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  • Enemies or Allies? Feminism and Cultural Relativism as Dissident Voices in Human Rights Discourse
  • Eva Brems (bio)

I. Introduction

In recent years, feminism and cultural relativism have been among the most vigorous and the most visible critiques of dominant human rights discourse. On many issues feminists and cultural relativists have found themselves taking diametrically opposed sides. The manifest successes of feminist views inside the human rights system have sometimes been at the expense of cultural relativist views. This paper argues against such an antagonism. An analysis of both the feminist and the cultural relativist positions will uncover parallels and similarities in their respective claims. There seems to be enough common ground to allow for building a bridge between the two strands of thought. Instead of wasting part of their creative potential in opposing each other, feminists and cultural relativists could join forces and combine their insights into a constructive critique.

In Parts II and III of this article the feminist and the cultural relativist critiques of human rights are summarized separately. In Parts IV and V, the two critiques are compared and contrasted. This confrontation usually takes the form of a sharp conflict, which is illustrated in Part IV by means of the recent UN world conferences. Part V reduces the dimensions of the conflict by pointing at parallels and similarities between the two critiques. In Part VI, a constructive approach to the remaining differences between the cultural relativist and the feminist human rights views is advanced. [End Page 136]

II. The Feminist Critique of Human Rights

Human rights are not what they claim to be, feminists say. They are a product of the dominant male half of the world, framed in their language, reflecting their needs and aspirations. Whereas the “rights of man” as originally conceived by the great liberal thinkers were not intended to include women, today’s “universal human rights” still overlook them as a matter of fact. The feminist critique of human rights thus basically argues for the inclusion of women in the human rights protection system. Feminists of all strands 1 advance various means to realize this aim.

A. Liberal Feminists

Most at ease in the present human rights system are the “liberal feminists.” 2 Their major concern, equal treatment of men and women, underlies the nondiscrimination provisions of most human rights treaties. 3 Liberal feminists stay within the existing human rights framework, using its language and logic to argue for an increased concern for women’s needs. Karen Engle distinguishes between doctrinalists and institutionalists. 4 The first concentrate on bringing situations where they consider women’s rights to be violated under the protection of specific existing human rights provisions. [End Page 137] The latter focus on improving the present institutional structure for the enforcement of the human rights of women.

In the eyes of many feminists today, a liberal “add woman and stir” approach does not go far enough. Cultural feminists as well as radical feminists are convinced that a real inclusion of women in the human rights system requires a transformation of that system. 5 The human rights concept must get rid of the “maleness” with which its concepts and structure are imbued.

B. Cultural Feminists

Cultural feminists 6 are the antipodes of liberal feminists in that they stress women’s difference from men rather than equality of the sexes. Real equality, as opposed to formal equality, takes this difference into account and values it. Various measures are proposed for the introduction of the female difference approach into the human rights system.

The most obvious difference between the sexes is the biological one. Woman’s comparative physical weakness makes her more vulnerable to acts of violence, including sexual violence. Her childbearing and lactating capacities place her in a unique situation and are the presumable biological bases of her widespread role as a child-rearer. This often goes together with a concentration of activities and responsibilities in the home and less involvement in public life. In addition, woman’s psychological structure is often argued to be different from man’s. Her relational and nonconflictual orientation is especially stressed, 7 and usually some relationship between this and her different biological and cultural factors is claimed...