IRW Seminar

2008-2009 Seminar Abstracts

The Culture of Rights/ The Rights of Culture


Ousseina Alidou
African, Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Literatures
"Muslim Women and Rights Discourse: Kenya in Comparative Perspective"
The primary aim of my study is to analyze the gendered dimension of political Islam in Kenya to Muslim women's advocacy of their rights as women within the community of Muslims and as a citizen-minority in the nation. To what extent have Muslim women in Kenya seized the political space opened up by the democratization momentum of the 1990s onwards to re-read Islam in a way that empowers them to (re)claim their rights within their community of faith and the multi-religious nation? The study is based on fieldwork conducted in Kenya during Winter 2005 and Summer 2006 and funded by the Ford Foundation's Program on Human Rights and Social Justice. In addition, the analysis resulting from this study will be framed within a comparative approach, reflexively drawing from my previous work in West Africa and the lessons arising from it.


Debotri Dhar
Women’s & Gender Studies
"Reading Bodies, Writing Culture: Postcoloniality and Women's Rights in Contemporary India"
Ahistorical definitions of both "rights" and "culture" in the western liberal tradition have framed the discourse of rights as an ongoing narrative of tensions between public/private, global/local, individual/collective, universal/relativist and epistemology/ontology. Arguing for a feminist paradigmatic shift in the conception of rights, this project attempts an ontological (re)construction of rights as lived experience, establishing this ontology through women's private bodies and their everyday embodiment in/as public culture(s). More specifically, it examines women's right to bodily integrity and against violence in contemporary India. By situating the female body as a contextual site that simultaneously constrains, as well as enables the struggle for social justice, it deconstructs binary tensions in right discourse to reveal rights as a series of discursive insertions in a socially circumscribed everyday. The project draws from my experience in women's rights, as a scholar and a grassroots activist. It uses interdisciplinary methodology, integrating an analysis of literary, visual and print media along with socio-legal case studies, policy documents, and ethnographic research.


Leslie Fishbein
American Studies
"Tangled Tropes: Blacks and Jews in Vexed Conversation"

This particular work explores the complexities of black-Jewish relations by examining the various ways in which blacks and Jews have used common tropes in their struggles for freedom, equality of opportunity, and social justice and ascribed to them different, and even discordant, meanings. I hope to refract these complexities through the lens of gender to understand the ways in which males and females both in leadership roles and among the rank-and-file of organized movements used a vocabulary of rights to different ends and with unanticipated results. I plan to ask what happens when the tropes used in a dominant discourse of "rights" fail to have common meaning to the blacks and Jews invoking these tropes. I plan to examine how race, gender, and religion affect how the discourse of rights relates to the viability and ultimate success of social activism. This study should provide insight into the communication mechanisms essential to activism on behalf of feminist goals and racial and social justice.


Sally Goldfarb
School of Law-Camden
"A Clash of Cultures: Women, Domestic Violence, and Law"

The past four decades have seen the enactment of ambitious laws designed to prevent and redress domestic violence, yet it is widely acknowledged that these reforms have fallen short of achieving their goals. This project aims to shed new light on the inadequacy of current domestic violence laws by analyzing the role of culture in defining battered women's legal rights. I plan to show that current domestic violence laws are too deeply immersed in mainstream legal culture and in prevailing cultural assumptions about battered women, while at the same time they are insufficiently attentive to the diverse cultural influences affecting battered women. By focusing on this "clash of cultures," my project will suggest promising strategies for the next generation of domestic violence law reform, such as shifting from criminal law to civil law and from negative rights to positive rights as ways of better meeting the needs of battered women.


Stacey Hunt
Political Science
"Culture of Citizenship, Culture of Violence: Inculcating Differentiated Citizen Participation and Rights under Democratic Neo-liberal Governance in Contemporary Colombia"

In this project, I look at the way in which democratic and neoliberal technologies of governance in Colombia have led to the state promotion of a "culture of citizenship" in order to make citizens differently responsible for both their own security and social violence. This "culture of citizenship" is one that must be instilled through pedagogical practices and is characterized by the active participation and exercise of citizen rights. This practice of governance, however, is unique given particular spaces and genders, however, granting preferential rights to those who act out violent masculinities, while pathologizing the victims of state violence.


Shakti Jaising
"Global Neoliberalism and Human Rights Discourse"

This project explores the ideological linkages between the discourses of neoliberalism and human rights to propose that the hegemony of neoliberal ideology relies on, and further perpetuates, the global significance of rights-based conceptions of social justice. My study focuses on a recently decolonized South Africa that advertizes its arrival as a new participant in the global market through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and its avowed intention to establish a "human rights culture" in South Africa. By using female witness testimonials from the TRC, I argue that the woman's body becomes a privileged ground on which privatizing conceptions of rights-based justice are articulated in order to promote South Africa as a 'human rights culture," aligned with neoliberal political thinking, and thereby prove the nation's eligibility as a participant in the global market.


Laura Lomas
"Undocumented Subjects: Migration, Criminalization and Economic Integration in the Americas"
Through an examination of literary and legal proceedings related to the criminalization, indictment, and denial of residency to writers of Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States, this project defines an "undocumented subjectivity" in the United States. Adding to Foucault's catalogue of deviants against whom the "normal" U.S. citizen-subject takes shape, I consider narratives of migration and criminalization in relation to political and economic integration. Empire depends upon docile, disavowed immigrant labor. Residents and citizens such as C.L.R. James, Angel Rama, and Demetira Martinez faced or experienced exclusion for their political uses of literary language. What led these writers to face deportation or, in Martinez's case, a twenty-five-year prison sentence and a $1.25 million dollar fine? The government's prosecution validated Martinez's right to free speech, but it also documents a longstanding and now expanded strategy of criminalizing immigrants and their advocates.


Robyn Magalit Rodriguez
"Rights and Belonging in New Jersey after 9/11"
U.S. immigration and immigrant policy after 9/11 is characterized by logics of securitization that is the interiorization and localization of immigrant enforcement. This project investigates how securitization is manifested in specific New Jersey communities like Jersey City and Morristown and the gendered and sexualized politics that underlie it. Moreover, I ask how New Jersey immigrants' daily lives have been impacted by post-9/11 policies, examine the ways immigrants assert their rights and claim membership in their communities and explore the gendered differences in their perspectives on citizenship and belonging.


Catherine Sameh
Women's & Gender Studies
"Islamic Feminism in Iran: Rights, Religion, and New Transnational Feminist Discourses"

Through this project, I will explore the discourses of Islamic feminists in contemporary Iran, and their relationship to various global discourses, such as human rights and feminist. It will ask to what extent claims to gender equality and social justice made by Iranian Islamic feminists take up, modify, challenge, or reject the language of rights. It will also question the strict equation of rights language with secularism, and notions of duty and obligation with religious discourses, and the way this binary works to structure power. Finally, it will explore the intent to which a hybrid discourse, which frames rights within a religious context, is being articulated by Islamic feminists in Iran, and examine the ways in which it is deployed to effect social and political changes for women. This project will be underscored by an investigation of the cultural contexts in which rights discourses are used, and what those contexts reveal about power.


Karen Gainer Sirota
School of Social Work
"Narrative Ethics and Women's Rights: Gender, Discourse, and the Micropolitics of Everyday Life in US Dual-Earner Families"

During an era when transnational dialogues on human rights often marshal critiques geared towards the "developing" world abroad, it seems fruitful to turn a reflexive, analytic gaze on the status of U.S. women's rights. As such, my proposed project investigates the everyday lived contexts and micro politics of U.S. women's lives, exploring how gender rights are constituted in day-to-day family life. Drawing from a corpus of ethnographically-informed video data documenting the everyday lives of an ethnically diverse group of U.S. dual-earner families, and employing discourse and narrative analysis, the project traces women's practical engagement in everyday endeavors and queries how gender rights, asymmetries, and power dynamics are instantiated, parleyed, and transformed within the domestic economies of everyday family relations. Therein, democratic human rights as a mode of embodied conduct, as well as a set of abstract principles.


Rebecca Tuuri
"'Building Bridges of Understanding' in the Pursuit of Welfare Rights: The Activism of the National Council of Negro Women in the War on Poverty"
My project for the 2008-2009 seminar will be a historical analysis of the role of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) during the War on Poverty in the late 1960s. The NCNW, through its sub-organizations Wednesdays in Mississippi (WIMS) and the Commission on Community Cooperation (CCC), acted as a liaison organization between poor women receiving welfare, governmental officials, and members of the public who were critical of the welfare system. Associating with the respectable "culture" of WIMS and the CCC enabled poor black women to transcend widespread American assumptions that these women did not deserve welfare benefits. Unfortunately, in the process of creating dialogues between welfare recipients and their critics, WIMS and the CCC still accommodated racist, sexist, and classist stereotypes about women receiving welfare. Thus, this project will ultimately investigate how race, class, and gender affect the approach and effectiveness of different "cultures" in demanding welfare rights.


Johanna Rossi Wagner
"Interstitial Cultures: Women of the Italian Colonial Empire in the Works of Erminia Dell'Oro"
Colonial histories permeate contemporary European cultural discourses. Eurocentric models of domination and cultural dissemination have been the objects of intense study in recent years; however, current research into the ephemeral Italian Empire remains at the margins of contemporary Italian consciousness. Recent scholars building on the initial work of Angelo Del Boca have begun to reconstruct the circumstances and realities of the colonial period. This study looks specifically at the emergence of biracial communities directly resulting from Italian colonialism in Africa. Taking from, historical, theoretical, and artistic works, the paper examines the space within which such a population exists. Of particular interest is Ermina Dell'Oro's 1991 novel L'abbandono chronicling the life of an Eritrean woman and her Italian-Eritrean daughter. Throughout this work, which vibrantly gives life to this interstitial culture, issues of human rights, cultural identity, and racial affiliation come to the forefront thereby challenging conventional ideas of Italian colonialism.