Women, Gender, and Human Rights: A Global Perspective

Women, Gender, and Human Rights: A Global Perspective


Women, Gender, and Human Rights: A Global Perspective

Edited by Marjorie Agosin

Book Reviews

Ethics & International Affairs / Book Review by Alyssa R. Bernstein
Marjorie Agosin, ed. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001), 340 pp., $60 cloth, $25 paper.
This collection comprises thirteen more-or-less scholarly essays about historical as well as current efforts to secure human rights for women and girls, in addition to three items in other genres on related topics: an autobiographical reflection about war trauma and exile, a literary-critical analysis of three stories about women, and a series of sketches of women by a journalist traveling through the former Yugoslavia. The book is divided into four parts: (I) Theoretical Visions, (II) Women and Health, (III) Women, Activism, and Social Change, and (IV) Women and the Cultures of Displacement. In part I, despite its title, only Sally Engle Merry’s essay develops any theoretical or conceptual arguments, and the best such arguments of the book are in the essay by Mahnaz Afkhami in part III. Part IV, which includes the more literary pieces, is only loosely unified. All but one of the most informative essays are in the first and second parts, which mainly provide general overviews.

The essays vary greatly in quality of reasoning, research, and writing. Their authors have diverse academic or activist backgrounds (some quite impressive), and they address different audiences. Some “preach to the converted” using uninformative rhetoric, while others evidently seek to educate ignorant yet receptive American undergraduates. Some aim to arouse concern by telling shocking stories about abuses suffered by particular individuals, while others present dry, acronym-filled summary descriptions of United Nations documents and activities (portions of which are repeated in several essays). A few of the essays present important analytic insights. Here are two examples: “Gender violence is inextricably linked to culturally rooted systems of kinship and marriage…. If the only way to provide security and safety for a woman is to allow her to separate from her husband, reducing violence against women will diminish the permanence of marriage and the power of husbands over wives, and change the meanings of masculinity and femininity” (Merry, p. 90); and “The statement is sometimes made that rights are stressed now whereas historically the accent has been on obligation…. Simply put, we cannot have rights without obligation because we cannot have rights that are not reciprocal” (Afkhami, p. 242).

Arvonne Fraser fills the first fifty pages of part I with a historical account covering six centuries, up to 1995. She concludes that the “history of the drive for women’s human rights indicates that only when women are literate, when they can articulate their view of life in publications and before audiences, when they can organize and demand equality, when girls are educated and socialized to think of themselves as citizens as well as wives and mothers, and when men take more responsibility for care of children and the home, can women be full and equal citizens able to enjoy human rights” (p. 58). Given this conclusion and given that education, employment, and health care have for centuries up to now been principal issues in campaigns for human rights for women (p. 52), it is striking that this collection includes no essays devoted to education or employment issues. Julie H. and Sandra P. Levison provide a useful (although unevenly written) overview of global health care issues, and Carola Suarez-Orozco’s article about psychosocial problems of immigrant youth is clearly written and seems well researched. However, given the magnitude of the global HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the significance of gender inequality as a factor in it, it is striking that only eight of more than three hundred twenty pages are devoted to this topic, and that it is discussed only in general terms.

Nonetheless, these pages contain a number of true and important points, for example: “The social, economic, and cultural analysis of the AIDS epidemic shows that the unequal status of men’s and women’s roles in societies contributes to the spread of HIV/AIDS …. This imbalance in power between men and women threatens women’s health …. Educated women with access to condoms are still vulnerable to HIV if they cannot refuse unwanted or unprotected sex from a partner. These women often fear verbal and physical abuse or the debilitating social and economic repercussions of divorce, which can include loss of property, children, and status within the community” (pp. 130-31).

Felice Gaer helpfully describes and justifies efforts “to engage all programs of the UN in examining gender-related aspects of their ongoing work” (p. 98). Initiated in the late 1990s, gender integration, or mainstreaming of women’s human rights, “means breaking the silence, ensuring the visibility of abuses against women, clarifying the norms at issue, and pressing for accountability of those who perpetrate those abuses, and then coordinating action so that the issues are thought about and acted upon in multiple contexts” (p. 102). Mary Geske and Susan C. Bourque raise important questions about the weakening connections between the NGOs that have become most effective internationally and the grassroots movements that can be most effective locally.

Sheila Dauer’s excellent essay describes patterns of violence committed against women by public as well as private actors in the United States and Pakistan. She concludes that efforts to prevent such abuses are hindered due to the lack of prohibitions and punishments by many public institutions, which employ the excuse of protecting a country’s customs or culture. Sally Engle Merry notes that “conceptualizing violence against women as a human rights violation typically means demanding changes in local cultural practices concerning sexuality, marriage, and the family” (p. 90). She argues that it is a mistake to think that protecting women from violence is diametrically opposed to protecting cultures, and that the mistake lies in overlooking “the contested and variable cultural support” for the violence found in each society (pp. 91-92).

Mahnaz Afkhami asserts that the infringement of women’s rights is always “justified in the name of culture” and contends that “neither Islam nor the culture of Muslim peoples is per se an obstacle to women’s achieving rights” (pp. 234-36). She provides partial support for this contention by showing that “the discourse of relativity,” on which “Islamists draw … to deny or infringe women’s human rights” does not in fact support that denial (p. 244). In the course of her argument she makes a number of good conceptual points about rights. However, some statements in the first pages of her essay seem false, for example: “The first fundamentalist movement started in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century” (p. 235). She also neglects to provide arguments or footnoted sources in support of some of her controversial assertions. The same is true of several of the other authors.

Only Afkhami provides any analysis of the term “rights.” Very few of the authors define the term “human rights” or even use it carefully and consistently, and its meaning differs from essay to essay. However, while neither conceptual analysis nor thoroughness of research are strong points of most of the essays in this collection, the book is valuable in a number of other respects–it is wide-ranging, thought-provoking, and a good starting point for further research.

Book Endorsement & Praise

“…devastating commonalities and startling differences in women’s oppression and activism around the world are keenly explored in this excellent anthology.” — Jacqueline Bhabha, Harvard University

“Argues that the elimination of gender-based violence . . must be at the center of the struggle for social justice.” — Eric Stover, author of The Graves: Srebrenica and Vukovar

“This anthology adds strength and credence to the struggle for women’s human rights.” — William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International, USA

“This moving anthology is a must for scholars, students, and human rights workers; it also will captivate the general reader.” — Elena O. Nightingale, scholar-in-residence, National Academy of Sciences