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Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > March 8 -War on Terror- Women’s rights as human rights and Gita Sahgal vs (...)

March 8 -War on Terror- Women’s rights as human rights and Gita Sahgal vs A.I.

Tuesday 9 March 2010, by siawi2

Source : Meredithtaxblog Monday, March 8, 2010

Anniversary Issues

Happy anniversary! Fifteen years since the Beijing Conference on Women. Twenty years since Charlotte Bunch founded the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWLG), which has done so much to define women’s human rights. The UN’s Committee on the Status of Women is meeting in New York, so a CWGL symposium to mark the anniversary was organized on Saturday. Though the occasion was celebratory, the mood was somber, for things we all thought we had won are now at risk. Mixed with the energy and knowledge of achievement were fear, anger, and a sense of loss. Charlotte Bunch posed the question: How do we reclaim the debate from the backlash forces?

The problem is that the context for women’s human rights work has been transformed by the “war on terror.†For twenty years we fought to move human rights from its original Cold War form, in which the normative subject was an Eastern European male prisoner, and build a human rights movement that gave weight to offenses against women and children. When we began, people thought in terms of human rights crimes committed by the state. We struggled to enlarge that definition to include crimes committed by “non-state actors†—militias, paramilitary groups, religious fundamentalists, even fathers and brothers and husbands. And we insisted that women who fought for their rights be moved from the category of “victim†into the category of “human rights defender.â€

It was an uphill struggle, but we made significant progress. We campaigned for an international criminal court and got one, even though the US never joined. We got wartime rape defined as a human rights abuse rather than a natural consequence of armed struggle. We fought for UN Resolution 1325, which mandates that women be equally represented at peace negotiations—with the right women at the negotiating table, this could be transformative. But the “war on terror†has returned us in many ways to status quo ante: the normative human rights subject is once again a male prisoner, this time in Guantanamo, and women and children are once more seen as pitiful victims and pushed to the margins of the discourse.

I remember the leadup to Beijing 1995 and the enormous overflowing energy of the conference itself. What a sense of power that was, feeling that we were finally coming together and beginning to understand how to reshape the world—what a sense of growth and possibility, as we learned the ways we were the same and different, strategizing together. In the next six years we made rapid strides. Then came 9/11.

That morning I went to an aqua aerobics class at my gym. Midway through, the manager came in and told us the World Trade Center had been attacked; an emergency had been declared, and they were closing the gym. A woman in the class said, “But my husband is at a meeting there.†Nobody knew what to do. I walked home, my head spinning, trying to grasp what had happened. Searching for normalcy, I stopped at tmy local bakery. People were lining up to get fresh bread as usual. Then a young man burst into the shop, his face contorted with rage and fear. “I don’t know who did this†he cried, “but they’re going to pay! Afghanistan is going to be a parking lot!â€

9/11 empowered warriors on all sides. Not only were Islamic fundamentalists heartened by the successful attack on the World Trade Center, but the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq spawned new fundamentalists by the thousands and provided new training grounds for them to come together. In the West, men like the one who burst into my local bakery took control of every political discourse, and people who tried to moderate or combat their views were shouted down or pilloried. Clamping down, they said, was necessary for security.

But I have never felt less secure than I do now—not just because of the economic crisis, though my existence is fairly marginal; not just because of the out-of-control militarization of my government; not just because of the possibility that somebody is going to blow up a NY subway train one of these days. I feel insecure because the women’s movement I love, to which I have devoted most of my life, on which I depend for a place to stand, is facing the backlash with few reliable allies and little in the way of resources beyond personal networks and ties.

In a speech to Amnesty in 2007, Gita Sahgal recalled the moment in which women’s human rights politics came together:

In 1993, at the UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, a group of feminist advocates held a now famous tribunal on Violence against Women. And in that moving event which reflected the experiences of thousands of women across the world, a challenge was posed to governments and to the leadership of the formal human rights movement. It was not a challenge to abandon the principles of human rights, or to dilute them. It was a challenge to embrace them more fully by accounting for the experience of a whole category of excluded victims….[This did not mean] abandoning the principle of universality. It was a foundational challenge to the way in which universality is constructed.

Under the influence of the war on terror, universality is again becoming narrowed. The backlash has affected even human rights organizations that jumped on the bandwagon after the Vienna conference. This backlash is the real reason Gita Sahgal has been suspended as head of Amnesty International’s gender unit. And it is the reason we have to defend her—to make sure that women’s rights remain human rights.