The Culture of Rights / The Rights of Culture

September 18, 2008
"Passionate Politics: The Intersection of Gender, Culture, and Human Rights"
Charlotte Bunch, Executive Director, Center for Women's Global Leadership; Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor of Women's and Gender Studies, Rutgers University

Cultural rights and women's human rights are often posed as opposites that arouse passionate debate, but too often this discourse does not probe deeply enough the multiple political aspects of culture and how these intersect with gender constructions in various settings. Culture has not only traditional, but also contemporary forms, is a strong force in the global North, as well as the South, and is always changing and under negotiation in all parts of the world. The pursuit of human rights always involves cultural change, but the association of women with culture makes this process more fraught and easily manipulated.The universality of women's right to human rights and the recognition of the specificity of women's diverse experiences are not opposites, but the dialectical tension needed to construct a more effective approach to realizing rights for all women in our diversity and to building cultures of support for human rights. View photos from this event here.

October 23, 2008
"Our Rights, Our Cultures: Muslim Women in West Africa and Struggles over Definitions, Entitlements and Power"
Ayesha Imam, Board Member of the Network of Women Living Under Muslim Laws; Founding Executive Director of BAOBAB for Women's Human Rights; Working Group of the African Feminist Forum 

This lecture considers the struggles of Muslim women in West Africa over rights and entitlements, vis-à-vis the completing claims of 'culture and tradition,' Muslim laws, and colonial and post-colonial discourses of 'modernity,' post-modernity, and 'universal' human rights discourses. View photos from this event here.

January 29, 2009
"Missing Pakistanis: Gendered Political Economy, Culture and the War on Terror"
Ethel Brooks, Associate Professor of Women's & Gender Studies and Sociology, Rutgers University

What are the effects of the war on terror on the Pakistani diaspora, and on immigrant communities more generally?  The targeting of South Asians and Muslims in the wake of September 11, 2001 is part of a larger redrawing of the boundaries of citizenship, the labor market, the family and community that has been mirrored by increased activism around immigration policy by both immigrants’ rights groups and anti-immigration advocates.  How can we understand the effects of these dynamics on community and citizenship, and on the meanings, practices and boundaries of the nation-state?  In this project, Professor Brooks explores the complexities of everyday life among Pakistani and other immigrants.  This entails an interrogation of essentializing projects that focus on the subjects, or targets, of the war on terror, and of immigration and labor market policies more generally.

February 26, 2009
"Making Women's Human Rights in the Vernacular: Navigating the Culture/Rights Divide"
Sally Engle Merry, Professor of Anthropology and Law & Society , New York University

Women's human rights expose the conflict between culture and rights with particular force. However, a close analysis of the processes by which ideas of women's human rights are remade in the vernacular by NGOs in Peru, China, India, and the USA suggests that in practice, these differences are handled less by confrontation than by negotiation and translation. Instead of viewing human rights as a philosophy located on the cusp of culture and rights, it is preferable to see it as a form of social action. With this conception in mind, Professor Merry will discuss human rights in practice as an uneasy symbiosis of law and social movements. She will also talk about how these two forms of human rights activism can be complementary but also differ in approach, ideology, and strategy, in hopes that examining these differences wil provide a new perspective on the apparent opposition between culture and rights.

April 2, 2009 (rescheduled from 12/4/08)
"Suspicious Centerings: Third World Women, The Rhetoric of Rights and the Politics of Rescue and Empowerment"
Uma Narayan, Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, Vassar College

The feminist injunction to put the problems of poor and marginalized women at the center of analysis has been arguably co-opted by some disturbing contemporary agendas, and such agendas will be the focus of Professor Narayan's talk. Professor Narayan will examine two distinct phenomena -- the movements in various countries to "rescue" Muslim women from the veil and the enthusiasm for economically empowering Third World women through microcredit. She will talk about how the rhetoric of rights functions to obscure various deeply problematic aspects of these "suspicious centerings."

April 23, 2009
"Toward a More 'Courageous Politics'”: Talking About Muslim Fundamentalism in the Human Rights Framework"
Karima Bennoune, Professor of Law and Arthur L. Dickson Scholar, Rutgers School of Law-Newark; Visiting Professor, University of Michigan Law School

Feminist international lawyers Christine Chinkin and Hilary Charlesworth have argued that religious fundamentalisms are among the most significant challenges to women’s human rights in the contemporary moment. These fundamentalist movements and their adherents raise particular challenges for women’s human rights, often claiming to speak for and in the name of culture, religion and tradition.  There is no question that addressing the issue of Muslim fundamentalism in the U.S. in the contemporary moment requires a tightrope walk over perilous waters, making use of a vocabulary heavily laden with unfortunate political meaning.  However, as Chetan Bhatt has noted in the context of the United Kingdom, “generally . . . multiracial feminism has been virtually alone in creating an activist political challenge to fundamentalism.” Thus, to understand the complexities of mediating what are sometimes named the claims of culture and religion on women’s human rights today, we must pay attention to feminist human-rights-based opposition to fundamentalism.