Women's rights, CEDAW and international human rights debates
Shaheen Sardar Ali
In this chapter I seek to analyse the potential of human rights law as an effective tool for women's empowerment. Starting from a brief overview of the international norm of non-discrimination and equality culminating in the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the chapter explores the difficulties arising from employing notions of formal equality to seek empowerment for women in a diverse world. I do so by examining the alternative 'Islamic' discourse of human rights and instruments presented from Muslim forums.
Modern theories of human rights and women's rights have historically developed in two separate theoretical strains (Eisler 1987). Leading philosophers, such as John Locke in the seventeenth century and Jean Jacques Rousseau in the eighteenth century, defined men as individuals innately possessed of certain 'natural rights' (Rousseau 1947). Women, on the other hand, were defined not as individuals, but as members of men's households and thus, along with their offspring, under male control (Eisler 1987).
The UN has been key in acknowledging that women's rights have been marginalized both institutionally and conceptually from national and international human rights movements. 1 Starting from the UN Charter, a wide array of human rights instruments promulgated by the UN and regional organizations included provisions for the protection of women's rights and non-discrimination on the basis of sex (see Brownlie 1992; Ghandhi 1995). These include the UN Charter (1945), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR 1948), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR 1966), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR 1966), the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (the Religious Declaration 1981), the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR 1950), the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR 1969) and the African Charter on Human and People's Rights (African Charter 1987). All these documents prohibit discrimination on grounds of sex (article 2, UDHR; article 2, ICCPR; article 2, ICESCR; Preamble, the Religious Declaration).
Statements of formal equality and non-discrimination in general human rights instruments were considered inadequate, however, and, since 1945, more