Women's Rights, Human Rights

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Are women's rights human rights? During the cold war the United States granted political refugee status to virtually any escapee from the Soviet Union and its satellites, a policy that persisted, with regard to Cuba, until recently. Yet even by the narrowest definition of political rights, millions of women around the globe are as deprived as were the inhabitants of the evil empire - unable vote, travel freely, own property, speak their minds. By any more expansive definition of liberty even more millions of women qualify as human rights victims. For all its faults, Communism did not permit the legal murder of women by male relatives for supposed crimes against the family "honor," use rape as a weapon of terror, deny widows custody of their children or permit young girls to be sold into polygynous marriages.

That's not the way our government sees it, of course: Can you imagine Jimmy Carter inviting, say, Pakistan to release to the U.S. its rape victims jailed for the crime of fornication in the same buoyant spirit he dared Castro to let loose the Marielitos? If one took seriously the government's fine words on human rights, one could not begin to understand how George Bush declared the one-child policy of China a human rights violation justifying American asylum for any Chinese affected by it while ignoring the four-child policy of Ceausescu's Romania, which featured many of the same totalitarian measures - mandatory gynecological inspections, coercive monitoring of pregnancies, economic sanctions for reproductive noncooperators. Still less could one understand how we came to defend Kuwait, of all places, as a bastion of democracy, producing the truly weird paradox of U.S. women soldiers flexing their newly won military muscles to reinstate a barely constitutional monarchy that denied most men and all women the vote and in which all the real work seems to have been performed by Palestinian engineers and Asian housemaids.

Given the government's flexible and convenient notions of human rights - Cuba si, Haiti non; Libya bad Saudi Arabia good - it's not surprising that the I.N.S. resisted offering a refuge from female genital mutilation to 19-year-old Fauziya Kasinga of Togo, despite its own guidelines defining F.G.M. as a form of persecution, and kept her in prison for almost two years, also despite its own rules. What is significant, though, is that her case has become a cause celebre, with support from Equality Now - an international feminist organization that has long struggled against F.G.M. - the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, Amnesty International and other human rights groups. In a day of conversations with feminists and human rights activists, I only once heard the argument, so common ten or even five years ago, that F.G.M. is a time-honored "cultural practice," opposition to which is a form of Western cultural imperialism.

This seems to me a major shift. Until quite recently, F.G.M. tended to be ignored or minimized by those with an interest in the developing world, including leftists and feminists. …