Twice Oppressed
Third World Women and the Prospects for Multi-Cultural Feminism

» by Noah Gottschalk

The international human rights canon has been the object of two major critiques since its origins in the aftermath of the Second World War. The first critique considers the human rights project to be a Western undertaking that fails to address the experiences and needs of the Developing World. The second critique, most often put forth by feminists, is that the human rights discourse is an extension of a gendered international legal system that fails to take into consideration the voices of women. The first criticism has been increasingly used as grounds for the rejection of the universality of human rights through the discourse of cultural relativism. Because it denies an objective concept of truth, which is considered to be culturally contingent, cultural relativism enables a defense of local values, traditions, and practices on the basis that no objective standard exists for assessment of state or individual actions across cultures.
Inherently, however, these two critiques are not mutually exclusive, and indeed, both share a common concern for the recognition of difference among people and, to varying degrees, for the assimilation of this recognition into an international legal framework. Consequently, in order to avoid committing the same essentialist sins that are the subject of their respective challenges, each critique must be subject to an evaluation of its internal acceptance of diversity. This essay will evaluate the multicultural claims of the women’s human rights movement in light of the feminist project’s goals of (re)discovering and disseminating alternatives to the dominant androcentric discourse founded on the historically silenced voice of women. I will argue that in their efforts to secure universal respect for the human rights of women, western human rights advocates have too often marginalized and in some cases even ignored the voices of the women of the developing world.
Part I will offer a brief survey of the mainstream feminist critique of international human rights discourse and explore the response to this critique by Third World feminists. Part II will assess the latter’s claims through the case study of Muslim women, arguing that the Western focus on the issues of hijab and female genital cutting too often overlooks the more pervasive and fundamental concerns of Muslim women, including health, education, and poverty alleviation (which I will collectively refer to as the right to development) and the reform of personal status laws. In the Conclusion, I will argue that in order for women around the world to be accorded their fundamental human dignity, the human rights movement must recognize and respect the plurality of women’s voices and experiences worldwide. In response to relativist challenges, I maintain that the international community has a vital role to play in the promotion of human rights worldwide, but that this role must always acknowledge the importance of an internal critique that promotes the primary agency of women in addressing violations within their own communities.

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