There’s a problem with human rights. It has nothing to do with rights for women or children, Asians or African-Americans, proletarians or plutocrats. It has to do with the primary question of what “rights” are, if they are anything at all.
When Thomas Jefferson and his friends justified a claim for political independence against British mercantilism, they insisted that “all men are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” What were they thinking about?
Not long afterward, Tom Paine invoked the “rights of man,” and Mary Woolstonecraft vindicated the “rights of women.” Upon what principles did they build such principles?
The easy answer, of course, is that certain so-called “rights”—iconically enumerated in the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States and vastly expanded in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights a century and a half later—are somehow “natural” or “God-given” if you please. They are so important, so intrinsic to the definition of what it is to be human, that no one is expected to challenge their existence.
Oh, they can be debated, of course. People can bicker about whether giving a pedophile a lethal injection or using a firing squad to execute a traitor is “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore a violation of human rights. We may ask if “affirmative action” in support of hiring members of a minority group is a violation of the equality rights of members of the majority. And, we can question whether the right to religious freedom justifies polygamy, clitorectomy or a woman’s death by stoning for adultery.
The answers to such questions—even the last two—are not as obvious as many unreflective people think. The entire doctrine of human rights is, after all, rather new in human history. It is true that scholars such as Micheline Ishay have traced modern notions of human rights back to ancient, sacred texts in many religions and to a number of classical sources dating back at least to the ancient Greeks and Romans (The Human Rights Reader, 1997). The fact is, however, that equal rights for all people is a rather recent concept, traceable to early modern thinkers such as Hobbes and Milton as well as some of their less known contemporaries—upstarts like Gerard Winstanley, for example. The most penetrating discussions, however, are mainly to be found among the central figures of the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment. With such a short and geographically limited pedigree, the idea of human rights requires some sober thought before it is assumed to apply universally.
This is not to discredit either practical or humanistic arguments in favour of equal rights and liberties for all. No sensible person can deny that closing opportunities to participate fully in civil society ultimately benefits that society. In the case of women, comprising as they do over 50% of the global population and therefore at least 50% of the brain cells, it seems intuitively obvious that cutting them off from education, politics and business is insane. Unless, of course, it doesn’t.
We may condemn (as I do unalterably) religious and other cultural sanctions against women as equal citizens; but, if equality is to be granted to women, why is it denied to religious and other groups whose customs and traditions insist that men and women are to be treated differently? After all, some advocates of the spiritual equality of women might say, “Women are equal, but they are different, just as African-Americans were considered separate but equal in terms of the US school system as recently as fifty years ago.” Just because Brown v. Board of Education reversed Plessy v. Ferguson a scant six decades ago, there is no reason to assume that such a recent decision in one culture ought rightfully to trump millennia of tradition in another.
How, defenders of non-Western beliefs and behaviours ask, can all human beings possess equal rights when some (women’s rights) are more equal than others (religious rights)? Or, why should Western standards of equity prevail over those of continents, regions and sovereign countries? Is this not just another glaring example of cultural imperialism? These are fair questions.
Niamh Reilly, however, is not less interested in the philosophical basis for human rights claims than she is the practical conditions experienced by women and the strategies needed to advance an explicitly feminist agenda. Her indifference is not the result of ignoring the matter, but of challenging it. She is not interested in playing that particular game. Experience has taught her to be highly sceptical of the entire liberal-individualistic tradition which speaks of personal rights to certain liberties, but then frames the pursuit of those rights (whatever their material, natural or metaphysical origin may be) in legalistic terms, with any consensus among the authorities to be administered by the state.
A veteran of, for example, the United Nations’ Fourth Women’s World Conference in Beijing in 1995, she is properly distrustful of grand pronouncements which are followed by little successful action and less accountability for the failure to meet talk with action. This is not to say that she eschews mainstream institutions. She has been a leader of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutger’s University in New Jersey, an expert member of the Irish government’s Joint NGO/Department of Foreign Affairs Standing Committee on Human Rights and a gender expert on Amnesty International’s Stop Violence against Women Campaign. She currently teaches in the School of Political Science and Sociology at the National University of Ireland in Galway where her efforts shape both academic and practical activities. She does not ignore the mainstream. She does not even insist on swimming against it. Instead, she sees the need to redirect the river.
It is her view that much of the surface achievement in the area of human rights has been rhetorical and cosmetic. The real direction has been dictated by religious fundamentalism and social conservatism, as ideological formations, which are intertwined with national and global law-making processes to determine the limits of feminism and to use the liberal language of human rights to subvert the very liberties and freedoms that were intended by those who sought to enshrine them in the first place.
At a time, for example, when the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States can be used to give unlimited opportunities to massive corporate entities to, in effect, purchase the outcome of American elections, Dr. Reilly can be forgiven for setting aside delicate questions of whether the origins of human rights lie in transcendental or existential realms. As I said, those are fair questions, but for now they may be simply distractions.
Niamh Reilly’s preferred method is not to abandon such questions as the tension between women’s rights and religious freedom. Instead, it is to reconsider the entire human rights tradition as it is expressed in the West as an instrument of authoritarian and imperialist domination of the underdeveloped world. The way to resolve the apparent contradictions between Western feminism and others who remain wary of the aforementioned cultural imperialism, she suggests, is to start the dialogue at the bottom, not at the top, of the institutional hierarchy. For Dr. Reilly, this requires a recasting of the theoretical argument. It demands a realignment of dissenting voices and a working out of theory in bottom-up action.
Women’s Human Rights gives examples of feminist action in the non-developed world. They serve as admirable illustrations for her purposes. Showing how local and regional campaigns against gender-based violence, systemic economic inequity and women’s reproductive rights can become the basis for broad-based coalitions outside official institutions, but can nonetheless inform official policies through demonstrations of success, she creates a different logic for reform.
Put simply, traditional human rights arguments have sought to assert an almost axiomatic doctrine of human rights of the sort that fit conveniently into constitutions and pronouncements of universal normative goals (with or without divine approval). Dr. Reilly, in the alternative, gives expression to life-based actions arising out of felt pain and abuse, and seeks to encourage networks of ongoing organizations which may need to negotiate continuously the extent and limits of various rights, but which will not take the creation of a philosophically consistent doctrine as its first priority. Indeed, her understanding and implementation of feminist praxis renders the universal theoretical project incidental to the achievement of measurable social improvement. As a logical model, she embraces empirical induction, and not dogmatic deduction.
Dr. Reilly, of course, does not disdain programmatic endeavours to gain and maintain social justice. She finds, however, that social campaigns to change institutions are usually more successful than institutional programs to change society. She calls her approach “cosmopolitan feminism.” By this she means a political approach that relies on grass-roots initiatives both for achievements in thought and action. Precisely how such initiatives are to be built into challenges to global corporatism and repressive governance is not clearly and fully articulated, nor is there an urgent need that it be followed to the point of providing a template for action. In fact, action is not going to be done on the basis of political formulae. Nor is it even necessary to identify distant goals. After all, the existing human rights discourse simply assumes that a state-defined inventory of rights is the only way to move forward, whereas Niamh Reilly and other like-minded scholars and activists (or, better, activist-scholars) have found that state-sponsored schemes in aid of empowerment and equity have, at best, delayed and, at worst, subverted their articulated goals.
Niamh Reilly’s book is a boon to feminists, human rights advocates and even the occasionally smug liberal humanists who put great store in empty slogans, believing that to have agreed to say something means that the thing is done.
Howard A. Doughty teaches cultural anthropology and political economy in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, Toronto, Ontario. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.