Hypatia 17.1 (2002) 197-200
[Access article in PDF]
Women's Voices, Women's Rights:
Oxford Amnesty Lectures 1996
Women's Voices, Women's Rights: Oxford Amnesty Lectures 1996. Edited by ALISON JEFFRIES. Boulder: Westview Press, 1999.
Alison Jeffries advises us to read the essays in Women's Voices, Women's Rights as part of the debate between feminist proponents and opponents of rights talk. But I was struck by how dramatically, and refreshingly, the essays sidestepped that either/or debate to sketch out a feminist theory of women's human rights. Rather than asking us to "step beyond . . . rights" (132), as Jeffries suggests, the authors use serious consideration of women's lives to augment and deepen our thinking about rights. From the augmented and deepened theory I found implied in the essays I highlight five elements here.
1. In her essay, "Women's Rights: Whose Obligations," Onora O'Neill explains that many human rights essential to flourishing are not "Don't tread on me!" liberty rights, on which human rights talk is usually patterned. The realities of women's lives highlight the importance of rights to some good or service. Respecting these rights requires not that someone refrain from some action--torturing, for example--but that someone provide something. And unlike liberty rights which are addressed to all moral actors--if I have a right to not be raped, everyone has the obligation to not rape me--rights to some good are addressed to specific others. O'Neill writes: "Somebody who receives no maternity care may no doubt claim that her rights have been violated, but unless obligations to deliver that care have been established and distributed, she will not know where to press her claim, and it will be systematically obscure whether there is any perpetrator, or who has neglected or violated her rights" (64). Thus because human rights involve the delivery of goods and services, institutions must be created whose obligation it is to deliver these. And while institution-building is not foreign to human rights discourse, emphasis is usually on building governmental institutions that protect people from liberty violations. These are surely essential to women's well-being, but O'Neill shows us that a feminist approach to human rights must insist that rights to goods and services are equally respected.
2. Besides states, relatives, neighbors, and institutions often violate women's human rights. Marilyn French's essay, "Are Women Human?" documents how women's flourishing is blocked by cultural and religious traditions around the world, much of them tolerated or endorsed by governments. Often, French [End Page 197] writes, "women's enemy is their entire culture" (88). Thus "codification is not enough" (85). International human rights conventions often relegate to local custom the treatment of women as daughters, wives, and mothers. In doing this, as Michele le Dœuff shows in her essay on the rights of women in marriage, states actively perpetuate male domination. Thus, a feminist theory of human rights will not accept a distinction between the actions of the state, which can count as violative of human rights, and the actions of citizens or private groups which, because done for religious or cultural reasons, cannot.
3. Many cultures teach that women are not fully human. Even those cultures that do officially recognize women as fully human and as bearers of human rights often conceive of them in ways that undermine this status. Naomi Wolf, in her essay, "'Women Are Like Cold Mutton': Power, Humiliation, and a New Definition of Human Rights," gives the example of sexual harassment of the sort inflicted on her by an Oxford professor during her days as a student. Wolf's concern is not just that such treatment makes it difficult for women to exercise their rights. She emphasizes rather that violations of women's sexual dignity deny them an important "hallmark of humanity [:] . . . the right to set boundaries of privacy around one's own body" (97). This insistence that women are human and thus inviolable must be prior to arguing for human rights. That is, a culture that...