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The Women's Rights as Human Rights movement is a particularly noteworthy poster child of the influential international human rights system. It is predicated on the liberal individualist conception of human rights and gender equality. With the landmark 1979 UN adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Women's Rights as Human Rights movement has been empowered to pressure ratifying non-Western states to transform their nonliberal cultures by incorporating its liberal individualist principles in their domestic legal systems. Despite the risk that this may impose liberal individualism of the West on the nonliberal Global South, most human rights activists from the Global South have enthusiastically embraced the Women's Rights as Human Rights movement. Western feminists have taken this as evidence that the Women's Rights as Human Rights movement exemplifies transnational feminist solidarity. Against this widespread view, this article highlights the danger that the Women's Rights as Human Rights movement may replicate the imperialist stance of the colonial era and erode culturally diverse modes of gender justice in the Global South.


Collective Right to Self-Determination, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Cultural Imperialism, Indigenous Women, International Human Rights System, Liberal Individualism, Transnational Cosmopolitan Elites, Universal Declaration (UD) Model, Women's Rights as Human Rights Movement (WRHRM)[End Page 118]


In the last half century, the international human rights movement has established itself as an influential—some might say momentous—global movement. Despite its modest beginning in 1948 as a declaration (Universal Declaration of Human Rights), it has evolved into multiple conventions with the legal power to pressure ratifying states into compliance. The Women's Rights as Human Rights movement (WRHRM), with the landmark 1979 UN adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), is considered a particularly noteworthy poster child for the international human rights movement. Predicated on the premise that all forms of discrimination against women, and especially violence against women, are human rights violations, the WRHRM seems to have transcended particularities that divide women across the globe, such as "race, class, sexual orientation, colonialism, poverty, religion, [and] nationality," and thereby epitomize "global feminist" politics (Bunch 1987, 303). The WRHRM subscribes to Western conceptions of human rights and gender equality and pressures ratifying non-Western states to adopt them in their domestic legal systems. Although this may risk replicating the imperialist stance of the colonial era, an overwhelming majority of human rights activists from the Global South support the movement. Western feminists take this as evidence that the WRHRM exemplifies transnational feminist solidarity and expands "the commonality and solidarity" among women's struggles across the globe (Bunch 1987, 303). Niamh Reilly (2007), for instance, claims that the WRHRM promotes "bottom-up participation" among feminist human rights activists from the Global South (191) who represent "the standpoint of particular marginalized experiences and identities" (193).

Not all feminists agree with such a rosy assessment: socialist feminists (Otto 1999), care ethicists (Held 2015), and postcolonial feminists (Alvarez 1998; Grewal 1999; Basu 2000; Menon 2004; Chowdhury 2007; Kapur 2012; McLaren 2017) have been critical of the WRHRM for diverging and at times overlapping reasons. Yet the view that the WRHRM represents exemplary transnational feminist solidarity is widespread not only among a broad swath of Western feminists of liberal persuasion (Bunch 1990; Cook 1993; Friedman 1995; Okin 1998; Keck and Sikkink 1999; Zwingel 2005; MacKinnon 2006; Merry 2006; Reilly 2007; Ackerly 2008) and influential human rights theorists (Ignatieff 2001; Pogge 2002; Buchanan 2004; Donnelly 2013) but also feminists from indigenous communities (Kuokkanen 2012; NWAC 1991) and transnational feminists of color based in the West (Khader 2018).1 Although I am in full agreement that all forms of discrimination against women, and especially violence against women, ought to be eradicated, I am not convinced that the way forged by the WRHRM, which is founded on the liberal individualism of UDHR, is the best way forward. Therefore, this article presents a case against the prevailing view that the WRHRM epitomizes transnational feminist solidarity by highlighting [End Page 119] the danger that the WRHRM may replicate the imperialist stance of the colonial era, which may have deleterious effects on women's struggles for gender justice in the Global South. In order for genuine transnational feminist solidary to emerge, I believe that feminists committed to promoting gender justice across cultures must first recognize this danger so that they can reorient themselves in the right direction.

In order to make my case, the article proceeds as follows: I begin by recounting the evolution of the WRHRM by going back to the Universal Declaration (UD) model, which is grounded in the liberal individualism of Western provenance and forms the WRHRM's normative foundation. I then consider the ways in which the WRHRM may instantiate cultural imperialism. Next, two arguments in support of the WRHRM to circumvent the concern of cultural imperialism are critically assessed and refuted: the first argues that the victims of human rights violations in the Global South themselves accept the WRHRM; and the second argues that those in the Global South who oppose the WRHRM by defending their nonliberal cultures subscribe to an indefensibly essentialist conception of culture, which necessarily subjugates women. In refuting the second argument, I appeal to the standpoint of indigenous women who advocate their collective right to self-determination. Although some feminists claim that indigenous women's advocacy of the collective right to self-determination is compatible with the UD model, I demonstrate their incompatibility through philosophical and historical analyses of the collective right to self-determination. Against the charge that the exercise of the indigenous right to self-determination leads to gender injustice, I offer a defense of a normative conception of the collective right to self-determination that promotes intracultural gender justice.

Evolution of the Women's Rights as Human Rights Movement

The influential international human rights system has been dubbed the "Universal Declaration (UD) model" (Donnelly 2013, 24), as it is based on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).2 It is the UD model that forms the normative foundation of the WRHRM. Three major tenets of the UD model, among others, are noteworthy: (1) it is rooted in the idea of inherent human dignity shared by all individual persons (UDHR, Preamble). The value of nondiscrimination (Article 2) is promoted as a necessary condition for respecting their dignity (28). (2) All rights listed in UDHR are individual rights,3 implying that "all and only" human persons have them and that all human persons are "equal in this regard" (Pogge 2002, 57). (3) Primary duty bearers in protecting individual human rights are states in regard to their own citizens. At the same time, states are considered as potential violators of their citizens' human rights (Mutua 2001, 202).

UDHR is gender blind, proclaiming the universality of human rights of all human persons, regardless of "sex," among others (Article 2). The UN, however, [End Page 120] paid special attention to the issue of gender when it set up the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in 1946 to focus on women's status. When women's movements gained steam in the liberal West in the late 1960s, the UN announced International Women's Year in 1975 and the subsequent UN Decade for Women. The CWS then organized a series of world women's conferences in Mexico (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985), and Beijing (1995). These conferences have been essential in the emergence and spread of the WRHRM (Friedman 1995, 18). Women's nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), both at the international and national levels, were crucial in propelling this movement forward, as they have formed "transnational advocacy networks" bound by "shared values, a common discourse, and dense exchanges of information and services" (Keck and Sikkink 1999, 89). These NGOs' tireless advocacy of the WRHRM has been considered one of the most successful instances of transnational advocacy networking (Friedman 1995; Merry 2006, 50–55; Zwingel 2005, 405), playing a "pivotal role" in bringing about a vibrant global civil society away from international politics centered on nation-states (Reilly 2007, 191).

The WRHRM epitomizes "global feminist" politics (Bunch 1987; Reilly 2007), which accepts the premise that gender-specific women's rights must be given special recognition under universal patriarchy, which is "a common condition" besetting "all human beings who are born female" (Morgan 1984, 4; emphases in original). Under patriarchy, "the standard for being human" is "being male," and women's status in "virtually all" countries is thereby reduced to the "other" (1) merely on "the basis of gender" (Bunch 1990, 486). Whatever differences may divide women, they face universal gender oppression, the struggle against which calls for a "transformational feminist politics that is global in perspective"; this perspective requires transcending particularities that divide women, such as "race, class, sexual orientation, colonialism, poverty, religion, [and] nationality" (Bunch 1987, 303).

The explicit recognition of gender-specific women's rights has brought about a sea change to the UD model, which had not adequately protected women's rights because their violation was not considered a "political" matter but rather a "cultural, private, or individual" matter beyond the reach of the state (Bunch 1990, 488). In the mainstream liberal rights framework, which is "constructed after a male model," the privacy of the male head of the household is deemed sacrosanct (Okin 1998, 34). UDHR Article 12, for instance, claims that what deserves protection from arbitrary interference is "his" privacy, family, honor, and reputation (40). Consequently, the UD model has focused on human rights violations of male heads of households by "official agents" of the state (Pogge 2002, 59) and excluded violations of women's rights by "a violent husband" in the private sphere (58). In general, violations of women's rights in the private or cultural sphere have often been "condoned or even sanctioned by states" (Bunch 1995, 14; MacKinnon 2006, 31). [End Page 121]

In order to recognize violations of women's rights as human rights violations, therefore, WRHRM advocates have rejected the distinction between the public and the private spheres (Okin 1998, 36; Bunch 1995, 13) for at least three reasons. First, "the dynamic of power," which characterizes the public domain, holds in the family as well (Okin 1989, 128). Indeed, violations of women's rights result from "the structural relationships of power, domination and privilege" between men and women (Bunch 1990, 491). Second, the domestic sphere is itself created by the state's political decisions that determine and enforce the terms of marriage and childrearing (Okin 1989, 129). Third, the gendered division of labor within the family perpetuates the formation of gendered selves, thereby raising "practical and psychological barriers against women" in all spheres of life (131–32). Consequently, women are trapped in "a cycle of socially caused and distinctly asymmetric vulnerability" (138), unable to participate equally as men in politics and at work. The WRHRM's ultimate aim, then, is to eliminate discrimination against women so that they can enjoy equal opportunity to participate in the public sphere with men on an equal footing. Gender equality advocated by the WRHRM, then, ultimately aims at political and social equality with men in the public sphere. Responsibility for changing the underlying patriarchal structure that perpetuates "the structural inequality and subordination" of women lies with the state (Okin 1989, 126; see also Bunch 1990, 492; MacKinnon 2006, 30).

This liberal feminist sentiment has been beautifully expressed in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) adopted by the UN in 1979. This convention marks a milestone in the evolution of the WRHRM as the first international human rights convention to explicitly recognize all forms of discrimination against women as human rights violations (Zwingel 2005, 401). In contrast to the gender-neutrality of previous human rights instruments, CEDAW explicitly recognizes "the equal rights of men and women" and condemns "discrimination against women," which encompasses all distinctions, exclusions, or restrictions on "the basis of sex" (Article 1). Furthermore, CEDAW as a convention can require ratifying states to conform to its principles and incorporate them into their domestic legislation. Although CEDAW does not have the power to impose penalties on or coerce noncomplying states, its "power lies in exposure and shaming" (Merry 2006, 82). As of 2017, 189 UN member states have ratified CEDAW, although some with reservations.

Among discriminations that women face in society, violence against women, in particular, has become "the centerpiece" in the WRHRM since the 1990s (Merry 2006, 2) and provided a "unifying agenda" for the movement.4 The reason is that it not only is "omnipresent" (Friedman 1995, 21), but also most clearly exemplifies "systemic and systematic" injustice against women as women (MacKinnon 2006, 29). WRHRM advocates also argue that violence in the domestic sphere is universally experienced by women "irrespective of their social position, creed, colour or culture" (30). Hence, some claim that [End Page 122] the increasing importance of violence against women reflects "the priorities of local organizations and networks" in the Global South and demonstrates the "context-sensitive" nature of the WRHRM (Reilly 2007, 190). It incorporates "the standpoint of particular marginalized experiences and identities" (193) and promotes "bottom-up participation" (191). That "Third World feminists" who are fully aware of "abuses of universal values" also espouse the WRHRM is taken as evidence for the WRHRM's transnational applicability (193). The WRHRM is therefore viewed as embodying transnational feminist solidarity, which expands "the commonality and solidarity" among women's struggles across cultures (Bunch 1987, 303).

WRHRM and Nonliberal Cultures

Is there evidence that the WRHRM epitomizes transnational feminist solidarity across cultures? The evidence often adduced by WRHRM advocates is the fact that an overwhelming majority of women activists from the Global South embrace and participate in the WRHRM. This is a notable trend, given that CEDAW promotes the liberal conception of gender equality and has the legal authority to impose it on ratifying non-Western states whose cultures have been predominantly nonliberal: states are now responsible for not only abolishing "existing laws, regulations, customs and practices" that discriminate against women (Article 2f), but also modifying "the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women" based on gender stereotypes harmful to women (Article 5a). The 1993 UN Declaration on Violence against Women (DEVAW) also prohibits states from invoking any custom, tradition, or religious consideration to avoid their obligation to eliminate violence against women, and urges states to exercise "due diligence" to prevent, investigate, and punish acts of violence against women by the state itself or private individuals (Article 4). The undeniable assumption in these UN human rights instruments is that nonliberal cultures of non-Western states are incorrigibly patriarchal.

Feminist advocates of the WRHRM are unfazed by this assumption. Western feminists typically consider nonliberal cultures and customs patriarchal (Bunch 1990; Cook 1993; Nussbaum 2000; Okin 1999). An overwhelming majority of WRHRM advocates based in the Global South seem to share this assessment (Merry 2006, 16–18, 27, 43). This concurrence is taken as evidence that the WRHRM is compatible with cultural pluralism, as it seems to accommodate the perspectives of women in the Global South (Zwingel 2013, 2005; Reilly 2007; Keck and Sikkink 1999).

It is important to recognize, however, that women in the Global South are not a monolith but rather divided along the lines of race, class, ethnicity, and nationality. The majority of WRHRM advocates from the Global South belong to the class of "transnational cosmopolitan elites" in the Global South and come from privileged backgrounds vis-à-vis their compatriots (Merry 2006, 101); [End Page 123] they have studied and lived in multiple countries, are fluent in English in addition to their native tongue, and are wealthy enough to travel and attend international human rights meetings in the Global North. Transnational elites, despite their affiliation with the Global South, occupy "the space of transnational modernity" (100). Reflecting their urban background, they locate culture in rural areas where "backward" traditions and customs still hold sway (10–11) and pose "a barrier to women's progress" (90). In sum, they share with Western feminists the two principles of the WRHRM: first, claims to cultural or religious difference ought not to compromise "universal standards," and second, the Western conception of gender equality is "the optimum approach" to eradicating gender violence (101).

Given the diversity among women in the Global South, Women's Rights are Human Rights (WRHR) activism does not exhaust women's activisms in the Global South. In contrast to WRHR activism, which is an offshoot of Western feminism, many women's activisms in the Global South "have emerged, grown, and defined themselves independently of Western feminism" (Basu 2000, 76). Unlike WRHR activism, which emphasizes women's political and civil rights and eradicating physical violence against women, local and national women's activisms emphasize women's "economic rights" and overcoming "structural violence" against women (75). Such differences in focus have generated divisions among women activists in the Global South, especially in countries where local and indigenous women's activisms are strong. Yet WRHRM advocates who belong to the class of transnational elites are more "skilled in the art of lobbying" due to their familiarity with English and Western culture and are better able to attain external funding from Western aid agencies and private foundations (Alvarez 1998, 308). Consequently, they gain more power and visibility vis-àvis locally and nationally oriented activists, not only internationally but also domestically (313), and thereby shadow the diversity among women's activisms within their national contexts. Such tendencies fuel distrust among grassroots and less-institutionalized women's groups, which are increasingly excluded from "national and international policy arenas and funding sources" (314).

In their empowered state in the international arena, feminist WRHRM advocates have "little patience" when they encounter those who defend their nonliberal cultures (Merry 2006, 25). More significantly, they are "often uninterested" in or "too busy" to understand local practices in their specific contexts (3). The "experts" at CEDAW hearings, many of whom are transnational elites from the Global South (82–84), superbly illustrate this attitude when they question state representatives' annual reports about their country's progress on gender equality. Take, for instance, the Fijian custom bulubulu, which involves an offended person accepting the offender's apology with a gift and making peace; in the indigenous Fijian community this custom functioned to replace vengeance and promoted reconciliation. Although the Fijian state report blamed the custom for contributing to the problem of lenient penalty for the rapist, [End Page 124] the complaint was about the inappropriate use of the custom in rape cases and not the custom itself. The CEDAW Committee, however, required the country to "abolish" the custom, without the requisite understanding of the custom's significance in the Fijian culture (115). The CEDAW experts did not take the time to investigate the significance of bulubulu in Fiji's history or how it intersects the modern state legal system. With the aim of bringing about "cultural changes in gender roles" (75), the experts took their job as simply applying the law of the Convention to particular countries regardless of its impact on specific contexts. The general assumption is that "local culture is an excuse for noncompliance" (5), as traditional customs in the Global South are taken to be necessarily harmful to women. This has led the Fijian state representatives to complain, to some degree rightly, that "the individualist human rights system is disrupting" the Fijian culture (117).

If this is the case, then the claim that the WRHRM is "context-sensitive" is overstated, if not false. To be truly context-sensitive, those who apply CEDAW ought to exercise due diligence to avoid misunderstanding the custom in question by examining it in its cultural specificity while paying attention to the reasons given by cultural insiders who defend the custom. To the contrary, CEDAW experts frequently dismiss those defending the custom and jump to the conclusion that it should be eliminated. The transnational elites' stance toward nonliberal customs and practices of non-Western states is disturbingly reminiscent of the imperialist stance of the colonial era, as it associates culture with "static and timeless" traditional societies in contrast to the human rights law of "global modernity" (Merry 2006, 102). In this sense, the WRHRM uncritically subscribes to the presumption that the new international "standard of civilization" since the end of the cold war (73) involves accepting the human rights framework. Hence the pervasive rhetoric of civilization during the era of colonialism, which divided the world into civilized nation-states of the liberal West and the uncivilized non-West, is smuggled into human rights discourse in its binary distinction between "tradition and modernity" (13; see also Mutua 2001). With this outlook, the CEDAW process sets out to replace supposedly patriarchal nonliberal customs and practices with those that incorporate the liberal conception of gender equality (12).

Two Arguments for the WRHRM

Advocates of the international human rights system have been aware of the danger of replicating the imperialist stance toward nonliberal cultures and have adduced influential arguments in its support. Two such arguments can be deployed in defense of the WRHRM: One is that the abolition of nonliberal patriarchal customs is what the "victims" of human rights abuses want. The other is that nonliberal cultures are so incorrigibly patriarchal that they ought to be replaced by the liberal Western culture. [End Page 125]

A notable elaboration of the first argument has been advanced by Michael Ignatieff (2001). He defends this view when he states that the universality of human rights is attested by "the victim's consent." According to Ignatieff, victims "freely seek" human rights protection, and this indicates that they are adopting the human rights framework (56). In order to determine the plausibility of this claim, we need to examine how the victims' preference for the human rights framework is formed on the ground. In the contexts of the Global South, many, if not most, victims of gender violence come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. These victims or "grassroots individuals" (Merry 2006, 180) are often introduced to human rights language through "translators"—transnational elites—who take on the role of translating the Western idea of human rights into the local vernacular (11). Therefore, what are often considered victims' voices are often the voices of transnational elites. This would pose no problem if victims completely identified with transnational elites. Yet there are reasons to doubt that this is the case. Although victims undoubtedly seek protection from abusive customs, this does not necessarily mean that they embrace human rights language, as it presupposes a particular set of cultural assumptions about the nature of the person, human relations, and the community, which are not easily translatable into different cultural settings (3).

On the one hand, the notion of autonomous individuals capable of making choices regarding personal life plans is entrenched in the legal codes of the UD model. Even when human rights programs are adapted to different cultural contexts and framed in culturally sensitive ways, they are "never fully indigenized" and retain their individualist assumptions (Merry 2006, 137). On the other hand, grassroots women in the Global South, who are identified by human rights activists as paradigm victims of gender violence, are immersed in their nonliberal cultures and operate on communitarian assumptions about the self, human relations, and the community, incompatible with liberal individualist assumptions of the human rights framework. They do not abandon their communitarian framework even when they utilize human rights language at the translators' urging. Instead, they "layer" it over their prior framework (180). These distinct and conceptually incompatible frameworks do not merge or blend, but "coexist" precariously until one or the other becomes stronger over time to replace the other. This shift is not likely to occur unless accompanied by "institutional support" (181), such as a legal system that reinforces their newly acquired rights-exercising capacity. Without such institutional support, these individuals are likely to abandon their temporary and contingent human rights framework, since they "never developed a sustained rights perspective" (202) in the first place. Under these circumstances, it is certainly an overstatement to say that victims "freely seek" human rights language.5

A more widespread argument in support of the WRHRM is that nonliberal cultures are incorrigibly patriarchal, unchanging, and irrational, in contrast to the liberal Western culture that has "departed far further from [its patriarchal [End Page 126] past] than others" (Okin 1999, 16–17). This argument has been not only explicitly advanced by influential liberal feminists, such as Susan Okin and Martha Nussbaum (2000), but also presupposed by a broad spectrum of human rights theorists (Buchanan 2004; Ignatieff 2001; Donnelly 2013; Merry 2006).6 One of the more comprehensive elaborations of this argument has been provided by Amy Gutmann (2003), as she discusses indigenous peoples' collective right to "sovereignty." She argues that such a right presupposes "a single culture [that] encompasses the identity of the individuals who are its members" (47), entailing the idea that "individuals cannot think, act, or imagine beyond 'their culture'" (48). This conception of culture, Gutmann continues, is not only false but also "dangerous" because it can justify unfairly limiting some members' equal freedom and civic equality. Of particular concern to Gutmann is this conception's effect on the rights of indigenous women, as instantiated by Julia Martinez, who lost her Pueblo tribal membership because of her marriage to a non-Pueblo man. Although she appealed to the US Supreme Court to be granted the full rights of a Pueblo, Martinez lost her appeal because the majority of the Supreme Court agreed with the tribal leaders that sovereignty should be granted to tribal authorities (46).

Rather than granting sovereignty to indigenous peoples who subscribe to an indefensible conception of culture, Gutmann (2003) argues that the dominant liberal society should impose its liberal "human rights culture" on indigenous groups whose culture is nonliberal. Since human rights culture is "a subset of total morality" compatible with all cultures, its imposition does not damage "cultural diversity" (83). Gutmann's position that the liberal rights culture is compatible with cultures across the globe is shared by other prominent human rights theorists. Ignatieff (2001) also argues that the human rights framework, despite its unquestionable "individualistic bias" (73), is compatible with cultural pluralism at the global level because "moral individualism protects cultural diversity" by respecting "the diverse ways individuals choose to live their lives" (57). Jack Donnelly similarly argues that human rights enumerated in the UDHR are universal as they represent the "overlapping consensus" among members of different nation-states across the globe (2013, 57).

Some liberal theorists who endorse the imposition of the liberal human rights culture on nonliberal cultures of the Global South have been more nuanced about cultures. For example, Sally Merry (2006) astutely recognizes that human rights culture in fact represents a particular culture—the secular culture of "transnational modernity" (16), which is English-speaking, universalistic, and law-governed. This culture is predicated on culturally specific assumptions about the autonomous self, gender equality, secularism, and a legalistic form of justice (100), which are not compatible with certain cultures in the Global South. According to Merry, however, this culture is no longer merely Western but transnational, enjoying a "global consensus" among transnational elites (90) who have the privilege of participating in the creation of human rights [End Page 127] norms at the UN. This culture is therefore opposed not to diverse nonliberal cultures of the Global South, but rather to cultures of "poor and marginal members of urban as well as rural societies in all parts of the world" (31). Yet, Merry recognizes that even local cultures are "contested, historically produced, and continually defined and redefined in a variety of settings" (100). Indeed, human rights activism, which aims at promoting "gradual cultural transformation" on the ground (100), must consider local cultures not as "a barrier" but as a "context" in which human rights language gets translated and adopted to transform local practices (20).

Her insightful observations about the human rights process notwithstanding, Merry agrees with Gutmann that those who defend nonliberal cultures presuppose an indefensible, essentialist conception of culture. In particular, Merry criticizes "claims to indigenous sovereignty and ethnonationalism" for involving the conception of culture as "national essence" (2006, 14). Hence, despite the problems she has aptly identified in the imposition of human rights language on local communities, Merry supports CEDAW committee members' uncompromising position that "claims to culture do not justify deviation from the culture of transnational modernity" and that respect for cultural differences has "limits" (91).

In this context, an interesting question arises for feminists: what if "grassroots" women themselves defend their nonliberal cultures? Some liberal theorists, including feminists, have considered this possibility and have deemed such women irrational. Most notably, Susan Okin (1994) claims that women who defend their nonliberal culture may be suffering from "false-consciousness" (5)7; they are "[o]ppressed people" who have "internalized their oppression so well that they have no sense of what they are justly entitled to as human beings." They "rationalize the cruelties" as necessary to "successful female development" and also "perpetuate the cruelties" by transmitting them to their own daughters They are also "relatively cheerful" about their constrained state when "small mercies" are occasionally provided. Under these circumstances, "committed outsiders can often be better analysts and critics of social injustice than those who live within the relevant culture" (19). Similarly, Gutmann (2003) justifies external critiques of seemingly sexist cultural practices defended by indigenous women; although outsiders may disrespect real persons, they demonstrate "respect for the potential of persons to live together as civic equals." (66; emphasis added).

Indigenous Women Reject the WRHRM

Is this predominant liberal stance toward nonliberal cultures, which entails the condescending characterization of grassroots women who defend their cultures, plausible? This section examines this question by focusing on indigenous8 women's position on their nonliberal cultures. Many indigenous women in North America join the movement for indigenous self-determination for [End Page 128] the sake of preserving their indigenous cultures (Guerrero 1997; Jaimes with Halsey 1997; Maracle 1996; Monture-Angus 1995; Trask 1999; Turpel 1993; see also Simpson 2014).9 For example, Hawaiian indigenous activist Haunani-Kay Trask argues that "culture is a larger reality than 'women's rights,'" as indigenous peoples still suffer from colonialism (1999, 265); as members of indigenous communities, indigenous women's aim is to pursue "self-determination within [their] own cultural definitions and through [their] own cultural ways" (263). Likewise, Canadian indigenous women argue that gender identity apart from cultural identity does not make sense, as "the ways of my people … are at the core of my being" (Monture-Angus 1995, 31). For Patricia Monture-Angus, a Mohawk woman, "my culture (and/or race) … precedes my gender" (177), and "[i]t is only through my culture that my women's [sic] identity is shaped" (29). To Mary Turpel, a Cree woman, the issue of "cultural equality" takes priority over "gender equality" (1993, 184); under colonialism, the promotion of gender equality implied by the liberal individualist rights framework is not only "inappropriate" for indigenous women but also subversive of the communitarian cultural values of indigenous communities (179).

Many indigenous women in Central and Latin America concur on the importance of their nonliberal cultures as they defend the indigenous right to self-determination. Mapuche women in Chile (Richards 2005) and Zapatista women in Mexico (Forbis 2003) use the term "right" and recognize their rights as indigenous women. Yet these rights are not women's rights in the liberal sense but rather collective rights they have in common with their male counterparts to safeguard their indigenous cultural communities. They refuse to self-identify as feminists but rather identify with indigenous movements for "cultural and collective rights" for "autonomous self-government, control over territory and natural resources, and preservation of cultural traditions, religions, and languages" (Richards 2005, 203). These are diverse manifestations of their collective right to self-determination or "autonomia" (Forbis 2003, 234), which validate "the collective and cultural aspects of their existence" (Richards 2005, 202). Indigenous women conceptualize these collective rights as rooted in their "people's perspective" inclusive of all members regardless of gender in their communities (215). Their goal is "not emancipation for all women" but rather "justice" for their own people (211). Indeed, they are critical of the concept of gender, arguing that "gender does not exist" for them (200).10 Rather, they see their gender as inseparable from other aspects of their identity as indigenous women and reject the universality of gender and individualist women's rights—key axioms of the WRHRM. In short, these indigenous women reject the WRHRM.

Typically, traditional indigenous cultural values are at the "core" of indigenous peoples' struggles for self-determination (Alfred 2009, 15; Coulthard 2014, chapter 2). Not only are indigenous peoples defined in terms of culture (Corn-tassel 2003), but also their demand for collective self-determination is explicitly made in the name of culture, whether for "indigenous [cultural] authenticity" [End Page 129] (Alfred 2009, 6) or "cultural integrity" (Anaya 2004). As we have seen, many indigenous women embrace this goal as well. Given the widespread liberal characterization that these movements presuppose an essentialist conception of culture, we need to ask whether, and if so why, indigenous women subscribe to such a conception of culture that disadvantages them. In other words, are they cultural dupes who have "internalized their oppression so well that they have no sense of what they are justly entitled to as human beings" (Okin 1994, 19)?

There are at least three reasons to reject Okin's characterization. First, far from accepting the essentialist conception of culture, indigenous peoples, including women, conceive of their culture as complex, porous, and "evolving" (Alfred and Wilmer 1997, 27)—what Merry calls the "anthropological view of culture" (2006, 228). Consequently, they believe that they can contribute to the betterment of their culture by "reenvisioning" their cultural values in the contemporary context (Richards 2005, 213). Secondly, rather than being inveterately patriarchal, many precolonial indigenous cultures were perhaps some of the most nonpatriarchal cultures in human history. Many, if not most, precolonial indigenous communities in North America were matrilocal and matrilineal societies (Baskin 1982, 44). In such indigenous communities, women and men were recognized to be different, especially due to the fact that women had reproductive capacities (Jaimes with Halsey 1997). Yet the gender difference did not render women inferior to men. To the contrary, women's "innate power to bring forth life" was revered (Anderson 2000, 83) and became the basis for their elevated status in their communities (Turpel 1993). Similarly, in traditional Mapuche culture, "principles of equilibrium and complementarity" were supposed to govern the relationship between women and men (Richards 2005, 212; see also Forbis 2003, 240). Some indigenous women therefore argue that their culture's traditional respect for women is superior to the Western feminist goal of gender equality (Monture-Angus 1995; Turpel 1993).

Due to the corrosive effects of centuries of European colonialism, however, many indigenous cultures have undergone considerable disintegration and deterioration; consequently, many indigenous women currently suffer from discrimination and violence in their own communities (Silman 1987; James with Halsey 1997). Yet, gender equality defined as women having the same rights and opportunities as "white men" cannot serve indigenous women's identities and struggles because it cannot "encompass their aspirations as cultures" (Turpel 1993, 184). Many indigenous women therefore argue that the way to mitigate this "deformity" is not to endorse Western feminism but to "draw strength from the traditional spiritual people, … from my nation" (Maria Sanchez, cited in James with Halsey 1997, 300). Rather than accepting the Western feminist idea of gender equality, indigenous women believe that they can mitigate or eradicate the currently sexist practices in their communities without rejecting their communitarian cultures. This can be done by reinterpreting their cultural values and practices as they participate in the exercise of their collective right [End Page 130] to self-determination. In short, indigenous women think of themselves as agents capable of improving their cultures, which presupposes the idea that culture evolves through human agency. This is the third reason that indigenous women do not subscribe to the reified conception of culture that renders them victims or dupes of patriarchy.

Individual vs. Collective Human Rights

Many Western human rights theorists and activists working with indigenous women in the Global South have recently claimed that the human rights framework is still the best hope for improving indigenous women's situation. Their evidence is "the growing embrace of human rights logics and languages" by indigenous women activists (Collins et al. 2010, 299; see also Richards 2005, 206). As marginalized communities from around the world, including indigenous communities, demand justice from the state, Collins et al. (2010) assert, human rights language can make contributions as "a tactic and a metaphor for multiple incarnations of justice" (301). Although "human rights fundamentalism," which overemphasizes human rights as "the primary organizing strategy," should be abandoned, "praxis-oriented perspectives" on human rights should be emphasized (304). Most relevant to our context is the claim of Collins et al. that indigenous women's demand for human rights on "the basis of collective justice" shows that "individual and collective rights are not mutually exclusive" (309).

This claim may seem plausible, as the right to self-determination is explicitly included in the two 1966 International Covenants on Human Rights. For the purpose of promoting justice for marginalized communities that demand collective rights, however, the international human rights system stands on shaky ground. The reason is that, contrary to Collins et al.'s claim that the "binary largely dissolves" in indigenous women's demand for "collective justice" (309),12 the collective right to self-determination is not compatible with the international human rights system (UD model), which is founded on liberal individualism. All the rights listed in UDHR, on the one hand, are individual rights, predicated on the idea that only individual human persons have inherent worth and are thereby the sole subjects of human rights. Women's rights promoted by the WRHRM are also based on liberal individualism. The aim of the WRHRM is to overcome barriers to women's advancement so that individual women can succeed on an equal footing as men in the public sphere and at work. As Turpel (1993) perspicaciously points out, "gender equality" is women having the same rights and opportunities as "white men." (184).

The collective right to self-determination that indigenous women advocate, on the other hand, is incompatible with the liberal individualist UD model due to conceptual inconsistency. A right is collective only when it is attributable to a group qua group and is not reducible to the aggregation of the rights of individual members. Groups to which collective rights can be attributed are [End Page 131] "conglomerate collectivities" as opposed to "aggregate collectivities." A conglomerate group maintains its independent identity as a group despite changes in its constitutive membership. In contrast, an aggregate group is merely a collection of individuals (French 1984, 5, 13). A prime example of the conglomerate group is peoples/nations understood as cultural communities, members of which share common sympathies with one another based on common culture, language, history, and institutions. In order to attribute to peoples/nations the moral right to collective self-determination, peoples/nations ought to be understood as group agents, which are conceptually and functionally irreducible to the aggregation of its members' individual intentions and actions (List and Pettit 2011). Liberalism, which subscribes to "methodological individualism" (Tuomela 2013, 10), only recognizes groups that are aggregate groups that have no agential status; consequently, liberalism is opposed to conferring the status of group agents on peoples/nations as conglomerate groups and thereby rejects the idea of collective rights that only group agents can exercise (Buchanan 2004; Donnelly 2013).13

If collective rights are conceptually incompatible with liberalism, then the incorporation of collective rights within the liberal individualist international human rights system can only be accidental. This is obvious when we examine the history of how the collective right to self-determination has been included in the liberal UD model (Cassese 1995). The "principle" of self-determination first emerged in the international arena around the First World War. It was separately advocated by Lenin in the Soviet Union (USSR) to grant independence to the colonized peoples and ethnic minorities and by Wilson in the United States to settle colonial claims among the European colonial Powers (21). Although it was nominally included in the United Nation Charter's Article 1(2), its significance was largely symbolic (43). The fate of the principle changed dramatically after the Second World War with the emergence of newly independent Third World nation-states, which endorsed the principle as "a postulate of anti-colonialism" (44). At the USSR's insistence, strongly backed by Third World nation-states, the peoples' collective right to self-determination was formally incorporated into the 1966 International Covenants on Human Rights (47). Liberal Western states, however, strongly opposed this incorporation, arguing, among others, that including this collective right in the Covenants would "jeopardize" individual rights (51).

In sum, an unbridgeable conceptual gap exists between collective rights and the liberal individualist international human rights system, which encompasses the WRHRM. Indigenous women demand their people/nation's collective right to self-determination, not to attain individualist women's rights that would enable them to live "emancipated" lives on par with Western women and men, but rather to attain justice for their people/nation. Rather than being "brainwashed" in this pursuit, indigenous women are cognizant of intracultural gender discriminations; yet they are committed to exercising their collective right to self-determination because it will enable them to promote gender justice compatible [End Page 132] with their own cultural framework. Indigenous women's advocacy of their people/nation's collective right to self-determination, then, is not compatible with the prevalent notion that the WRHRM is the "best" or "the only global vision" of gender justice in this transnational era (Merry 2006, 231). To the contrary, the WRHRM represents to these indigenous women a culturally specific perspective of the liberal West, which is incompatible with their communitarian cultural values and detrimental to their people/nation's collective self-determination.14 Under these circumstances, CEDAW's legal authority to pressure ratifying non-Western states to adopt the individualist conception of gender equality seems to attest to the WRHRM's cultural imperialism.

The WRHRM's cultural imperialism is disconcerting not only because it silences, dismisses, or misinterprets the voices of marginalized/oppressed grassroots women, but also because the liberal conception of gender equality it imposes is just one approach to the problem of sexism that has not been particularly successful even in the most advanced liberal societies. To promote gender justice across the globe, local solutions to gender discrimination that empower women in their own communities must be encouraged and supported. In order to empower indigenous women to push for intracultural gender justice, however, their peoples/nations ought to be empowered to exercise their collective right to self-determination. In order to confer on indigenous peoples/nations the collective right to self-determination, furthermore, the international human rights system must undergo a thorough overhaul involving the deconstruction of its current liberal individualist foundation. Only after an intensive philosophical reconceptualization can the international human rights system properly perform its "moral function" of remedying "the injustices that international law itself has helped to create" (Kymlicka 2018, 460).

Collective Self-Determination and Gender Justice

Many feminists, indigenous women included, however, may resist this conclusion by arguing that the exercise of the collective right to self-determination by contemporary indigenous authorities has oppressed indigenous women; indigenous women must therefore resort to the international human rights system to have their individual rights protected. A compelling case has been made by Canadian indigenous women that contemporary indigenous "self-government" authorized by the Indian Act in Canada has condoned violations of indigenous women's individual rights (see Silman 1987; NWAC 1991; Smith 2005; Green 2007; Ramirez 2007). Under these circumstances, they argue, supporting the collective right to self-determination by indigenous authorities may exacerbate intracommunal gender injustice.

Although this is one of the most serious challenges to my argument, it can be overcome through a series of conceptual clarifications. First, the collective right to self-determination that I endorse is not the indigenous right to [End Page 133] "self-government" that has been authorized by the Canadian government, which is merely a "delegated" right, "sourced in Canada's sovereignty" (Monture-Angus 1995, 161). Indigenous self-government practiced by the male-centric indigenous organizations, such as the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) in Canada, has been aligned with a "particular intellectual genealogy," which is "hierarchical, exploitative, and militaristic," rooted in Western ideologies and practices of colonialism and imperialism (Barker 2007, 141). The reason for its prevalence may have to do with the fact that the AFN—although formed with the rationale to represent indigenous peoples and their collective interests to the federal government—is "modelled on the colonizer's ways of political organization." This conception of self-government is not compatible with traditional indigenous cultural values and customs in which women played a critical role in governance and therefore "cannot fully give voice to the tradition" (Monture 2004, 42).

In contrast, the collective right to self-determination15 that I defend is a normative idea, which is predicated on a morally defensible conception of collective self-determination centered on the fundamental value of equality among all members who identify with the people/nation. Even self-identifying members, however, may disagree with one another about various aspects of their cultural community—this is the fact of intracultural pluralism. Yet honoring their equal membership status entails recognizing and respecting their inherent right to participate in the community's internal collective self-determination, which encompasses internal contestations and negotiations regarding all aspects of their culture. As all members equally entitled to participate in collective self-determination engage with one another without coercion or deception in this process, they contribute to the development of a unique cultural-political system that promotes the common good to which all members can be committed (Herr 2006). When women as equal members of the people/nation exercise their birthright to participate in collective self-determination, culturally specific forms of gender justice would become constitutive of the common good (Herr 2003).16

If collective self-determination is thus reconceptualized, then the concern that the exercise of the collective right to self-determination would entail gender injustice can be allayed. Furthermore, this collective right ought to be conferred only on peoples/nations that are already collectively self-determining or aspire to collectively self-determine and endeavor toward this goal in good faith. More specifically, only conglomerate groups that meet the following two conditions should be considered group agents entitled to exercise the "inherent" collective right to self-determination (Corntassel 2012, 96; Monture-Angus 1995). First, its members must operate according to what Raimo Tuomela (2013, 23) calls the "we-mode," at least some of the time. In the we-mode, individuals function "fully" as group members in that they "intend to act together as a group" (6; emphases in original). Members' intent to act as a group is manifest when they satisfy the "collective commitment" condition; they are committed to attaining the group's goals and to performing their part qua group members [End Page 134] in this process by fulfilling their group-based obligations toward not only the group but also one another. Collective commitment in the we-mode binds the members around an ethos, solidifying the unity and identity of the group, and provides the group with "the authority" to organize its members' activities with practical efficacy (45).

Second, in order to act in the we-mode efficiently and make group decisions genuinely attributable to the group itself, members must be committed to creating a coherent, collective, and public "decision-making procedure" acceptable to all members as legitimate (Preda 2012, 247). This procedure may involve a majority vote or consensus. What is crucial, however, is not the specific mode of the procedure itself, but rather that "it specifies that the group as a whole decides in that manner" (249). This procedure is compatible with giving authority to a subset of group members to whom the power to make further decisions and execute those decisions is delegated. This procedure ought to be "public" and transparent, however, so that group members are fully aware of what is involved, can give their approval when they deem it legitimate, and can contest it in case they consider the procedure corrupted. Furthermore, the procedure ought to incorporate mechanisms by which the group can make "coherent" decisions (247) and avoid "discursive dilemmas," which result in "inconsistent group judgments even when individual judgments are fully consistent" (List and Pettit 2011, 46).

Many indigenous peoples are prime candidates for conferring the collective right to self-determination, as they are able to meet the two conditions. First, most indigenous peoples have been—and, in case they no longer are, aspire to be—group agents in the we-mode, whose collective decision-making procedure has been based on consensus among equal members. Many members of contemporary indigenous peoples feel affinity with one another as cultural co-members bound by kinship, mutually recognize one another as equal members to whom they owe their group-based obligations, and embrace their indigenous cultural values and ways of life, as is evident from their call for "cultural integrity." Second, they are strongly committed to reviving their egalitarian and consensus-based traditions by creating a coherent, collective, and public decision-making procedure. This is clear from indigenous theorist James Anaya's statement that indigenous "self-determination requires a democratic political order" (2004, 106) in which members are "entitled to participate equally in the constitution and development of the governing institutional order under which they live and, further, to have that governing order be one in which they may live and develop freely on a continuous basis" (189).

In order for indigenous communities to be truly self-determining, indigenous women must be entitled to participate as equal members and their voices must be heard and respected as in the precolonial past. This is not to say that this would be easy; the process of engaging in a dialogue with patriarchal male counterparts who are oblivious to or willfully ignore this past is going to be precarious, if not [End Page 135] outright dangerous. Yet, however difficult and frustrating, indigenous women must strive toward this goal, as leaving collective self-determination solely in the hands of patriarchal men would amount to abandoning their rightful inheritance as equal members of their people/nation. Only when indigenous women exercise their birthright to participate in collective self-determination as equal members can they reform their communities to approximate their egalitarian past. As indigenous women participate in collective self-determination as equal members, it may be possible for them to regain the esteemed status within their communities that they once enjoyed and transform their communities into genuinely egalitarian democracies reminiscent of their precolonial past.


Let us now take stock: One of the main claims in support of the WRHRM as global feminist politics is that it promotes transnational feminist solidarity. Transnational feminist solidarity requires incorporating the standpoint of marginalized/oppressed women in the Global South. The reason—endorsed by most feminists—is that "epistemic privilege" can be drawn from the standpoint of marginalized/oppressed women concerning the state of gender injustice globally (Mohanty 2003; Fricker 1999; Narayan 1988). This article's analyses have demonstrated, however, that the WRHRM cannot be viewed as exemplifying transnational feminist solidarity, for it is predicated on human rights language with an unquestionable "individualistic bias" (Ignatieff 2001, 73), which does not represent the standpoint of marginalized/oppressed women in the Global South. Human rights activists from the Global South who espouse the WRHRM are transnational elites from privileged backgrounds in their own countries. Subscribing to the notion that the WRHRM offers the "best" or "the only global vision" of gender justice, they identify more with Western feminists than with marginalized/oppressed grassroots women from rural and impoverished areas of their countries. Consequently, transnational elites contribute to the process whereby the liberal individualist UD model is imposed on local contexts, leading to the "cultural homogenization of local communities" (Merry 2006, 4).17 In this process, communitarian and culturally specific ways of dealing with gender discrimination in many non-Western societies are ignored, misunderstood, or mischaracterized, resulting in their replacement by liberal individualist gender solutions. We may therefore conclude that the WRHRM, rather than expanding "the commonality and solidarity" among women's struggles across the globe (Bunch 1987, 303), exemplifies cultural imperialism and undermines women's efforts in the Global South to promote culturally sensitive forms of gender justice within their cultural communities. [End Page 136]

Ranjoo Seodu Herr

Ranjoo Seodu Herr is a professor of philosophy at Bentley University. She has published widely in the areas of feminist, political, social, and comparative philosophy in peer-reviewed journals such as Meridians, Hypatia, Political Theory, Social Theory and Practice , and Philosophy East & West. Herr's current research topics are Third World/transnational feminisms, feminist philosophy, nationalism, collective self-determination, democracy, anti-imperialism, human rights, multiculturalism, and global governance.


1. For a review of Khader 2018, see Herr 2020.

2. Since the UD model represents the international human rights system in common parlance, this article uses these two concepts interchangeably.

3. The exception is the collective right of peoples to self-determination, included in the two 1966 International Human Rights Covenants.

4. Although CEDAW does not mention violence against women, its monitoring committee subsequently prepared two general recommendations that clearly connect gender violence to the convention (12 in 1989 and 19 in 1992). Recommendation 19 in particular became the basis for the 1993 UN Declaration on Violence against Women (DEVAW). Since DEVAW is not legally binding, the real work on violence against women is being done through CEDAW (Merry 2006, 21).

5. Grassroots women's experience portrayed here is meant to illustrate human nature as culturally embedded and embodied, which is not easily alterable later in life. Yet, this does not preclude the possibility that their experience may be "the product of intersecting patterns" of multiple oppressions (Crenshaw 1990, 1243), similar to Black women's experience in the US context.

6. It is ironic that Merry (2006), whose insightful feminist analysis of the WRHRM has informed this article, supports this argument.

7. Buchanan (2004, 170) calls them "brainwashed."

8. I use "indigenous" in an inclusive and broad way to refer to those who self-identify as "descendants of the original inhabitants" of America (Weaver 2001, 240). Although Weaver's usage is confined to North America, I believe it can be extended to Central and South America.

9. Not all North American indigenous women hold this position. Some advocate the WRHRM. See Silman 1987; NWAC 1991; Napoleon 2005; Smith 2005; Green 2007; Ramirez 2007; St. Denis 2007; McKay and Benjamin 2010.

10. Many indigenous tribes did not subscribe to a strict binary gender system but rather affirmed and included persons of multiple genders. For example, see Driskill 2016. I thank Patti Duncan on this point.

11. On how indigenous women deal with domestic violence in their communities, see Forbis 2003, 248–50; Richards 2005, 210.

12. This is an odd claim, since many indigenous women who advocate collective rights reject individual women's rights, as we have seen.

13. Peter Jones (2018) attempts to defend a conception of the collective right to self-determination that does not presuppose a group agent, but Will Kymlicka (2018) demonstrates why this fails.

14. For a more comprehensive treatment of the limitations of the UD model, see Herr 2017.

15. Typically, there are two dimensions of self-determination, external and internal. External self-determination involves demanding a nation's equal status vis-à-vis other nations, whereas internal self-determination involves the relationship between a people and its government (Thornberry 1993, 101). Here, I focus on the internal dimension.

16. Given that even Canadian indigenous women who resorted to the international human rights system to overcome intracommunal gender discrimination and violence have strongly identified themselves as "members" of their communities and supported "self-determination" (Silman 1987, 235), my conception of collective self-determination may appeal to them as well.

17. For the resulting negative ramifications on the ground, see Richards 2005, 204, 208; Forbis 2003, 235–38; Speed and Collier 2000; Coulthard 2014.


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