The Culture of Rights, the Rights of Culture

Annalisa Butticci, University of Padua, Italy
"Female Genital Mutilation: Culture, Rights and Power on Women's Bodies"


The focus of Butticci's project—female genital mutilation (FGM)—is a culturally-based practice which many consider a crime and a violation of women's human rights. She addresses the issues by offering a perspective that looks at "the practice of," and discussion surrounding FGM. The project pursues two lines of inquiry. The first, following from research conducted in Italy, explores the relevance of the practice of FGM within immigrant communities. The second analyzes and compares the discursive politics of national and international organizations, institutions, activists, and feminists scattered over Italy, Europe, the US, and Africa. Particular attention is paid to the different European, American, and African approaches that shaped the national laws that outlawed FGM in Western and African countries as a violation of women's and human rights. The aim of the elaboration of this the project at the IRW is to challenge hardened understandings of identity and culture that reduce complex human experiences and competing identities to static essences situating FGM somewhere between the binary opposition that see human rights, First World, modernity science, civility, freedom, women as actors, and medical knowledge at one end, and culture, Third World, tradition, superstition, barbarism, repression, women as oppressed, ignorance, and disease at the other. In the United States and Europe, where politics are often organized around identity and pleas of tolerance are made in the name of multiculturalism, it is important to know which understandings of culture are at work.

Heather Hewett, SUNY-New Palz
"African Literary Representations of Human Rights, Women's Bodies, and Culture"

Many writers, scholars, and activists have argued that the battle against human rights abuses is frequently waged—indeed some argue, should be waged—in the realm of cultural production, as well as in the political and legal realms. A long tradition of African writers has explored the abuse of human rights in literature, and emerging African and African diasporic literature continues the examination of human rights, broadly understood. Many of these writers have critiqued current understandings of human rights discourse. By focusing on writers who engage the topics of African women's sexualities and relationships to food to problematize meanings of human rights and cultural traditions, Hewett seeks to explore how contemporary African women writers in particular are suggesting a reframing of rights that challenge current discussions about women's human rights in Africa and globally.

Eniko Magyari-Vincze, Babes-Bolyai University, Romania
"Culture, Rights and Moral Entitlement"

While in residence at the IRW, Magyari-Vincze will be writing about how Roma women experience and negotiate complicated messages about and access to reproductive health services. Although as Romanian citizens they are formally entitled to exercise their reproductive rights, they are subjected to racial discrimination which severely limits the exercise of those rights. Often, social and legislative pressures, including overtly racist fertility control, have the effect of limiting the number of children they have. On the other hand, Romani women are viewed by the patriarchal Roma movement as life-givers and caretakers who are obliged to carry the burden of the biological and cultural reproduction of their communities. Even while they are experiencing these contradictory messages, Romani women express a powerful desire to claim their own agency as decision makers in ways that do not imperil their standing within the Roma community or the nation.

Salma Maoulidi, Sahiba Sisters, Tanzania
"Between Law and Culture: Contemplating Rights for Women in Zanzibar"

Maoulidi's project will draw upon women's oral histories and narratives as well as her own expertise in legal theory and practice. As Zanzibar undergoes a social and democratic transition, she will examine the role of culture and religion plays in (re)defining women's status as a bridge to renegotiating their human rights within a constitutional framework.  Asking the questions "Has there only been a single experience of rights in the isles?" and "What have been the consequences for women?" she will explore the extent to which culture and cultural/religious arguments have impacted women's rights, particularly their legal rights.

Susan Smith-Peter, College of Staten Island
"From Creole Estate to Native Corporation: Indigenous Rights in Alaska"

Smith-Peter's project traces the shifting ascription (and denial) of collective and individual rights to Natives in Alaska and the effect this had on Native culture. In 1821, the Russian government established a Creole estate, composed of the offspring of Russian men and native women, and gave them rights such as exemption from taxes and the draft. After the American purchase in 1867, creoles lost their rights and preserved their culture through the Orthodox Church and its bilingual (Russian-Native) schools, forcibly closed by the government in 1912. Creoles and Natives were to give up their collective identity and become monolingual individualists. In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) was passed, compensating Alaska Natives for lost lands with nearly one billion dollars and 40 million acres. These benefits were administered through Native corporations, revitalizing a corporative identity not entirely dissimilar to the Creole estate and encouraging the reestablishment of bilingual education. 

Sasha Turner, Tulane University
"Her West Indian Fortune:  White Women and Plantation Management in Jamaica, 1765-1812"

Through her project, Turner examines the life of women as property owners, absentee managers, and attorneys of late 17th century  and early 19th century Jamaican plantations. The work aims to look at the much-neglected issue of white women as pro-slavery ideologues and active participants in the colonial economy through property ownership and administration and the exploitation of enslaved labor. In particular, Turner will go in depth into the life of one such woman—Ann Eliza Gamon Elleston Bydges—who in 1775 became the sole heiress to the Jamaican sugar estate Hope. Through investigations of Ann's life, understandings of gender's relationship to culture and its impact on private and public life will unfold. Moreover, this analysis becomes important in understanding the nature of male attitudes towards female land ownership and management across socio-economic classes.

Meyda Yegenoglu, Middle East Technical University, Turkey
"The European Social Imaginary and the Question of Muslim Women's Rights"

In this paper, Yegenoglu suggests that we try to go beyond the terms of the current European headscarf controversy which is mesmerized by the polarity between the right/choice versus oppression, religious versus secular, liberatory versus oppressive, individual versus communitarian so as to explore their implications in terms of notion of liberal tolerance, rights, visibility, public presence of Muslim immigrant groups and the new race-thinking in Europe. In doing so, she will engage with a number of questions such as: what specific features in the current practice of veiling contribute to its being transformed into a distinguishing sign of the cultural difference between Europe and its immigrants? Why has a simple women's piece of clothing, such as the headscarf, became the kernel of difference between Islam and the West? Why is it that the headscarf came to indicate the dangerous permeability of the border between the public and private, individual and community rights, religious and the secular in Islamic cultures? Further, why is this permeability deemed dangerous and threatening for the West? Would the headscarf pose such a visible threat should Muslim women have stayed in their homes? If Muslim women were not making their religiosity public, would the issue of their emancipation be articulated as strongly as it is voiced now? Why is that when Muslim women insist on making their veiled presence public that they become an issue, either as an object of liberation or as a threat for Western secularity? What does the veil's public undesirability tell us about an ethical encounter with "otherness?"

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