Thoughts on Women's Rights as Human Rights

How is one to envision the body of ideas that constitutes international human rights in terms of both the universality of human rights and the particularity, or plurality, of various cultures, religions, nations and tribes vying for their right to self-determination?

Not more than twenty-five yards from the door to my office is the entrance to the Embassy of Pakistan – Interest Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This office handles all visa, passport, student, and cultural affairs for Iranian citizens residing in the Washington, DC, area. At any time during the day I might walk down toward the elevator and see this scene unfold: a woman steps into the hall in average American dress. She may be in jeans and a t-shirt or donning a business suit, but inevitably, draped over her arm is a long, concealing coat. As she steps off the elevator, she will slide her arms into the sleeves of the coat, reach into her bag and unravel a scarf. As she walks toward the door of the office the scarf is wrapped about her head, concealing her dark hair. She dare not enter the Interest Section with any evidence of a female form visible to the eye. If I happen to step out a while later, I may catch this same woman leaving the building and shedding her makeshift burka as she enters back into her Western life.

Daily, I ponder the ritual of these women. Such a stark contrast exists between the lives they live, and those which they must portray in front of their own government officials. How is one to understand this divide? This, admittedly, is a mild form of the rift between what a Westerner would consider the universal human right to self-expression in dress and what an Islamic state would consider its particular right to cultural self-determination, but it is a ready example of a much deeper issue that I would like to explore – the gap between the ideal of universal human rights and the ideal of cultural diversity.

“Pluralism envisions a state that allows a thousand flowers to bloom (180).” These words of Coomaraswamy describe the vision of a heterogeneous society in which many traditions are allowed to flourish side by side with respect for one another’s differences like the flowers of a colorful garden. The pluralism, though, that is revealed in such a garden at once and always conceals. Hidden within this ideal of diversity of traditions is the hegemony of each culture which consumes the pluralism of individuals within itself.

Another formulation from Coomaraswamy: “If all women are equal, then why do Muslim women have different rights from Hindu women, or Malay women from Chinese women (180)?” Defining human rights contingently in relation to cultural norms seems inherently problematic if one is to call them human rights at all. The term human, though not historically inclusive, in this iteration seems an attempt at a radical inclusiveness, an attempt to define us all as having this one trait in common – our humanness. The term “human rights” then seeks to endow each of us in our humanness with some certain set of rights that on the basis of our humanness cannot be denied. It seems inherently a universal concept.

Of these various rights, though, a few that seem near the pinnacle are that right of self-determination, that right of religious freedom (but freedom to practice, freedom to cede one’s freedoms to it? freedom here seems already problematic), and that right of a community to band together and define itself as a culture. And should not the culture or the religion that rises as a result of these rights be respected by those outside of it? It seems to follow. But if this culture or this religion demands that members forgo certain of their rights as necessary to the rite of membership, and say that certain of these forgone rights are of the nature of what have been called “human rights,” then does the community outside have a cause to protest? Do the human rights of the individual or the rights of the culture or religion to which the individual originally ceded their rights take precedent here?

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action’s universality clause, as the result of much negotiation reads:

While the significance of national and regional peculiarities and various historical, cultural, and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of states, regardless of their political, economic, and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.

This ambiguous declaration leaves one still with the lingering question of universality or particularity. Particular histories “must be borne in mind” as the state carries out its duty to “promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.” What does this “borne in mind” mean? Should the state punish murder unless it is in the form of religious ritual? How far does the particular, the peculiar, extend into the universal? How much of the relative is submitted to the universality of human rights? This declaration seems to be utterly empty of practicable meaning.

Women’s rights groups have thought out other solutions to this dilemma through a discussion of consent. Coomaraswamy writes: “Women and men should be given the right to choose which law should govern their private lives. If they wish to be governed by Muslim law, that is their prerogative; but if they wish to be guided by general secular law, that should also be a right granted to the individual (181).” This voluntarism is problematic in a couple of ways. At the same time as one recognizes the right of a religion to determine itself, one denies the very same right to a state. At what point is this line drawn? Should a village traditionally of a certain culture that precludes certain rights of the individual be asked to also find room within it for those individuals who would not submit to the cession of those rights? If the individual should decide she would prefer the secular law to govern her actions, must she move from the village? From the state? Does this not place undue burden on the individual if she should prefer a different life than that allowed by the culture, the religion, the village, the state?

Even without this undue burden, even if the village must make room for the individual, there is the question of what kind of choice really exists. Do not traditions by their very nature hold on to individuals? To ask it another way, is it not the case that one is indoctrinated into a tradition, a culture, a religion, in such a way that makes it, in many cases, extremely difficult to leave, even if the illusion of this freedom exists at the surface? The consent to be governed in a way that would preclude one’s human rights seems to be an impossible consent to withhold in many situations, and such a system appears to leave unanswered the question of where space must be made for the individual who chooses to live outside of the dominant group.

Why not whole-hearted universality? Born of the Enlightenment, universal human rights hold within them an inherent bias. It is claimed by the Third World that these rights are Western, not universal (168). These rights are formulations born of a particular lived situation, and cannot be applied to all particular lived situations. It is rightly the case that these universal human rights are of a Western imagination rising out of a modern epistemology which seeks to objectify in order to know and to universalize the entirety of its knowledge. At the same time, these human rights were not universal to all in Western society in their initial instance. The exclusivity of the term “human” has been relaxed; bringing far greater numbers into the set to which these rights apply. Indeed, the women’s movement has had great influence in opening up this term. Also, the term “rights” has undergone many alterations. The universal (Western) human rights have been expanded to include rights of women that were never imagined by the framers of the Enlightenment. Does this tell us something of the nature of human rights born of the Enlightenment that is of importance to this debate?

It seems that the particular of the Western idea of human rights is one that is inherently subject to change via the re-iteration of a certain type of dialog. The constant reverberation of reasoned and rational dialog that is inherent to the Western modern epistemology brings about a constant re-evaluation and revaluation of human rights. The ideas and ideals contained within the term are continually open to re-examination. New ideas and ideals are packaged within the borders of the term as old definitions are left by way. Open, honest, and rational dialog, then, seems of utmost importance in the debate. The particular of Western (Enlightenment) human rights may not be universal, but it opens itself up to the type of dynamic change that allows it to continually grow in that direction.

Does this lead, then, to a universal human rights that consumes the particulars, the relative, of local cultures? It seems not to be the case. To say that it is assumes local customs, culture, religions, and the like to be static, un-evolving constructions. All systems are subject to change, to evolution. There is an incessant interplay between world cultures that unfolds at a feverish pace today. We are not confined to our villages, but, instead, it seems more the cases that the world is our village. To say that cultures around the world are becoming Westernized is to miss the dialog that is happening. Local cultures are not now the same as they were a hundred years ago and they will not be a hundred years hence what they are today. The same can be said of human rights.

The women down the hall have stepped outside of their particular culture and into the realm of the particularly Western iteration of human rights. They still must don the cloak of their culture for certain of their interactions. Only a continuing dialog, a critical dialog, will discover what balance between those stark contrasts will unfold tomorrow and twenty years from tomorrow. We, today, are obligated to keep alive that very dialog.

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