This exam question is posed as if one could answer it with a simple, “yes, human rights are exclusionary”, or “no, they are not exclusionary”. In fact, in gender studies we are not looking for yes or no solutions, but rather for a both/and answer.
The First Convention on Human Rights was presumably not launched with the goal of excluding certain people, but it might be a consequence of the way human rights were and are being formulated, advocated and imposed. Even though human rights are seen as one of the most important instruments for protecting human beings from violations, they are seen as a “site for exclusion” (Kapur, 2006, p. 667) and as a neoliberal project. Kapur argues that “in purely factual terms more human rights violations have been committed in the 20th Century, which was ostensibly the most human rights focused century, than at any other point in human history” (2006, p.669) and that claims of inclusion have always co-existed with exclusions and subordination.
In the following sections, I engage with the question of who gets excluded through human rights and through which mechanisms. In addition, I will mention and evaluate some of the paradoxes inherent within the human rights discourse and what one could see as problematic from a feminist viewpoint. I mainly focus on women´s rights, and especially Muslim women´s rights, as well as on LGBTQ rights.
HUMAN RIGHTS AND (MUSLIM) WOMEN´S RIGHTS
In order to discuss some paradoxes and problematics, as well as exclusions that arise when we advocate for women´s rights, or for certain women´s rights, I would like to briefly delineate, who was seen as the ´generic´ human, which is still very present today. Scott (1996) who wrote about the history of French feminism, which depended on liberal individualism, argues that the individual has been seen as masculine in history (1996, p. 10). Terrell Carver adds that “the generic human individual is man-shaped rather than women-shaped” (2014, p.116) and he concludes that masculinity can therefore contain a generic mode and a gendered mode of being, whereas women only present a gendered mode (2014, p.117). Until at least 1944, the common ground in France was masculine, whereas women tried to show that they were individuals too (Scott 1996, p.11).
As we can see above, the question about who is considered as a human and who is not, and how is therefore deserving human rights is deeply gendered, but also racialized and classed. As shown by Lugones (2010), the colonizers introduced categories of gender and race into societies, whereas they first de-humanized them in order to afterwards categorize them. Who is or who was considered as human, changed over time and varies depending on the geographical context.
As the man was the only one which was seen as human for a long time in history, women started to advocate for human rights since the 18th century (e.g. Olympe de Gouges). But there are some paradoxes if we think about how to argue for women’s rights. Scott (1996) shows that in France, while women refused to be women in terms of their society, they at the same time spoke in the name of those same women. Or in Brown´s words, “rights must be specific and concrete in order to reveal and redress women´s subordination, yet potentially entrench our subordination through that specificity” (2000, p. 238). There are also concerns not only about who is a woman, or who is considered as being human, but also about the question of who advocates for which people´s rights. Can a minority of women, for example, advocate for the rights of the majority of women? (Zhen, 1907).
The citation from Brown above, furthermore, reveals that when rights are called specifically ´human´ this obscures gender specific violations, as well as discrimination due to race, religion or sexuality. Human rights are therefore not intersectional.
When people try to advocate for specific individuals or groups of individuals, as for example for “Muslim women´s rights´, there are some important issues to raise, as shown by Abu-Lughod (2010). She argues that those rights have a social life which has to be investigated and the question has to be raised, why the world is so concerned about Muslim women´s rights. First of all, it is mostly a Western gaze on Muslim women´s rights and due to the rejection of the Western involvement into Muslim societies, rights coming from the West are often rejected as well. Abu-Lughod (2010) therefore refers to the problematics that the human rights as we know them today use exclusively Western standards and Western language, which makes the human rights not applicable or useful.
The phenomenon that the West was and is obsessed with Muslim women and their lives (Abu-Lughod, 2002), is problematic if we think about the question of whether an increasing visibility leads to a positive transformation of those women´s lives. Hammonds (2004) criticizes this assumption and writes that visibility can make people even more vulnerable. In relation to Muslim women in Europe I would argue that their hypervisibility, and the naturalized connection of Muslim women with male oppression, doesn´t improve their life situations. Through Othering processes (Said, 1978; Spivak 1985), Muslim women in the West are seen as inferior, un-educated and ´backwards’, which denies their possibility of finding jobs or integrate themselves into the local society. A strong emphasis on Muslim women´s rights therefore might not lead to a transformation of their lives, but rather to societal exclusion of individual women.
HUMAN RIGHTS AND CITIZENSHIP
Rights have to be enforced by states, which means that those people who want to claim their rights need to have access to the state (Arendt, 1951). Arendt highlights how those who are most in need of human rights, get them denied due to the fact that they don´t hold a citizenship. Affected are mostly stateless people or refugees and Arendt writes that “the nakedness of being nothing but human was their greatest danger” (1951, p.300). If you don´t have anything to identify with anymore, the only thing that is left to you is that you are human. But especially those persons have no tool to claim their rights, whereas actually the primordial human right is the right to political community (citizenship).
HUMAN RIGHTS AND HOMONATIONALISM
A final remark in relation to the question whether human rights are exclusionary, is in relation to LGBTQ rights. Puar (2007) showed in her text about homonationalism, a concept which refers to the phenomenon of how nation-states deploy the rights of homosexuals in order to reach nationalist goals. The pro-homosexual narrative is used to legitimate racist and Islamophobic sentiments, and interventions in other regions, which don´t seem ´homo-friendly´. Through the international discourse about LGBTQ rights and the fact that states use them to look ´progressive´ resulted in a spread of rights for (some) homosexuals. What is at stake in relation to homonationalism is, that only certain homosexuals are protected by those laws. The homonormativity which is produced within and through this discourse produces a certain homonormative body, which is mostly white, male, cis-gendered and westernized (Puar, 2007, p.14). Liu (2012) adds that only those homosexual individuals who are married, monogamous and want to reproduce are protected under the law, while “people living with AIDS, non-monogamous gay people, drag queens, transsexuals, drug users, prostitutes, and their clients are excluded from the definition of human being” (2012, p.83).
To close up this second part of the exam, there is to say that there are many feminist paradoxes in relation to human rights, the history of human rights and the doing of human rights. While the idea of human rights should be to protect humans regardless of their gender, citizenship situation, sexual identity, sexual orientation, their origin etc., in reality this is unfortunately not (yet) the case. As Brown emphasizes, human rights are not a resolution of problems, they only serve as a mitigation (2000, p. 231). The existence of certain rights doesn´t result in transformation.
Kapur (2006) therefore, and although the criticism, pledges for a re-reading of human rights from different locations, and from people on the ground, which is also what argued by Abu-Lughod (2010), who advocates for am ethnographical investigation of human rights. Kapur describes this endeavour very adequately: “The centring of excluded subjects, excluded zones and excluded histories can bring the project back to a space of greater optimism and less despair (2006, p.687).
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Abu‐Lughod, L. (2002). Do Muslim women really need saving? Anthropological reflections on cultural relativism and its others. American anthropologist, 104(3), 783-790.
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