Are human rights Western?

When cultural traditions come under pressure women appear to face greater demands to be the bearers of ‘cultural authenticity’.  While discourses of feminism and Human Rights can become wedges of opportunity for women to raise demands and negotiate for change in gender relations, women’s organizations and activists embracing them are open to charges of succumbing to the seductions of the West and its cultural imperialism.

Many Muslim women activists seek some kind of accommodation with religious belief because of its critical role in local culture.  Shaheen Sardar Ali, in her book ‘Gender and Human Rights in Islam and International Law: Equal before Allah, Unequal before Men?’ articulates a perspective for understanding the rights of Muslim women within Islamic tradition.  She locates Muslim women within the “concentric rings of religion, class, law, and society that form the multiple layers of her identity and encompass her from the moment she is born”[1].

In such a culture, where feminism and cultural authenticity are deemed mutually exclusive categories, what framework can women’s activists and organizations use to negotiate for change? There is a need to search for a more culturally authentic genealogy of women’s right.

Western human rights discourse emphasises an individual construct of self that does not resonate in many Muslim countries where the construct of selfhood is relational and specific connections with others privileges access to rights. Talal Asad, in his work on human rights, argues that the language of human rights that is based on notions of redemptive emancipation is not only unhelpful, but provides a frame for its use for imperialistic purposes[2].

A culture with a relational notion of national identity and a relational notion of rights requires an alternate approach to ethical dilemmas. The feminist ‘ethic of care’ complements ethical theories that extol justice and autonomy as the ultimate goal.  It informs a moral endeavour to ‘alleviate the real and recognizable trouble in the world’ through interpersonal connections.   Rather than demanding rights and rules for all, it champions avoidance of harm for all, advocating responsibility in relationship.  It celebrates difference, contrasting the inherent demand for universalism within the impersonal justice and autonomy models.

Given the ongoing challenge to addressing gender violence, is it time to consider a new narrative of human rights?


[1] Sardar Ali, S. (2000). Gender and Human Rights in Islam and International Law: Equal Before Allah, Unequal Before Men. The Hague: Kluwer Law International. p. 89

[2] Asad, T. (2000). What Do Human Rights Do?  An Anthropological Enquiry. Theory and Event, 4(4).

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