate to be grouped together in one chapter, and the complexities of these issues warrant more attention and depth than is possible in a single chapter. There is far too little space in this discussion for the very sort of “bottom-up” politics that Reilly identifies as central to her cosmopolitan feminism. Religiously observant women, for example, have no voice in this chapter, and the complexities and nuances of debates in locations as different as Nigeria and Malaysia are simply not amenable to generalized conclusions.

While the limits of these two chapters speak to the difficulty of writing short chapters on still-emerging issues on women’s rights, they also may speak to the limits of a cosmopolitan feminism. While Reilly’s cosmopolitan feminism recognizes the limits of international law as a “progressive narrative,” a number of questions remain. How transformative are the criminalization and legalization of international responses to conflict? What are the limits of the Security Council and the International Criminal Court as sites for feminist-inspired legal engagement? While Reilly speaks authoritatively of the feminist activists who mobilized in the 1990s, there is little sense of who is behind some of the current feminist international projects, for example, at the International Criminal Court and the UN Security Council.

Finally, does cosmopolitanism offer a framework for understanding and responding to the various ways in which Islamic practice and dress are perceived as, simultaneously, women’s rights and security issues? The growth of religious “fundamentalism” (not a term I find accurate enough for this discussion) globally, together with Western preoccupations with Islamic dress engage complex questions about identity formation, political economy, and the operation of Islamophobia in multicultural societies. Cosmopolitanism, and the claims to a post-racial and post-ethnic world, are, it would seem to me, part of the puzzle to be explained here rather than (or in addition to?) one of the tools of analysis.

As the media coverage of the 1995 Beijing conference reminds us, the stakes in advancing women’s rights are high. Understanding how women’s rights claims have been advanced, contested, and represented in the recent past is crucial to deciphering the contemporary climate in which feminist activism takes place. Women’s Human Rights is an authoritative and expert discussion of the 1990s campaigns to advance international legal and political protection of women’s rights, and the multiple ways in which these campaigns shape current institutional developments on women’s rights. However, Reilly’s book also raises, for me at least, questions about current trends and priorities in feminist international legal activism. Now might be the time for a hard discussion about how much further cosmopolitan legal feminism can take the cause of women’s international human rights.

Doris Buss is Associate Professor of Law at Carleton University. She teaches and researches in the areas of women’s rights, international law, and feminist theory. She is the author (with Didi Herman) of Globalizing Family Values: The Global Politics of the Christian Right (Minnesota, 2003) and editor (with Ambreena Manji) of International Law: Modern Feminist Approaches (Hart, 2005). Her current work focuses on women and armed conflict, and she is the editor (with Joanne Lebert, Blair Rutherford, and Donna Sharkey) of Sexual Violence and Conflict in Africa (UNU Press, forthcoming 2012).


1. Edith M. Lederer, “ ‘Old Boys’ Network’ Be Warned: Women Are on the Move,” Charleston Gazette (17 September 1995) 18A.
2. Pamela Bone, “Beijing: The Surge of a Tidal Wave,” The (Melbourne) Age (20 September 1995) 20.
3. Les Carlyon, “A Five-Cornered Battle of the Sexes Is Nigh,” Sydney Morning Herald (14 September 1995) 17.
4. Concerned Women for America, “Feminism at the Helm of U.S. Foreign Policy” (12 May 1997), cited in Didi Herman “Globalism’s ‘Siren Song’: The United Nations and International Law in Christian Right Thought and Prophecy” (2001) 49 Sociological Review 56 at 71.
5. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, UN Doc. A/34/46 (1979).
6. Niamh Reilly, Women’s Human Rights: Seeking Gender Justice in a Globalizing Age (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009).
7. Vienna Tribunal, DVD (Augusta Productions and National Film Board of Canada, 1994).
8. Security Council Resolution 1325, UN SCOR, 55th Sess., 4213th meeting, UN Doc. S/Res/1325 (2000).