From Basic Needs to Basic Rights: Women‘s Claim to Human Rights

From Basic Needs to Basic Rights: Women‘s Claim to Human Rights


From Basic Needs to Basic Rights: Women’s Claim to Human Rights Edited by Margaret A. Schuler.

Washington, D.C.: Women, Law and Development International, 1995. 597 pages.

The history of human rights since the framing of the Universal Declaration over fifty years ago has been one of dynamic struggle to understand and make real the meaning of the rights enshrined in them.

Book Excerpt


Chapter 13 Identity and Culture: Women as Subjects and Agents of Cultural Change (Introduction)

By Mahnaz Afkhami In From Basic Needs to Basic Rights / The Institute for Women, Law, and Development / 1996

In a preface to Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture, Margaret Mead gives a casual definition of culture as the “systematic body of learned behavior which is transmitted from parents to children” (Benedict, 1959, p. vii). Comparing Malinowski (1944), Firth (1971) and Bottomore (1962),1 Chris Jenks (1993) concludes that “the concept of culture implies a relationship with the accumulated shared symbols representative of and significant within a particular community, what we might describe as a context-dependent semiotic system” (p. 121). For Jenks, culture as concept is “at least complex and at most so divergent in its various applications as to defy the possibility, or indeed the necessity, of any singular designation” (p. 1).
Identity also is a complex subject defying any singular designation. Charles Taylor (1989) broaches the concept as follows:

[T]he question is often spontaneously phrased by people in the form: Who am I? But this can’t necessarily be answered by giving name and genealogy. What does answer this question for us is an understanding of what is of crucial importance to us. To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand (p. 27).

In this paper I will discuss culture and identity within a feminist context by suggesting the following: (1) Women’s modern search for their identity is historically mandated and has now become a universal phenomenon; (2) even though cultures differ and strategies for gaining rights will have to be reflexive and adaptive, central values of the search are common to all searchers; (3) women’s achievement of identity is geared to cultural change, that is, the need that launches women on a search for identity drives them logically and practically to a politics of cultural change; and (4) the intellectual mechanism to promote the process is a kind of global feminism based on the concept of unity in diversity in which women from the south must play a leading role. I will conclude with some observations on the condition of women in the Muslim world and some strategies for empowering them as agents of change.

Culture and Women’s Identity in Traditional Settings
Individuals acquire identity as they become socialized over time in norms that are defined and determined by the prevailing culture, that is, values, beliefs and aesthetics22 that together constitute the perceptive medium by which individuals or societies communicate with their environment. In principle, traditional cultures, that is, cultures of old societies that have remained more or less unchanged over long periods, assign the individual to a particular position in the social hierarchy which is generally accepted as legitimate. In this formulation, every person is supposed to know who she is and where in the maze of social relations she stands.

The question of a search for identity does not arise, or is not critical, in the traditional setting since the identity is already known. The picture here is that of a community where everyone is serenely content with his or her lot. Contradictions are minimal. If they should arise, it is the function of the culture to resolve them through systems of admonitions, rituals, laws, and rewards and punishments. Government and society work hand in hand, king and priest being the two arms of the same legitimate ruling order. Everything functions to maintain the system.

The traditional setting assigns women to the lower positions in the social hierarchy. Women are accorded value as mothers and wives under the jurisdiction of fathers, husbands, and sons. Their main function in the family is that of procreation and childrearing. They are denied the kind of education that confers social prestige and power. Their sexuality is geared to the needs of man and family, including the need for assuring the authenticity of the patriarchal lineage. Even though they work harder than men and their work is indispensable to the well being of the family, the village, and the tribe, they usually do not control the fruits of their labor or participate in its disposition and distribution. Many reasons have been adduced to explain this phenomenon, ranging from differential availability of brute force to subtler ways of social and intellectual manipulation and domination. It may be, as Katherine K. Young (1987) suggests, that patriarchal societies and patriarchal religions are predicated on a correlation of historical, psychological, sociological, and biological stress points. In this view the rise of kingdoms is associated with a particular stage of child development which is in turn associated with man’s tyranny over women and children as a reflection of the king’s power and male ambiguity regarding chastity and sexual license. If the world religions grew out of a situation of extreme stress and were, in part, formed by this milieu, they also responded to this stress syndrome by searching for a new order and vision of harmony. Focal to this order was a stable family structure and careful definition of gender roles, which reflected the male’s dominance of the age but also tried to tame it by ensuring economic and physical protection of women. (Young, 1987, p. 32)

In the traditional culture women are silent, but the culture is not silent about women. On the contrary, it is quite vocal as myth, ritual, religious text, and aphoristic male wisdom. Beginning with prophets and early philosophers, Aristotle for example, and continuing up to our time in patriarchal circles in practically all countries, this wisdom suggests that there must be a union of male and female, for they cannot exist without each other, that man is the master and lord as ordained by God, because man can foresee with his mind, is the soul of the union and therefore, by nature, superior. Woman, in contrast, is body, cold, receiver, and naturally inferior.

Interestingly, the originary myth usually treats man and woman more equitably. The Buddha, for example, taught his male and female disciples the same doctrine; women, however, were systematically kept out of the society of the male monks. In the Gathas, the Yashts, and other early Zoroastrian texts, as well as in Iranian epics, woman is treated with respect, but by the middle of the Sasanian period she had lost many of her rights and privileges under a dominant Zoroastrian clergy (Afkhami, 1994, chap. 1). Abrahamic societies also present the same pattern. In Genesis, Eve appears the more resourceful of the first pair. The Israelite woman, however, received her identity from her father and husband. Christ appears to have treated women in manners that shocked Jewish and Roman male sensibilities. Paul, however, placed women in the custody of men and, among other things, forbade them to speak in the church, where religion took shape and power (Sharma, 1987). The same may be said of Islam. Muslim women played their most important roles at the dawn of Islam. Khadija, Aisha, Hind, Zainab and a host of other women were instrumental in the shaping of Muslim society and politics before, during, and after the Prophet’s announcement of his message. Indeed, there were several strains of male/female relationship in the Arab tribal society from which a positive prescriptive pattern might have been drawn and according to which the revelation might have been interpreted (Mernissi, 1987). Patriarchy, however, insisted on the one least favorable to women’s freedom. The rest has been, more or less, a history of silenced and invisible Muslim women.

Women’s struggle to define an identity has been in part a struggle to become visible to themselves and to others, to participate in the definition and solution of “the world’s problems,” and to help develop an order of priorities and relationships that is different from the patriarchal order. This is now beginning to happen in many parts of the world. Our epoch is progressively tuned to the idea that women have entered the political arena and will remain there in the future. Our politics focus on women’s rights. As we become increasingly involved in the economic, social, cultural, and political fields, our interests, that is, the foci of our rights, spread over the entire range of human concerns.

Autonomy and Authenticity as Common Conditions of Women’s Identity and Rights
The rise in women’s awareness of their identity has not been accidental. It is part of a historical process in which all individuals, men and women, have increasingly appropriated their “selves.” The form of appropriation differs from culture to culture, but the essence is commonly shared. Thus, diverse modes of consciousness converge on the idea of human autonomy and personal authenticity (Taylor, 1989). The philosophical axis around which the idea of autonomy takes shape is the move from the concept of natural law (the condition of obeying the rules already given) to that of natural right (the condition of participating in making the rules).

The moral problem of much of humanity, but particularly of women in the developing world, is how to make the transition from law to right while forging and maintaining an identity that is psychologically rewarding and morally acceptable. This is a tangled proposition because it involves every aspect of a woman’s personal life—belief in God, religious ritual, family relations, sexuality, friendships, position in society, peer opinion, economic sufficiency, etc—and is directly related to one’s idea of self respect. These tensions are exacerbated by the division of the world into north and south and the loyalties that are engendered as a result of racial, ethnic, religious, and national solidarities. Thus the transition is always difficult and probably never complete.

Questions about women’s identity are often posed in psychological and ethical terms, but they are also sociological, that is, they are time-bound, geared to levels and complexities of consciousness resulting from historical change. Although the immediate connecting point of identity is moral and psychological, women’s identity depends particularly on the changing properties of political culture, i.e. values, beliefs, and aesthetics that have to do with the dispositions of power in the community. Given their powerlessness throughout history, whenever women have become self-conscious as individuals with rights of their own, they have had to search for an identity other than the one assigned to them by the social order—an identity that defines them as authentic human beings. Authenticity, in turn, puts them at odds with the social order. Self-search among women, therefore, is inevitably a moral odyssey in the realm of the political. A modern woman, regardless of geography or culture, seeks an authentic self and finds it mainly in terms of political consciousness.3 To be effective, this consciousness will have to be informed by the ethical and psychological powers of the myths that nourish the indigenous culture. The idea is to reinvest the myth with positive feminist meaning.

We have come to accept and promote the complex of human rights as stated in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and most women activists accept the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) as an appropriate document for promoting women’s human rights. Nevertheless, we need to face the problem of implementation in the face of the challenge posed not only by the patriarchal power structure, but also by the philosophical and moral underpinnings of cultural relativism. Our problem is two-fold: (1) to establish the moral priority of universal rights; and (2) to devise strategies for developing and communicating ways and means of realizing universally accepted women’s rights in all countries while upholding and appreciating the diversity of life styles and variety of cultures across the globe. Both points involve moral and ethical issues, but their nature is fundamentally political.

To establish the moral priority of universal rights we must demonstrate the primacy of the individual as human being. It may be argued, as implied in some relativist positions, that there is no way that this can be done if a society chooses, for example, a fundamentalist interpretation of a religion. It should be noted, however, that funda- mentalism also is a modern phenomenon—it emerges at a time when society has moved objectively beyond the complex of values and rituals that the fundamentalists wish to enforce. As such, fundamentalism is faced with the same doubts and trepidations that result from the inexorable passage from a world determined by an intelligible cosmic order, in which the human position is clearly defined, to a world in which the cosmic order is mediated by human beings.4 This mediation is a heavy burden, conferring enormous responsibility which not everyone can carry.5 Fundamentalism, therefore, is always a reaction and hence an unauthentic rendition of religion because, by opting for a forceful implementation of religious doctrine and rites, it transforms a moral question into a power issue.6 One cannot be a fundamentalist if the society has not already transcended the “traditional” values.

The drive for autonomy and authenticity affects all issues that interest women across cultures, among them pre-puberty marriage and forced marriage, control over one’s relations in the family, control over one’s body, having a room of one’s own and freedom of movement. In the final analysis it is the respect for the self and others that will render a change in law and behavior necessary by rendering patriarchy’s traditional ways no longer cost-effective. I have already suggested that this process is historically mandated, though not necessarily in the forms and with the consequences that have come about in the West. Exaggerated individualism, over-emphasis on technology, and consequent limitations on freedom have been identified in the West as worrisome for the future of human civilization (Taylor, 1991). Authoritarian secular and religious patriarchies point to rampant crime, unbridled consumerism, poverty in the midst of plenty, sexual license, and other malaise in the West to justify their own pat- terns of rulership and social organization. As mentioned earlier, they use the present unequal dispensation of economic and technological power as well as political and cultural influence in the world to exploit women’s sense of national and/or ethnic allegiance. Evelyne Accad (1993) remembers a debate in which African women sided with African men attacking her for having referred to excision as mutilation. In the evening, she says,

I had sung one of my compositions on genital mutilation and the pain it causes in women. Some of the African women present there had tears in their eyes and came to thank me after the performance. They told me the reason they had sided with their men in the morning was because they had to be loyal to them. In front of the West, loyalty was more important than truth, but I was right in denouncing the practice. (p. 9)

It is also important that issues that are relevant to the historical conditions of Western societies do not become an excuse for the abuse of women in the non-Western world. An example is when an otherwise correct emphasis on the value of multiculturalism in Western societies is projected as a nebulous and contradictory concept of cultural relativism that functionally justifies abuse of women based on cultural norms. Obviously, every multicultural society ought to respect the variety of its constitutive cultures. But no culture should be condoned if it misuses the internationally recognized rights of its women, children, racial and religious minorities, or other disadvantaged groups. Attention to this point is particularly important because of an implicit misunderstanding that sometimes produces sinister effects. In the West, individuals are assumed to enjoy basic rights including the right to differ. These basic rights, however, are not predicated on cultural relativity. On the contrary, cultural relativity in the West presupposes individual human rights. In the absence of individual protection based on universal human rights, cultural relativism can easily deteriorate into an apology for otherwise heinous practices against women. It should not be difficult to see that in such cases neutrality about values, regardless of the context, is not a morally acceptable position (Bloom, 1987).
Women’s modern quest for identity needs to be highly articulate and structured. The reason is that everywhere women have to provide a reason for the rights they seek, no matter how small, innocuous, or obvious they may be. The search, however, is at its beginning. “Truthfulness anywhere means a heightened complexity,” writes Adrienne Rich (1984):

But it is a movement into evolution. Women are only beginning to uncover our own truths; many of us would be grateful for some rest in that struggle, would be glad just to lie down with the shreds we have painfully unearthed, and be satisfied with those. Often I feel this like an exhaustion in my own body. The politics worth having, the relationships worth having, demand that we delve still deeper (as quoted in Spretnak, 1982, p.347).

To uncover our own truth is to rediscover ourselves in the course of a new genesis, to recreate ourselves in images that relate to a politics that is morally worth having. In the introductory essay to Sisterhood/s Global, Robin Morgan (1984) writes:

Because virtually all existing countries are structured by patriarchal mentality, the standard for being human is being male—and female human beings per se become “other,” and invisible. This permits governments and international bodies to discuss “the world’s problems”—war, poverty, refugees, hunger, disease, illiteracy, overpopulation, ecological imbalance, the abuse and exploitation of children and elderly, etc.— without noticing that those who suffer most from “the world’s problems” are women, who, in addition, are not consulted about possible solutions (p. 1).

The point of women’s struggle for rights is cultural change, that is, changing attitudes, behaviors, and laws that have a negative impact on women’s human rights. Such a struggle would be meaningless if women did not agree that there are rights beyond those prescribed by the traditional culture and that these rights are nevertheless valid everywhere. The focus of contention on the first point, therefore, is political, that is, it has to do with power and strategies of empowerment. Power, however, is a concept women have been conditioned to eschew, partly because patriarchal culture looks down on women’s seeking of power and partly because of its gross misuse by men. To defend its own power the male-dominated society has held that nothing is more ridiculous than a woman who imitates a male activity and is therefore no longer a woman. This can apply not only to speaking and writing, but also to the way a woman looks, the job she does, the way she behaves sexually, the leisure pursuits she engages in, the intellectual activities she prefers and so on ad infinitum. Sex differentiation must be rigidly upheld by whatever means are available, for men can be men only if women are unambiguously women (Cameron, 1985, pp. 155-156).

On the second point, power does not need to be construed as traditionally observed in patriarchal societies. The values of women differ significantly from “masculine” values, as Virginia Woolf stated in 1929. Women’s empowerment as both concept and process may be conceived in ways that are qualitatively different from the hitherto known history of power. Women experience life as an interconnected chain of relationships. Autonomy and authenticity in the case of women do not suggest separateness, crass individualism, a Darwinian struggle where only the fit survive. In the words of psychologist Carol Gilligan (1982), women have “a different voice.”7 Nonetheless, power is essential to women’s cause and needs to be redefined in non-patriarchal terms as a concept that agrees with essential feminist values. “The true representation of power,” writes Carolyn Heilbrun (1988),

is not of a big man beating a smaller man or a woman. Power is the ability to take one’s place in whatever discourse is essential to action and the right to have one’s part matter. This is true in the Pentagon, in marriage, in friendship, and in politics (p. 88).

To seek feminist power is, in itself, an exercise in cultural change.8

Globalization of Women’s Search for Identity: the Case of the Muslim Women.
What I have said so far applies equally to women in Western and non-Western societies. There are, however, differences that arise as a result of the colonial experience. The spread of women’s consciousness of rights and their fight for a new identity are made inevitable by the evolving structure of world relationships and the development of modern technology, particularly the communication revolution. This in turn creates tensions between an authentic drive for self-realization and a perception of national, ethnic, or religious solidarity in face of a threatening hegemonical world order. In almost all cases, patriarchal regimes use international tension to deflect demands for freedom and equality for women. This process ranges from purely political strains on human rights, which are the hallmark of secular autocratic regimes, to more encompassing systems of constraints rooted in ideology or traditional culture and enforced either directly through governmental fiat, as in China or the Islamic

Republic of Iran, or indirectly as a result of organized religious pressure on government, as in Algeria and Egypt.
At present women are particularly under pressure in Muslim countries, where approximately 500 million women live, a majority of them in south and southeast Asia, facing a resurgence of religious fundamentalism that threatens their limited but hard-earned rights. In certain Muslim countries the struggle for women’s rights has now become decidedly life threatening. Algerian women have been threatened with physical mutilation and death for objecting to fundamentalist propositions to curtail their rights. In Sudan, Egypt, Morocco, and Pakistan women are increasingly under attack. In Bangladesh Taslima Nasrin, a 32-year-old feminist author, was forced into hiding for fear of her life. A fundamentalist leader has “offered a $2,500 reward to anyone who kills her” (Anderson, 1994). In Iran, Homa Darabi, an academician and teacher of psychology, destroyed herself publicly in protest to the apartheid practiced against women in Iran.

However, Muslim women are subject to different interpretations of the shari’a, depending on the prevailing traditions and customs as well as the nature and extent of socio-economic change in their countries. Women’s rights are particularly strained in the Middle East and North Africa, where women have been targets of extreme and vociferous attack. Part of the reason is that the more traditional patriarchies are pressured by the exogenous forces they cannot control, the more they revert to their fundamental structures and concepts. In modern times most aspects of life in Muslim societies have been bent to the requirements of modern international forces and, consequently, to the dictates of secular law. Only family laws, which affect the position of women most intimately, have remained relatively impervious to the forces of modernization. Wherever the law has changed, it has triggered a vociferous reaction among the patriarchal vanguards—the conservative religious leaders and their allies in the traditional economic, social, and cultural domains. The veil, the vehicle for the symbolic and actual segregation of woman in a world dominated by man, becomes the emblem of male control of women’s spaces and movements (Mernissi, 1987; Moghadam, 1994). Thus, Muslim women’s seeking and achieving modern kinds of identity becomes a central point of conflict between the forces of modernity and the forces of reaction. It ought not to be difficult to see why, for fundamentalist movements, the most transparent reason for being is so often to stop the tide of change in the status of women.

Nevertheless, even in societies where at present fundamentalism appears particularly strong the situation begins to turn strategically to women’s advantage. The reason is that despite the existing obstacles an increasing number of women have become conscious of themselves as authentic individual human beings independent of their kinships and community relations and increasingly insist that others acknowledge this fact. For example, over the past decades Muslim women, as well as women in other parts of the non-Western world, have successfully penetrated learning and other communicative institutions, creating a potential for achieving political power. There now exist in all Muslim countries clusters of women who have the ability to create, receive, interpret, and expand feminist thought and to translate it to political and economic leaders on one hand, and to the masses of women, on the other. According to 1988 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) statistics, women constituted 27 percent of faculty in Egypt, higher than in France (24%) and in the USA (24%). The 1993 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Report states the percentage of women in technical and scientific fields as 43% for Kuwait, 24% for Syria, 31% for Saudi Arabia, 28% for Iraq, 24% for Tunisia, 31% for Algeria, 25% for Morocco, 26% for Egypt, and finally 27% for Sudan.

A woman who possesses information is capable, in principle, of appropriating herself. She has eaten of the forbidden fruit and what she has learned cannot be unlearned. Patriarchy may subdue her by force, but it cannot win her over. The experience of Iranian women under the Islamic Republic helps us understand the acerbity of the conflict between women who have evolved historically beyond the confines of the patriarchal order and a government that forces them to conform to a particularly restrictive patriarchal blueprint. Prior to the revolution and after decades of struggle, Iranian women had succeeded in creating an atmosphere that was receptive to the notion of gender equality. They had made important strides in economic, social, cultural, and political fields. They were visible in positions of leadership. In 1978, just before the Islamic revolution, there were 22 women in the House of Representatives and two in the Senate. There were five mayors, two governors, one ambassador, one cabinet min- ister, and three undersecretaries, among them undersecretaries of Labor and Mines and Industries. More importantly, they were present in large numbers in institutions of higher learning, especially in non-traditional fields. Women’s organizations were spreading throughout the country. The fundamentalist leadership proposed to undo what women had accomplished by replacing the secular vision, from which women had drawn the moral and political force of their arguments, with the Islamist model, which rendered the feminist position irrelevant. Women, however, fought for their rights and made the enforcement of the new propositions costly. Step by step the regime has been forced to retreat. Women are still made to wear the veil in public places, but, significantly, the Islamic Republic has failed to resocialize them in fundamentalist norms. The Iranian case shows that once women forge a new identity for themselves they create a new set of historical realities that can no longer be easily dislodged. This, in fact, is where women are now in the greater part of the world.

The experience of women’s human rights movements across the globe strongly suggests that the lead for the study and implementation of strategies of women’s empowerment in the non-Western world should be taken by non-Western women themselves. In the case of Muslim women, certain steps have already been taken in this direction in many countries, including Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey and Iran (Sisterhood is Global Institute, 1994). The idea is to address the strategic possibilities, among others, for (1) interpreting the Qur’an and the badith; (2) educating the political elite and providing them with new interpretations that can be used as a basis for legislation and implementation of change; and (3) mobilizing grassroots support and establishing dialogue between people at the grassroots on the one hand, and the national and international decision-makers on the other. The goal is to modify traditional mores and laws to accommodate the requirements of women’s freedom, equality and human rights.

Clearly, grassroots populations ought to gain access to the aspirations and agreements of the international community on women’s rights. An important mechanism for raising women’s consciousness at various socio-economic levels is a women’s rights literacy program. There are several specific international declarations and conventions that address women’s problems. These documents can form the basis for an international grassroots campaign. They need to be rewritten in local dialect and reinterpreted in a way which makes sense to grassroots populations. Indigenous images, events, myths, and ideas must be incorporated to relay the basic messages of the universal principles. Muslim feminist activists, as cultural intermediaries, have the connections and the pre- established trust necessary to communicate these ideas to the general population.

The women’s rights literacy campaign should also help women unlearn certain harmful ideas and practices. There are many cases where an anti-woman behavior is falsely attributed to a religious mandate. An example is female genital mutilation (FGM) which affects 90 million girls and women. Many Asian and African women who practice FGM suppose that the practice is mandated by an Islamic injunction, although no such injunction exists in the Qur’an or Muslim law. A human rights literacy campaign would provide, a simple and dear justification for why FGM is unnecessary.

Equally important, cultural intermediaries can simultaneously communicate the needs, priorities, and the points of view of the masses to the political decision makers. They are in the best position to integrate the international rights documents into the national consciousness and the national agenda. It is imperative that this reservoir of ideological and political power be activated and reinforced by the international human rights community.

In the preface to Philosophy of Right, Hegel has written “As the thought of the world, [philosophy] appears only when actuality is already there cut and dried after its process of formation has been completed…The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” This is only partially true in the case of feminist philosophy and the human condition of women in the non-Western world. It is true in the sense that a consciousness of authentic identity, set in motion by the requirements of our time, is already there, both actual and potential, irreversible, waiting to be discovered and understood. On the other hand, it is an idea that must be theorized, given shape, and realized as concept and process. It presents all kinds of possibilities—unknown now, probably unknowable now, but possibilities that nevertheless exist, and in which we must believe.

“I can’t believe that,” said Alice. “Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.” Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said. “One can’t believe in impossible things.” “I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half- an-hour a day. Why sometimes I have believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” (Carroll, 1992).

Notes 1 Malinowski defines culture as “inherited artifacts, goods, technical process, ideas, habits and values” and also “the organisation of human beings into permanent groups.” Firth distinguishes between social structure and culture and defines the latter as “the component of accumulated resources, immaterial as well as material, which a people inherit, employ, transmute, add to and transmit; it is all learned behavior which has been socially acquired.” Bottomore defines culture as “the ideational aspects of social life, as distinct from the actual relations and forms of relationship between individuals; and by a culture the ideational aspects of a particular society.” 2 This notion of culture has been derived from the work of Max Weber as interpreted by Talcott Parsons. It is useful to this discussion because it allows for theintroduction of a criss-cross of contradictions in and among the components over time (see Parsons & Shils, 1951). 3 The term “modern” is somewhat problematic and requires a comment. When used in non-Western contexts, modern often connotes Western. Western, in turn, conjures up all kinds of orientations—from a positive feeling of social progress, political freedom, and economic and technological development to a host of negative ideas, including colonial subjugation, economic and political exploitation, moral decadence, and religious torpor.

Here I use the term modern neutrally as in the dictionary sense of contemporary or belonging to present. In this sense modernity is the normal condition of women living at the end of the 20th century. The salient characteristic of culture and identity for these women is contradiction and change, rather than stable and unchanging values. To be confused about one’s identity is a condition of being a conscious modern woman. 4 Max Weber called the process a historical passage resulting in the “disenchantment” of the world. 5 This is the central issue of existentialist thought from Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche to Heidegger, Camus and Sartre. 6 In Iran all major ayatollahs were opposed to the Khomeini brand of Islam not because they disagreed on esoteric and substantive matters but because of the method which necessitated the use of force. 7 In a perceptive article on recent scholarship on women, Anastasia Touflexis (1990) summarizes part of the findings: “Relationship colors every aspect of a woman’s life, according to the researchers. Women use conversation to expand and understand relationships; men use talk to convey solutions, thereby ending conversation. Women tend to see people as mutually dependent; men view them as self reliant. Women emphasize caring; men value freedom. Women consider actions within a context, linking one to the next; men tend to regard events as isolated and discrete.” 8 Elsewhere I have written that the discourse of empowerment must transcend the boundaries of any particular culture, religion or ideology:

It will be feminist rather than patriarchal, humane rather than ideological, balanced rather than extremist, critical as well as exhortatory. The global feminist discourse recognizes that the problem of women constitutes an issue in its own right, not as a subsidiary of other ideologies, no matter how structurally comprehensive or textually promising these ideologies seem to be. Since “traditional” concepts are by definition founded in patriarchal discourse, global feminism must be skeptical of those who present them as liberating. This feminism is not anti-man; rather, it sees the world in humane terms, that is, it seeks a redefinition of social, economic and political principles on the basis of non-patriarchal models. Realizing that such a feat cannot be accomplished without or against men’s participation, it does not hesitate to engage men politically in favor of the feminist cause.

The global feminist discourse rejects the notion that “East” and “West” constitute mutually exclusive paradigms; rather, it looks at life as evolving for all and believes that certain humane and morally defensible principles can and should be applied in the West and in the East equally. The point, of course, is not that, for example, Middle Eastern women should forget the problems that are obviously “Middle Eastern” and intensely present. It is, rather, that unless they think globally, they will neither be able to mobilize world opinion for their cause, nor succeed in breaking out of the boundaries of patriarchy on their own, and, therefore, they will likely fail to address their problems in a way that will lead to their solution. (AIkhami, 1994, pp. 16-17)

Accad, E. (1993, Fall). Third World Women and the Family. Al-Raidam, 10, 63. Afkhami, M. (1994). Women in Post-Revolutionary Iran: A Feminist Perspective. In M. Afkhami & E. Friedl (Eds.), In the Eye of the Storm: Women in Post-Revolutionary Iran. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. Anderson, J. W. (1994, June 17). In Bangladesh, Militants Seek Writer’s Death: Islamic Radicals Call Feminist Blasphemer. The Washington Post, p. A21. Benedict, R. (1959). Patterns of Culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Bloom, A. (1987). The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster. Bottomore, T. (1962). Sociology. London: Allen and Unwin. Cameron, D. (1985). Feminism and Linguistic Theory. London: Macmillan. Carroll, L. (1992). Alice in Wonderland: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Chicago, IL: J.G. Ferguson. Firth, R. (1971). Elements of Social Organizations. London: Tavistrock. Gilligan, C. (1982). In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Hegel, G. (1965). Philosophy of Right. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Heilbrun, C. (1988). Writing a Woman’s Life. New York: W.W. Norton. Jenks, C. (1993). Culture. London: Routeledge. Malinowski, B. (1994). A Scientific Theory of Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Mernissi, F. (1987). Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Moghadam, V. M. (Ed.). (1994). Gender and National Identity: Women and Politics in Muslim Societies. London: Zed Books. Morgan, R. (Ed.). (1984). Toward a General Theory of Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Sharma, A. (Ed.). (1987). Women in World Religions. Albany, NY: SUNY Press. Spretnak, C. (Ed.). (1982). The Politics of Women’s Spirituality. New York: Anchor Books. Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Taylor, C. (1991). The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Touflexis, A. (1990). Coming from a Different Place. Time, 64-66. Tucker, J. E. (Ed.). (1993). Arab Women: Old Boundaries, New Frontiers. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. United Nations Development Programme. (1993). Rapport Mondial sur le Developpement Humain. New York: United Nations. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. (1988). Chart 23/7: Enseignement du troisieme degree: Personnel enseignant et etudiants par type d’establissement, L’Annuaire Statistique de l’UNESCO, 1988, pp.3-169. New York: United Nations Young, K. (1987). “Introduction” in A. Sharma (Ed.), Women in World Religions. Albany, NY: SUNY Press. Woolf, V. (1929). A Room of One’s Own. London: Hogarth Press.

Book Reviews

From Basic Needs to Basic Rights:  Women’s Claim to Human Rights Edited by Margaret A. Schuler. Washington, D.C.: Women, Law and Development International, 1995. 597 pages.

Reviewed by JoelArmstrong Schoenmeyer*

Although we do not yet know the full effect of the recent Beijing Conference1 on women’s quality of life, the conference has at leastaltered and enlarged the landscape of feminist scholarship. Feminists from the United States and other Western countries have increasingly turned their attentions outward, focusing on issues of common concern for women of non-Western nations and providing forums for authors from those nations to discuss issues indigenous to their own countries. In a new collection of thirty-four essays entitled From Basic Needs to Basic Rights and edited by Margaret Schuler, feminist writers from allover the world analyze some of the most important issues faced by women today.

The essays cover a wide spectrum, both substantively (they address human and women’s rights ranging from safe labor conditions to sexual self-determination) and geographically (they examine countries from Russia to Chile). Schuler has divided the subject matter into five parts. Part I, entitled “Gender and Hierarchy in Human Rights,” provides an introduction to and a framework for the analyses which follow. Part IIfocuses on “Social and Economic Rights,” while Part III addresses “Religious, Cultural and Ethnic Identity and Human Rights.” Part IV examines the area of “Sexual and Reproductive Rights,” and Part V concludes the book with a discussion of “Activism to Advance Wom- en’s Human Rights.”

In my review of this work, I will adhere to the structure provided by Schuler. In doing so, I will give an overview of the topics addressed in each individual section and then attempt to tie together and further analyze some of the book’s main concepts.


One way to understand Part I is as a response to the question,”What is it, exactly, that you want?” Florence Butegwa (2) and Dorothy Q. Thomas (3) each address this question in the context of two “genera-dons” of human rights: “first generation” rights, which include civil and political rights, and “second generation” rights, which include economic, social, and cultural rights. Thomas asserts that a hierarchy exists inwhich the first generation of rights has taken priority over the second.’

Thomas suggests the following three schools of thought in response to such a hierarchy.(5) Traditional human rights activists believe in the primacy of civil and political rights over economic, social, and cultural rights.(6) In juxtaposition are those who believe that the present hierarchy should be reversed and a greater emphasis placed on the cultivation of second generation rights.’ Butegwa and Thomas occupy the morecomplex middle ground in this debate. Butegwa believes that the bestsolution lies in acknowledging the personhood of women: acceptingwomen as human beings entitled to human rights.’ She argues that women should not have to show they have been discriminated against in order to have a human rights claim which may be specific to women: “The challenge is to reconceptualize human rights to include the human rights of women and to extend beyond dictates of equality to cover concerns specific to women as women.”(9)

Thomas is deeply critical of any rights hierarchy. She believes in “an indivisible and interdependent approach” encompassing all of the “major” rights.”‘For Thomas, a greater recognition of the individual should bethe goal.” Cautioning against a reversal of the hierarchy-that is, a schema which would prioritize “second generation” rights over “first generation” rights-she posits that “the promotion of economic, social and cultural rights …shares at least one problem with its civil and political counterpart: the potential denial to women of their individual personhood, whether in the private or the public sphere.” (12)

On the surface, such a conclusion makes sense: women should not be forced to prioritize rights, since each woman may place different values upon different rights. A hierarchical approach treats women as amonolithic “thing,” rather than as individuals. It also may lead to theneglect of some subgroups. 3 Finally, it often appears that the true goal of rights hierarchies is to force women to denigrate or even waive certain rights in favor of others. For instance, answering that civil rightsare the most important rights may lead to the unjustified conclusionthat all other rights are unimportant. The question then becomes one of false choices and Faustian bargains.

However, from another strategic viewpoint, a rights hierarchy generally agreed upon by a large group of women can be effective. Voices in unison aimed at the effectuation of one goal will certainly bemore persuasive than hundreds of disparate voices. In the latter instance those responsible for allocating finite resources may either not know how to proceed effectively or may become frustrated with conflicting demands. After all, different rights can sometimes contradict one anoth-er. A government may adopt a rights hierarchy in order to avoid the”whipsaw” effect that occurs when various groups seek mutually exclu- sive or competing rights or resources. For example, one group of poorwomen may claim a right to career training, while another group ofpoor women may claim a right to monetary support so that they can stay home and care for their children.

The most successful paradigm might involve a combination of Thomas’ approach and the traditional hierarchical approach she critiques. Such a paradigm would allow women to collectively advance specific, agreed-upon, rights-based agendas without compromising their allegiance to what Thomas calls “women’s individual female personality.(14)


The second portion of the book focuses on two of the so-called “second generation” human rights: economic and social rights. Theauthors featured in this section, in contrast to more mainstream human rights scholars, assert that these rights are as important as the civil and  political rights of the “first generation.”

In making the case for “second generation” rights, the authors inthis section relate “tales from the front.” This book is at its best when,as in these stories, it details the constant struggles and occasional triumphs of women fighting for human rights.

With threats to employment security such as downsizing and outsourcing confronting many workers in the United States,’ (15) it is not difficult to convince American readers that economic concerns (particularly employment-related ones) play a fundamental part in people’s quality of life. Gladys Acosta Vargas passionately and convincingly addresses these concerns from a feminist perspective.'(16) She documents the plight of women in the Colombian flower industry, and shows that every aspect of their employment-from hiring practices to benefits and working conditions-perpetuates, and is perpetuated by, gender dis- crimination.’ (17) Acosta addresses the many obstacles workers face in their attempt to promote a safer and more humane work environment.

On a more hopeful note, Rani Jethmalani’s essay entitled PublicInterestLitigationinIndia:Makingthe StateAccountable tells the story ofhow India’s Supreme Court has developed a doctrine, which they callPublic Interest Litigation (PIL), to bolster India’s constitutional guaran-tee of social, economic, and political justice in national institutions.(18) The Court has articulated its PIL doctrine as follows: “The only solution for making civil and political rights meaningful to these large sections of society would be to remake the material conditions and restructure the social and economic order so that [the poor] may be able to realize their economic, social and cultural rights.”‘ 9 In order to make this restructuring a reality, India’s Supreme Court has liberalized procedural rules such as standing when tackling important social issues like the right of shelter for the poor.” (20)

Part II also includes essays addressing the relationship between resource allocation and women’s rights. Some of the authors argue that”economic rights” include the right of access to governmental allocations. For instance, in Women’s Social and Economic Rights: A Casefor Real Rights, Lucie Lamarche discusses the benefits of an international human rights forum “that could conclude …that the allocation ofresources to the military, the nuclear industry or even tax exemptions for companies denies the right to equality of women and other groups….” (21)

Unfortunately, the consequences of Lamarche’s proposal are far more complex than the above quotation demonstrates. Economic and social rights differ from civil and political rights in that they may be construed as “positive” rights which require the government to act on behalf of its citizens. By contrast, “negative” rights only prevent the government from interfering in its citizens’ lives. In my view, Lamarche’s solution creates positive rights and ignores the economic effects of those rights. (22)

Positive rights can have negative social consequences as well. As Philip K. Howard details in his book entitled The Death of CommonSense,’ the creation of new “rights” results in a zero-sum game. Howard states that “[r]ights …leave no room for balance, or for looking at [situations] from everybody’s point of view …. “(24) Howard’s arguments specifically address the handicapped, but can be applied to any situation in which rights are being created:

What benefits a person with one disability may harm some- one with another disability. Low drinking fountains and tele- phones are harder to use for the elderly or those with bad backs. High toilets make transfer easier from a wheelchair, but make bowel movements harder for everyone else, especially the elderly. Curb cuts are more dangerous for the blind ….Warning bumps at the edge of train platforms are good for the blind but bad for those in wheelchairs. (25)

Finally, Lamarche’s international forum is an inadequate remedy. Would such a forum be charged with ensuring that the United States’ budget was equitable? Such an idea runs contrary to the tremendous value many Americans place on national autonomy.

Margaret Schuler states that one of the aims of the book is todiscuss the future of women’s rights through the establishment of an agenda.26 However, Part II of the book offers more criticism than concrete or realistic options for achieving economic equality. For in- stance, Rebecca P. Sewall criticizes the capitalist machinations of the United States and related “capitalist tools” such as the International Monetary Fund;27 Roberta Clarke and Joan French criticize resource allocation decisions in poorer nations which claim they lack the resourc-es to provide for “second generation” rights.2 But neither of these arti-cles articulates a clear blueprint for action.


Traditional Western liberalism in general and Western feminism inparticular have yet to find an adequate way to address the intersection between cultural rights and human rights. Some Western activists and scholars who place great value on human rights remain reluctant to force Western definitions of human rights on non-Western cultures, and rightly so. However, sometimes activists and scholars fail to achieve this balance because they do not articulate their underlying assumptions. For example, the criticism of female genital mutilation often does not go beyond the instinct that some things are just wrong.

Unfortunately, as a reasoned statement of policy, “some things are just wrong” is a glaringly insufficient response to those who favor cultural relativism. Many articles in Part III succeed in conveying the complex dynamics of issues such as female genital mutilation. Particularly eye-opening is Asma Mohamed Abdel Halim’s article. (29) Halim reveals much about why Western feminists have been unsuccessful in their efforts to eradicate female circumcision. Halim attributes this failure in part to the West’s inability to understand the ritualistic significance of female genital mutilation.(30)She also ascribes this failure to  Sudanese resentment of the West-a resentment which stems from along history of the West’s attempts to “civilize” the Sudanese people.(31)  Halim therefore advocates a new strategy to eradicate female genital mutilation. She eschews “‘the dosed absolutist type of cultural educa- tion that ignores the social, economic, and political change around it that are [sic] responsible”‘ (32) She instead favors “[s]trategies that includelegal literacy programs and human rights education at the grassroots level.”(33) This strategy places Sudanese women in control of the discus- sion of female genital mutilation, while Westerners take more of a supportive or consultative role.

As in Part II, the strongest essays are those which tell stories andprovide a window into the thoughts and feelings of women living in avariety of cultures and religions. In the past, we most frequently haveheard these women’s opinions filtered through their governments orWestern feminist groups. The governments usually defend the statusquo, saying that the women they govern are happy with their lives.Western feminists, on the other hand, assume that the women inquestion either are miserable or suffer from false consciousness.(34)

I particularly like these narratives, especially the articles written bySharon D. McIvor,35 and by Farida Shaheed,36 because they commitneither of these sins. Instead, these articles provide the reader with casestudies of, and models for, women’s empowerment. These anecdotessuggest that, in the quest for women’s rights, smaller may be better, atleast for now. Grassroots campaigns for example allow women thefreedom to determine their own goals and how to best meet them.These campaigns are especially effective for two significant reasons.First, native women are certainly most aware of their own wants andneeds. Second, because these women also know the people and societiesagainst which they are fighting, they are better equipped than outsidersto plan for social change.


Part IV of From Basic Needs to Basic Rights examines sexuality andreproduction. Specifically, this portion of the book focuses on how thepatriarchal practice ofviewing women as sexual objects represses women’ssexuality. A male-centered view of sexual desires emphasizes only men’s sexual pleasures, and is hostile to women’s pursuit of sexual fulfillment.Not only does such a view deprive women of sexual self-determination and cause harm to their psyches, but it may also lead to physical harm. For instance, Pearl Nwashili reports in her article 7 that women in several African countries engage in “dry sex” solely because it is thought to increase men’s pleasure,(38) even though it can lead to vaginal abrasion and a greater risk of HIV.(39) Similarly, societies where male adultery is accepted and tolerated put women at a greater risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases.

At the root of this patriarchal view of sexuality is the belief that a woman’s primary duty is to give birth to children. This belief signifi- candy impacts women’s health and contraceptive technology. Nasreen Huq and Tasneem Azim provide a prime example in their essay.40 Their article reveals that Bangladesh’s health system actively discourages women from removing their Norplant capsules, even if the women are suffering serious side effects. (41)

Like Part III, Part IV addresses the conflict between human rights and cultural rights in the form of religious beliefs. For example, authorsAlda Facio and Laura Queralt discuss the fight of Costa Rican feminists  to develop sex education manuals for use in Costa Rica’s schools, in theface of strong opposition by officials of the Roman Catholic Church.(42)

Perhaps the best way to avoid the twin evils of cultural relativism and colonialism in the context of sexual and reproductive rights is to develop true international dialogue. Such dialogue would allow Western feminists and women of other countries to share facts and opinions with each other. This dialogue, however, should be driven by the interests and needs of non-Western women as they define them. Infor- mation and ideas should be “pulled” from the West by concerned parties in other parts of the world rather than “pushed” on them by the West. It is also important that such a dialogue be a real, two-sided exchange. Westerners must not confuse difference with ignorance, and we must remember that outside perspectives can teach us much about our own values and beliefs. For example, Halim discusses the opinions of Sudanese women concerning the ways in which Western women conform to male standards of beauty.(43) She remarks that many Sudanese women are appalled by Western practices such as breast implants and “eyeliner” tattoos. (44)


Part V both highlights the major points of the book and illumi- nates the tensions which exist between individual feminists concerning remedies.

This portion of the book is above all a collection of extremely interesting and informative stories. Once again the reader is propelled around the globe and shown the victories and defeats of women’s organizations large and small. Sunila Abeyesekera, for instance, intro- duces us to Mothers and Daughters of Lanka, a group of women dedicating themselves to peace and human and women’s rights during a time of civil war in Sri Lanka.45 Another author, Ver6nica Matus Madrid, writes of the Chilean women’s movement as one that combines a policy-oriented approach like that of the Sri Lankan women with astrong practical streak that helps train its members to work in the community at large.46 However, not all of these battles are successful. Irina Jiirna’s account of women in Russia shows the pervasiveness of stereotypes about feminists.17 The article also proves the thesis of Gloria Steinem’s If Men Could  Menstruate:those in power (and men in particular) will manipulate any situation or system in order to improve their own standing and oppress the less powerful. (48)


Even if failures occur along the road to women’s equality, these failures are valuable if they focus attention on the issues that indigenous women (as opposed to outsiders, however well-meaning) find most important. Many of the authors in From Basic Needs to Basic Rightswrite passionately about their subjects and about the need to do some- thing. Yet simply doing something is not the same thing as doing something effectively. I find some of these authors, particularly those who write about academic subjects instead of personal experience and case studies, much too willing to try problem-solving through the United Nations.(49) These situations rarely end with much success. Rather, these tales of United Nations intervention are filled with incorrectly formulated or irrelevant regulations that are enforced incorrectly, if at all.(50) I believe that, as Sunila Abeyesekera writes, we must “attempt to place the voice of women from base communities firmly at the center of international interventions.”

From Basic Needs to Basic Rights is a very worthwhile work. While I take issue with the failure of some of the more academically-oriented authors to discuss real-world, concrete solutions, these weaknesses are more than offset by the “inside look” the book’s case studies allow us into the struggles of women the world over.


Book Review by Joel Armstrong Schoenmeyer University of Michigan Law School: From Basic Needs to Basic Rights: Women ‘s Claim to Human Rights. Edited by Margaret A. Schuler. Washington, D.C.: Women, Law and Development International, 1995. 597 pages.