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By Lydia Lopez
Recently, I attended a panel called “Women’s Rights in the 21st Century: Fifteen Years After United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security,” which was led by prominent members of the international human rights field. UN Resolution 1325 is colloquially known as the “international bill of rights for women” and addresses the presumption that human rights are women rights, particularly in the context of conflict, war, and peace-building efforts. In an effort to understand what group of women this panel was focused on, I asked them for their working definition of “women.” Not surprisingly, their responses included:
“I believe all women are women.”
“We look for the lowest denominator.”
The problem with believing that “women” are all the same is that women are not—women are not monolithic and cannot be grouped together based on dominant perspectives of gender experience (and/or expression). Women are not homogenous. Historically, mainstream women’s movements have excluded minority and marginalized identities in an effort to elevate the dominant perception of “women.” The failure to comprehend differences within and between women displays a lack of understanding and awareness for a variety of women’s issues, plight, and circumstances.
I recognize that human rights in the 20th century may have revolutionized our thoughts on humanity. I recognize that these rights have gone to restore and repair violations against people. These rights are an important part of our collective human history. Yet, in order to ameliorate violence, our understanding of human rights should be analyzed, challenged and critiqued for the ways they produce new forms of violence for people. In this sense, challenging human rights through the lens of feminism that is attentive to the imperial power dynamics of rights can critically expose flaws in the study and practice of human rights. In the words of Niamh Reilly, co-Director of Global Women’s Studies at the National University of Ireland, “[i]n traditional feminist political theory, the interest in cosmopolitanism is reflected in attempts to theorize global feminism and transnational advocacy, especially in relation to women’s rights as human rights.” In other words, feminist analysis considers the power dynamics of who is using and claiming human rights, and who is not afforded these rights.
Take, for instance, the Women’s Suffrage Movement of the 1800s, which is a widely known historical example of women’s rights advocacy. From this movement, some of the most well-known women’s rights leaders entered US mainstream history. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was one of these leaders who started a movement for women’s right to vote. Stanton was part of abolitionist and women’s rights coalitions, but refused to support the ratification of the 15th amendment, in which Black men were given the right to vote, because women would not be granted that right. In an effort to garner support for the Women’s Rights Movement, Stanton invoked racist and anti-black tactics. An NPR interview with a Stanton biographer reveals the tactics and motivations behind Stanton’s anti-black, white supremacist rhetoric,
[Stanton] also descended to some rather ugly racist rhetoric along the lines of, “We educated, virtuous white women are more worthy of the vote.” She talked about how much worse Black men would be as voters than the White women about whom she was concerned, and she was really quite dismissive of Black women’s claims…
Clearly, to Stanton, rights were only reserved for white, middle class women. Stanton’s definitions of “women” and “rights” were grounded in liberal feminism, which is premised on gender equality. However, rights and liberal feminism was, and continues to be, detrimental to the Black community. Stanton and the Women’s Suffrage Movement had a lasting effect on communities of color, non-elites, and gender defined otherwise. How, then, can we continue to advocate for women’s rights knowing that rights were premised on providing further privileges to white, middle class women through the exclusion of many, and in particular, Black women?
The discourses of women’s rights and liberal feminism are not mutually exclusive. The core foundation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 is liberal feminism saturated in the protection of whiteness. Taking a critical look at history is imperative to shift rights frameworks focused on women. Historically, “universal human rights” was limited to white males. The contradictions of universal human rights are illustrated within examples of colonialism, slavery, and genocide, all of which negatively affected communities of color for the growth and protection of white society. While there exists important histories of abolitionism and social justice movements that challenged universal rights and expanded rights frameworks to include men of color, the logic of human rights as a white power structure has not changed.
The idea that a document exists to “resolve” human rights (sans women’s rights) demonstrates the shortcomings of “universal human rights.” If these rights are indeed “universal” and therefore ethical and moral, why must these rights be indoctrinated? Universality, rather, pertains to the power afforded to a reigning system of rights that is patriarchal, racist, and classist. Again, the U.S women’s suffrage movement provides an example of how marginalized identities were not only denied recognition under “universal” human right’s, but were also not afforded representation within women’s rights rhetoric and policy.
Historically activists such as Ida B. Wells have advocated for their own experiences with the intersections of race and gender within women’s and rights movements. Critical race feminisms and transnational feminisms have long critiqued the international state structure and the work of liberal feminism for producing racist and classist forms of “women’s rights as human rights.” Why, then, if these histories of resistance and radical transformation exist, do the prominent leaders of human rights continue to deploy the rhetoric: “All women are women?”
If we, as a global society, are committed to ending violence for all peoples, then we must understand that “women” are already part of the construction and practice of human rights and something else has to change. “Women” is a complex category and rights frameworks must account for the varied and multiple intersections of gender expression, race, sexuality, and class that exist. Rights are about the full recognition of all our identities. Until human rights rhetoric recognizes, implements, and employs these elements, many of us are invisible. My existence is erased by both universal human rights and women’s rights. I remain in a paradoxical state of invisibility—I exist yet without recognition of my claims to rights or civic procedures. I cannot invest in a document that delineates humanity through my invisibility.
Human rights don’t work for me, and are you sure they even work for you?
Raised in Boston and a born-and-bred Salvadoreña, Lydia Lopez is currently a senior studying Political Science and International & Comparative Studies. Campus involvement has become an integral part of her undergraduate career. As a first generation Latina, she seeks to create a space on campus where minorities can be themselves and center their success, pain, and issues salient to their identities. After graduation, Lydia will work in Boston as a fellow for a local non-profit.