Embracing Complexity: Human Rights in Critical Race Feminist Perspective

By Lewis, Hope | Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Embracing Complexity: Human Rights in Critical Race Feminist Perspective


Lewis, Hope, Columbia Journal of Gender and Law


Is feminist human rights scholarship prepared to address the current crisis in international law and politics? Globalization, the reassertion of deep cultural divides, war, armed conflict, terrorism, (1) the HIV/AIDS pandemic, (2) the appalling economic status of women in the Global South, (3) desperate flows of migrants willing to risk death for economic opportunity, (4) violence against women who resist traditional (or modern) behavioral norms, and violence against women for simply being women--all seem to indicate increasing complexity in the challenges facing feminist legal scholarship. If international feminist approaches to human rights exist only as part of a static, hegemonic, and imperialist framework, they would indeed be unable to engage the contemporary needs and aspirations of women cross-culturally. In my view, however, the voices of "women of all colors" have enriched the objectives and norms of feminist human rights scholarship and have embraced complex challenges from the beginning. Nonetheless, the voices of women at the margins--women of color and Third World women among them--have too often been rejected out of hand, ignored, or otherwise made invisible. (5)

Critical Race Feminist and other multicultural approaches to legal scholarship attempt continually to recenter such voices and unearth their experiences and perspectives in the search for effective social justice strategies. As we collectively reflect on the successes and challenges facing feminist scholarship in this dangerous and critical time, (6) the particularities of culture, race, nation, and other forms of identity must be fully recognized as important aspects of feminist human rights discourse. This brief essay argues, therefore, that Critical Race Feminist and other multicultural approaches will make important, although ambivalent, contributions to the overall international human rights agenda.

The relevance of race, ethnicity, culture, and gender was recognized at the founding of the post-World War II universal human rights movement. (7) Human rights standards prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, sex, culture, and other identity categories appear in each of the documents comprising the International Bill of Rights. (8) This early recognition of the significance of identity was due, in part, to the understanding that conflicts over racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural differences are often the source of armed conflict and human rights violations (or are deployed to mask other political or economic objectives). However, despite the inclusion of sex on the list of protected non-discrimination categories, few human rights scholars explicitly focused on the role of gender-specific abuses in the early stages of the human rights movement. (9) Yet the control and oppression of women is often central to conflicts over racial, religious, and cultural differences as well.

Despite this historical context, it often has been difficult to surface the complex mix of other identity concerns in the construction of "gender" in feminist human rights scholarship. Like other political movements, the feminist human rights movement has struggled with the fear that recognizing internal differences will weaken or undermine the overall agenda--women's equality and liberation from oppression. This resistance to complexity led to the well-known and highly criticized tendency toward "gender essentialism" in early feminist discourse--the construction of the perceived attributes of "white, middle-class, Western women" as the universal attributes of "women" in general. Alternatively, women from the Third World or other women of color were sometimes treated as the essentialized "Exotic Other" who await rescue from Third World cultural patriarchy by Western feminism. (10)

Nevertheless, the voices of women of color, women from the Third World, lesbians, women with disabilities, and poor women have continued to be asserted. …

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