Women's Rights, Human Rights: International Feminist Perspectives
Julie Peters and Andrea Wolper, eds. London/New York: Routledge, 1995; 372 pp.
Reviewed by Helle - Mai Lenk Department of Adult Education Ontario Institute for Studies in Education Toronto, Ontario
Women's Rights, Human Rights is the most recent and arguably the most wide - ranging addition to a growing body of literature on the global movement for women's human rights.(f.1) The interest has been most remarkable in the last three years since the 1993 UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna brought to international attention gender - based violations of human rights. In the introduction to this anthology, Julie Peters and Andrea Wolper state the purpose of their collection as twofold: to map the directions the movement for women's human rights is taking and to address the ramifications of critical events and issues. Among the latter, they single out the rapes in the former Yugoslavia and the pressure for a war crimes tribunal; trafficking of women and girls; female genital mutilation; and reproductive rights and coercive methods of "population control."
The 32 contributions by activists, journalists, lawyers and scholars from 21 countries (albeit for the most part U.S. - educated or - based) have been organized under seven headings: "Backgrounds," "Regional Reports," "Gendered Law, 'Public' and 'Private'," "Cultural Difference," "Violence and Health," "Development and the Socio - Economy," and "The Persecuted, The Voiceless." However, in reading through the essays, one finds that these categorizations necessarily overlap and certain common themes emerge, particularly those that pertain to the situation of women in parts of the world other than North America or Western Europe.
The three essays in the section entitled "Cultural Difference" address what the editors identify as the most critical issue facing human rights advocates: "Does the right to preserve cultural and religious practices take precedence over human rights norms?" (p. 5). The role played by custom and culture in hindering the advancement of women's rights is a theme, however, that is broached by most contributors and permeates not only this volume but, I would argue, all aspects of the movement for international women's human rights, a movement which to a certain extent owes its very existence to the identification of a West/non - West binary. In "The Politics of Gender and Culture in International Human Rights Discourse," Arati Rao seems well aware of this fact. In what seems a direct criticism of the editors' introductory comments, she cautions against the tendency to set up "a false oppositional dichotomy in which geopolitical borders are erased and a multitude of cultures are collapsed into falsely unified packages, one bearing the stamp of human rights and the other lacking it" (p. 168). While not denying that defences of culture and religion have resulted in some of the most egregious violations of women's rights, Rao points out that "culture is a series of constantly contested and negotiated social practices whose meanings are influenced by the power and status of their interpreters and participants" (p. 173).
Ann E. Mayer might have benefitted from reading Rao's essay before embarking on her reflections on women's rights and what she terms "the Middle Eastern experience". Her article is replete with references to "Middle Eastern Muslim women," "Middle Eastern governments" and "Middle Eastern law" as if national boundaries let alone racial and class divisions do not exist. When a specific country is cited, as in the case of Iran, the author limits her references to books published in the immediate post - revolutionary period of the early 1980s.(f.2) While Mayer castigates those who in adopting a "cultural relativist" position promote a monolithic, static image of Middle Eastern countries, she herself does little to dispel that notion.
Finally, Maria Suarez Toro downplays the importance of advances in women's rights made at the international level maintaining that in Central America they have had little impact on women's everyday lives. …