Why is there a need to decolonise gender and human rights?
Always in transition, gender and human rights are highly contested concepts (Akoth, 2014). There is an urgent need “now, more than at any time before, for a multiple vocality in the documenting and reading of human rights” (Akoth, 2014, p.103). This is mainly because the idea of human rights gained unprecedented popularity in the 20th century; the 20th century is the century of human rights. Yet, more human rights violations are committed than ever before (Kapur, 2006). While human rights advocates claim that through the global spread of human rights, the powerless and voiceless of the world are ‘empowered’ (Ignatieff, 2001), decolonial scholars shed a light on the colonial character of human rights. Scholars who theorize ‘coloniality’, the basis for decolonial thought, highlight the ‘dark’ side (Mignolo, 2018) of gender and human rights. Coloniality illuminates how the dominant system of power racializes, sexualizes, genders, dehumanizes and classifies humans today in a manner mimicking when the Americas were conquered (Quijano, 2007, Lugones, 2010). The lens of coloniality reveals how concepts that are considered as ‘a-historical’ or ‘universal’, are actually historical, contextual and embedded in the materiality of the location where they were formulated.
Seen as a representation of a “genocidal logic of ‘classification’” (Icaza, 2018, p.12), gender continually erases experiences failing to conform to the ‘colonial/modern gender system’ (Lugones, 2007). I argue that this colonial model of gender is still being imposed by mechanisms, such as ‘gender mainstreaming’ (1), through instruments, such as the United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC) agenda for Women, Peace and Security (WPS) (2).
To answer the essay question (“Examine the case for decolonising gender and human rights. Discuss with reference to a specific human rights policy, legal instrument or human rights movement of your choosing”), I ask why (3) there is a need to decolonise gender and human rights. I discuss the case for decolonising the two concepts in reference to the WPS agenda; whereby, I refer to articles about the WPS resolutions and about the National Action Plans (NAPs) (4) to implement the resolutions. First, this essay outlines the concept of coloniality. This lays the foundation for understanding what it means to analyse gender and human rights from a feminist, intersectional and decolonial perspective. After providing a framework, I first explain why gender is an inherently colonial concept and why it needs to be decolonised. Whilst, in the second part, I undertake the same process for the concept of human rights. The reference to the WPS agenda serves to exemplify what the consequences of the coloniality of policies directed towards securing women’s human rights (WPS resolutions and NAPs) can entail.
FRAMEWORK: A FEMINIST, INTERSECTIONAL AND DECOLONIAL ANALYSIS
To reveal the importance of decolonising gender and human rights, I critically examine these concepts from a feminist, intersectional and decolonial perspective. At this point, I will outline the concept of coloniality and depict why this perspective is indispensable when engaging in the project of decolonising Western academia. Coloniality, coined by Latin American scholars, emerged with the conquest of the Americas in 1492. Like intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1989), it is a ‘Third World’ (5) concept, or a concept from the ‘Global South’ (6). Even though colonialism is abolished (7), the ‘coloniality of power’ is still existent: the European cultural, economic, academic and epistemological rationality is still dominating other rationalities (Quijano, 2007). Those who are marginalized, dehumanized and racialized today, are the same people that once suffered from formal colonial oppression. The beneficiaries, in turn, of this global, capitalist, racist world order are not only Europe and North America, but also former colonies, such as Japan. Both Quijano (2007) and Mignolo (2018) connect coloniality to modernity. Mignolo (2018) sees coloniality as the ‘dark side’ of modernity, whilst modernity is understood as a horizon or a way of knowing where the whole world should evolve in the same direction through ‘modernization’ and development. This direction is Eurocentric and rational (Mignolo, 2018; Quijano, 2007). A project of civilisation, modernity sells a dream of constantly accumulating wealth, and consolidates divisions of the world in binaries such as superior/inferior, rational/irrational, primitive/civilised, traditional/modern (Quijano, 2000, Lugones, 2007) and developed/underdeveloped (Escobar, 1995). Coloniality describes the negation of other realities and knowledge systems, and at the same time “constitutes an epistemic location from which reality is thought” (Icaza, 2018, p.8). Quijano (2000) analyses how a classification system based on race organises the world’s population into racial groups. Unfortunately, he did not consider gender enough and does not explain how “non-white, colonized women have been subjected and disempowered” (Lugones, 2007, p.190). Lugones uses an intersectional perspective because gender is mediated through coloniality, racism and location (Amos and Parmar, 1984).
For decolonial feminists, “the point of departure then is not gender, but classification and dehumanization of some but not all bodies” (Icaza, 2018, p.12). Analysing the coloniality of gender and of human rights from a feminist, intersectional and decolonial perspective requires us to engage in ‘epistemic disobedience’ (Mignolo, 2009), that de-links the dominant forms of knowledge and (re-)creates alternative worldviews that may open up other ways of beings in the world.
The ‘coloniality of gender’ from Lugones (2007) builds the basis to understand why gender needs to be decolonised. She refers to the ‘coloniality of power’ (Quijano, 2007), which is at the centre of her analysis of the ‘modern/colonial gender system’. Lugones (2007) historizes the violent introduction of gender during colonialism in relation to race, class and sexuality and reveals the destructiveness and instrumentality of this system. The colonial/modern gender system has a ‘light side’ and a ‘dark side’: the former describes the imposition of biological/sexual dimorphism, heterosexualism and patriarchy in colonized societies, whereas the latter refers to the extremely violent erasure of third genders, intersexual humans and the removal of people from certain spheres or activities (Lugones, 2007). In reference to the WPS agenda, her contributions about the coloniality of gender lead to the following observations.
The ‘light side’ of the colonial/modern gender system
The first observations relate to the ‘light side’ of the colonial gender system: Lugones (2007) and Oyewùmí (1997) demonstrate that the colonizers introduced a colonial gender system based upon biological/sexual dimorphism (8). In contrast to this Western gender conceptualization, there were Indigenous communities (e.g. the Yoruba), who did not use gender as an organizing principle (Oyewùmí, 1997). Meanwhile, there were other communities where the existence of a third gender and intersexed individuals was the norm (Horswell, 2003). Western laws usually don’t recognize the intersexual status of human beings. Lugones reminds us to “ask how sexual dimorphism […] continues to serve global, Eurocentered, capitalist domination/exploitation” (2007, p.196).
The sexual dimorphism of the colonial gender system can also be observed in the WPS resolutions: “I problematize the gendered binaries or stereotypical representations of men and women as static and homogenous categories” (Hudson, 2016, p.12). The WPS resolutions exclusively speak of men and women, but, rarely, if at all, of the LGBTI community. That central measures such as gender mainstreaming or the documentation of SGBV in the resolutions are only directed towards heterosexual, cis-gendered women/men erases LGBTQ (9) experiences, argues Hagen (2016). She acknowledges that the acronym ‘LGBTQ’ is itself Western-centric and an inclusion of LGBTQ experiences wouldn’t allow for the representation of ‘other’ sexual and gender minorities. It is disturbing that non-female/male gendered experiences are not mentioned in the WPS resolutions, especially since LGBTI individuals and communities in conflict-affected situations live under extremely precarious situations (Myrttinen et. al, 2016; Hudson, 2016).
Besides biological dimorphism, the colonial/modern gender system introduces heterosexuality as the hegemonic norm (Lugones, 2007); whereas, many Indigenous tribes pre-colonially recognized homosexuality in general, and certain tribes referred to lesbianism specifically (Allen, 1992). Additionally, (ritual) sodomy was recorded in many Andean societies in the Americas (Horswell, 2003). The WPS agenda is also based on heteronormative assumptions, meaning that the agenda contains a “limited conception of gender that primarily monitors the needs of women narrowly understood and captured within a heterosexual family and social structure” (Hagen, 2016, p. 320). In relation to SGBV (10), the WPS architecture overrepresents sexual violence against women perpetuated by men by obscuring other forms of SGBV that are not heterosexual (Engle, 2014; Buss, 2014; Sivakumaran, 2010).
Furthermore, the imposition of the binary, hierarchic gender system was accompanied by the formation of a patriarchal, male-centered, colonial state, which resulted in the exclusion of women from state structures and the public sphere. For example, in the Yoruba society access to power was not a gender question (Oyewùmí, 1997). Allen (1992) adds that in gynecratic, spiritual, American Indian tribes (e.g. Iroquis, Cherokee) female forces were highly valued in warfare and policy decisions. The subordination of women is not universal, and in many pre-colonial, Indigenous African and North American societies, women were only excluded from decision making through the impacts of colonialism: “Those changes were introduced through slow, discontinuous, and heterogenous processes that violently inferiorized colonized women” (Lugones, 2007, p.201).
Lugones (2007) argues that the view of women as fragile, pure, sexually passive, weak and in need of protection was a characteristic of white bourgeois womanhood; whereas, colonized women were seen as sexually aggressive and pervert, but also strong enough to do any kind of labour. This changed during the process of colonialism. Indigenous women were increasingly used as a negotiated terrain between white colonizers and Indigenous men, who collaborated with the colonizers as a way of survival. The systemic sexual violence that emerged during this time is still present in today’s societies (Mendoza, 2016). In the WPS resolutions, women of color (11) are not represented as strong or politically active anymore, but rather like white bourgeois women: as passive victims of sexual violence and in need of (white, male) protection (from the ‘brown men’, Spivak, 1988) (de Almagro, 2018). Women are stereotypically represented as caregivers, caretakers and providers, as peaceful individuals without agency and rights (Puechguirbal, 2010).
It seems paradoxical that after years of demeaning women during colonialism, today, it is primarily Western UN member states that are adopting NAPs to implement the WPS resolutions which aim to improve female participation in conflict affected countries (Swaine, 2017). I doubt, however, that those ‘outward-facing’ NAPs (Shepherd, 2016) (12), are motivated by ‘colonial guilt’ or by the desire to make up for colonial destruction, rather, it is argued that those ‘foreign policy tools’ reproduce the imperialist/interventionist role of the West who delivers expertise and knowledge to the rest of the world (Aroussi, 2017).
The ‘dark side’ of the colonial/modern gender system
Lastly, to answer the question why gender needs to be decolonised, I want to shed light on the ‘dark side’ of the colonial gender system (Lugones, 2007). If this gender system violently erased pre-existing gendered configurations (Icaza, 2018), and inferiorized women (13), and, at the same time, one of the main goals of the WPS agenda is ‘gender mainstreaming’, what does it mean to ‘mainstream’ gender? If there is an inherent violence in the very concept of gender, is the WPS agenda not globalizing a discourse on gender equality that is inherently colonial? If gender truly is an “imposed way of organizing/control societies” (Icaza, 2018, p.13), I argue that we urgently need to re-consider which gender system gender mainstreaming is imposing.
DECOLONISE HUMAN RIGHTS
According to human rights advocates, the globalisation of human rights empowers the most powerless. Others contest this and argue that human rights are another tool for Western interventionism and for imposing its modern, individualist agenda in the rest of the world. I will shed a critical light on the hegemonic, Western concept of human rights through the lens of coloniality.
A different history of human rights
The decolonial lens does not contribute to the ‘politics of origins’; it does not promote the Eurocentric view that human rights are a ‘gift from the West to the rest’. To reveal why human rights need to de decolonised, an ‘alternative’ history of rights, one that exposes the Eurocentric storyline and that shows how human rights (UDHR) (14) were developed during the violent time of modern colonialism, has to be told (Barreto, 2018). There are dozens of examples to illustrate that the ‘origins’ of human rights can’t be exclusively traced back to the French Revolution, or attributed only to Hobbes and Kant, but also go back to anti-Apartheid struggles, struggles against slavery, to Bartolome de las Casas and Nelson Mandela (Barreto, 2018) (15). Coloniality reveals that today’s hegemonic understanding of human rights contains a certain Western understanding of what ‘human’ is: “the concept of the human is loaded with ideas about secularism, individualism, and racism” (Maldonado-Torres, 2017, p.130). Decolonial humanists radically question this conception of the ‘human’ and contest that in ‘other’ conceptualizations of the ‘human’, body and mind, or human and non-human, for example, are not separated (Maldonado-Torres, 2017).
The problem when human rights travel
The dominant Western conceptualisation of the ‘human’ negates other human rights subjectivities and doesn’t consider differences between rich and poor, or white or black people (Barreto, 2018). Human rights are therefore seen as a “site for exclusion” (Kapur, 2006, p.667). Not to mention, there are multiple forms of law in many non-Western countries. Therefore, it is problematic to ‘transfer’ “United Nations-centred international human rights instruments” (Akoth, 2014, p.94) to other regions. Akoth (2014) ethnographically examines the particular ‘social life’ of rights (see Wilson, 1997; Abu-Lughod, 2010), and investigates how ordinary people produce ideas of human rights in their daily lives in Kenya. Global discourses and local contexts mix meanings in Kenya, where there is constant contestation between common law, customary law and customs (Akoth, 2014). To be accepted as a ‘modern’ state and to attain global citizenship, Kenya adopted the human rights framework in the early 1990s (Akoth, 2014; Andreassen, 1993) (16).
The fact that African (and other non-Western) states had to appropriate Western human rights shows that ideas and knowledge still travel as they did during colonialism. This civilising discourse constructs binaries such as here/there, we/them, civilised/uncivilised and so on, which are also found within the WPS resolutions and NAPs of Western donor countries (Shepherd, 2016; Achilleos, 2018). Western ‘outward-facing’ NAPs reproduce gendered, racialized, colonial, as well as civilising narratives (Aroussi, 2017). Since 2005 many (mostly Western) states have adopted NAPs to implement the WPS agenda, which serve as a sign for those states to ‘appear’ committed to gender equality and women’s rights (Fritz et. al, 2011). The fact that those NAPs are exclusively ‘outward-looking’ obscures gendered inequalities and insecurities, as well as issues like SGBV, ‘at home’. Simultaneously, they reproduce the view of a state holding such NAPs as a peaceful or “women friendly and gender equal welfare state” (Jauhola, 2016, p.338). Because gender equality is already achieved in such states, it has to be promoted elsewhere. This incorrect assumption creates “racialised, imperialistic narratives that situate Western states as benevolent saviours of women in the conflict ridden and poverty-stricken Global South” (Aroussi, 2017, p.29).
Human rights are particular, not universal
Decolonial scholars challenge the presentation of human rights as ahistorical and universal (Barreto, 2018): “human rights doctrine is now so powerful, but also so unthinkingly imperialist in its claim to universality, that it has exposed itself to serious intellectual attack” (Ignatieff, 2001, p.102). Human rights’ imperial dimension emerges due to international law’s promise of justice and simultaneous claim of universality (Pahuja, 2010). Claiming universality gives the impression that no geopolitical sites, historical or material conditions are involved. However, the theories about and the concept of human rights are related to their historical and local setting: “once a connection is made between history and knowledge, it is evident that the hegemonic theory of human rights is the progeny of a perspective grounded in a particular historical and geographical context, that of Europe” (Barreto, 2018, pp.490-491).
The WPS agenda performs universality. Often, it is framed as the success of international feminist activism, and the ‘progressive’ gender equality norms and their global diffusions are celebrated (Motoyama, 2018). UNSCR 1325 especially was celebrated as a feminist success globally. Postcolonial voices point out that the WPS agenda forms part of “a global governance framework to incorporate women’s agency and knowledge in order to maintain and reproduce, rather than transform, unequal power relations that have driven the international security order” (de Almagro, 2018, p.41). It is important, therefore, to contextualize the agenda and to know that the agenda is ‘located’ in the UNSC, which, on the one hand, reproduces troubling discourses over gender, but, on the other hand, was experiencing a crisis of legitimacy at the time when the UNSCR 1325 was adopted. After the UNSC’s military interventions during the Cold War, it had lost its international trust. Its commitment to UNSCR 1325 helped the UNSC to regain international legitimacy and trust (Otto, 2012). There is a need to critically investigate why states with a traditionally anti-feminist attitude embrace the WPS agenda (e.g. Japan). To commit to UNSC 1325 means to be associated with the symbolic capital of the UNSC, and ‘being on the list’ of it positions these states as powerful liberal democracies (Motoyama, 2018).
In this essay, I critically examined why gender and human rights need to be decolonised from a feminist, intersectional and decolonial perspective by using the concept of ‘coloniality’ as a starting point. After establishing the framework of this essay, I have elucidated the limitations and violence of the category ‘gender’. Firstly, the colonial/modern gender system globally introduced and indurated biological/sexual dimorphism, heterosexualism and hierarchical (binary) gender relations, which erased certain ‘other’ experiences or created a social power system which didn’t exist before. Secondly, imposing one category ‘women’, lead to the inferiorization of (particularly) Indigenous women and to the marginalization of those who didn’t conform to the binary gender system. In this section, I’ve also shown how those elements are reproduced in the WPS resolutions and NAPs. I’ve argued that there is a need to reconsider which gender system is promoted by the WPS agenda. In relation to ‘gender mainstreaming’, it is “imperative to understand that there are different approaches to it based on very different understandings of gender equality” (Hudson, 2016, p.10). The non-Western world and ‘conflict-affected’ regions have no unitary identity. Therefore, drafting WPS resolutions without contextualisation incurs problems.
In the second part, I addressed why human rights need to be decolonised. Here, I argued that a different history of human rights has to be told in order to reveal the colonial violence that accompanied the formation of today’s hegemonic human rights framework. I’ve also shown that it is problematic when rights are transferred to regions with multiple rights systems, especially as the rights travel in the same direction (North to South). This reproduces a civilising narrative. Finally, I criticized the portrayal of human rights as something ahistorical and universal and pledged for the contextualization of human rights, as well as of the WPS resolutions.
The ‘solution’ of many scholars who critique human rights is neither to throw them away, nor to embrace them as they are today: “We cannot not want” (Spivak, 1993, pp.45-46) human rights, but there is a need to reclaim them critically and to decolonise them “in order to get rid of their Western burdens and limits, and to reclaim the vision of human rights that has been constructed in the vast territories of the world colonised over the last 500 years” (Barreto, 2018, p.499). Other decolonial scholars, however, call for a new framework of humanities which does not build on the existing human rights framework (e.g. Maldonado-Torres, 2017). This refers to the ongoing discussion in all those contested fields of whether ‘the masters house’ (Lorde, 1979) should be entirely demolished or partly renovated.
When asking where we should go from here, I argue that there is a need to question the classifying and naming of harms, practices and ways of living of ‘others’. This presents a modern/colonial impulse. We need to find out, collectively and in solidarity, how “we make sense of social struggles of people and their communities without (re)colonizing such experiences” (Icaza, 2018, p.12). I finally suggest taking the following proposals seriously: “sometimes the most pressing conversations are the ones ongoing closer to home” (Motlafi, 2018, p.21), and we might study issues more often in our own backyards (Achilleos, 2018).
(1) ‘Gender mainstreaming’ is a strategy of the United Nations (UN) to globally improve ‘gender equality’ (True 2003). It generally calls for the greater inclusion of women in political processes. How exactly this is expected to happen depends largely on the context (True 2003).
(2) The first UNSC resolution for WPS (UNSCR 1325) was launched in 2000. Today, nine follow-up resolutions have been passed. In general, the UNSC resolutions center around the four pillars participation, protection, prevention and relief/recovery. All four pillars relate to women in conflict affected contexts (Swaine & O’Rourke, 2015). It’s argued that through the WPS resolutions, international norms on women’s rights have helped women in conflict, or coming out of conflict, to address their rights (Hernes cited in Hudson, 2016), but especially postcolonial scholars argue that UNSCR 1325 and the following resolutions are an ‘imperial feminist project’ (Orford, 2002; Pratt 2013).
(3) I pose the why question and not the how, because, on the one hand, to answer the why and the how would extend the scope of this paper, and on the other hand, to answer the how could be problematic due to the fact that the how depends largely on the context when addressing how to decolonise these two highly contested concepts.
(4) In 2002, member states of the UN were asked to adopt NAPs to implement UNSCR 1325. As the UNSC resolutions for WPS are not ‘hard binding’ measures, it was voluntary for states to adopt NAPs. However, between 2005 and 2007, there emerged a so-called ‘NAPs-industry’: many Western states drafted NAPs during this time (Swaine, 2017).
(5) I use the term ‘Third World’ with quotation marks, because it is a contested, political term, which is always opposed to the ‘First World’: both terms are embedded in the civilising and modernising rhetoric of the West, whilst the ‘Third World’ has been seen as a world with distant, if not ‘backward’ cultures (Spivak, 1985).
(6) The terms ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ are not neutral terms and are politically significant. Such binaries are constructed through a Western modernization rhetoric that categorizes geographical regions. Both terms are created by the leading elite of the G7 nations and the ‘Global North’ is empowered to ‘save’ the ‘Global South’ (Mignolo, 2011).
(7) Besides settler colonialism.
(8) ‘Biological/sexual dimorphism’ describes the belief, that there are only two identifiable categories, men and women, which are opposed to each other and hierarchically linked
(9) I use the terms ‘LGBTQ’ / ‘LGBTI’ as they were used in the articles I refer to in this section.
(10) SGBV stands for ‘sexual and gender-based violence’.
(11) ‘Women’ in the WPS resolutions are not explicitly addressed as ‘women of color’, but due to the fact that the resolutions address issues exclusively in ‘conflict-affected’ regions, or regions where most of the residents are people of color, the resolutions implicitly address only women of color.
(12) ‘Outward-facing’ NAPs are NAPs of mostly ‘peaceful’ states that are located in foreign ministries and promote the WPS agenda in foreign, conflict-affected regions. They should help women to (re)gain access to political decision-making at all levels, while they do not mention gendered insecurities or harms nationally (Shepherd, 2016; Aroussi, 2017).
(13) I am not disputing that men were not inferiorized during colonialism, but as shown by Lugones (2007), women were inferiorized due to their race and gender, which put them in a more precarious situation than colonized men.
(14) UDHR stands for ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’.
(15) Other crucial figures who could be mentioned in relation to the history of human rights are W.E.B du Bois, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Malcom X, Luther King, Francisco Suarez, Rigoberta Menchú and Upendra Baxi (Barreto, 2018).
(16) During this time, many post-colonial African states established national human rights commissions, as this was ‘recommended’ by the UN Commission on Human Rights (Akoth, 2014).
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