The Personal is Political," or Why Women's Rights are Indeed Human Rights: An African Perspective on International Feminism

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Human Rights Quarterly, Volume 17, Issue 4, p.691-731 (2005)



feminism, gender violence, human rights, political, united nations


<p style="text-align: justify;"><span style="font-size:14px;"><span style="font-family: lucida sans unicode,lucida grande,sans-serif;">I. INTRODUCTION</span></span></p><p style="text-align: justify;"><span style="font-size:14px;"><span style="font-family: lucida sans unicode,lucida grande,sans-serif;">&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; At first the Sky was very close to the Earth. But every evening Woman cut off a piece of the Sky to put in her soup pot or, as in another version, she repeatedly banged the top end of her pestle carelessly against the Sky whenever she pounded the millet or, as in yet another rendering--so prodigious is Man&#39;s inventiveness, she wiped her kitchen hands on the Sky&#39;s face. Whatever the detail of Woman&#39;s provocation, the Sky finally moved away in anger, and God with it. 1</span></span></p><p style="text-align: justify;"><span style="font-size:14px;"><span style="font-family: lucida sans unicode,lucida grande,sans-serif;">A. In Which Direction are We Heading?</span></span></p><p style="text-align: justify;"><span style="font-size:14px;"><span style="font-family: lucida sans unicode,lucida grande,sans-serif;">The title to this essay is composed of two slogans well-known in the women&#39;s human rights movement--one drawn from the domestic arena and the other from the international arena. 2 Both have been the subject of intense debate, scrutiny, and <span data-scayt_word="contestation" data-scaytid="1">contestation</span> from a variety of perspectives. 3 As two Africans grappling with the pedigree and content of slogans that originated from within Western feminism, we embarked on a search for their meaning. 4 For us, Angela Davis best captured and translated the essence of their evolution by reflecting on her own political development as an activist confronting prejudices of race, class, and gender within an imperialist setting:</span></span></p><p style="text-align: justify;"><span style="font-size:14px;"><span style="font-family: lucida sans unicode,lucida grande,sans-serif;">&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; I was vehemently opposed to the notion, developed within the young women&#39;s liberation movement, which naively and uncritically equated things personal with things political. In my mind, this idea tended to render equivalent such vastly disparate phenomena as racist police murders of Black people and the [End Page 692] sexist-inspired verbal abuse of white women by their husbands. Since I personally witnessed police violence . . . during that period, my negative response to the feminist slogan, &quot;the personal is political,&quot; was quite understandable. While I continue to disagree with all easy attempts to define these two dimensions as equivalent, I do understand that there is a sense in which all efforts to draw definitive lines of demarcation between the personal and political inevitably misconstrue social reality. For example, domestic violence is no less an expression of the prevailing politics of gender because it occurs within the private sphere of a personal relationship. I therefore express my regrets that I was not able to also apply a measuring stick which manifested a more complex understanding of the dialectics of the personal and the political. 5</span></span></p><p style="text-align: justify;"><span style="font-size:14px;"><span style="font-family: lucida sans unicode,lucida grande,sans-serif;">Still, a nagging feeling persisted. From the perspectives that we brought to the subject, the etymology of the two slogans was greatly intriguing. We struggled to establish how best to convey that feeling. Through their juxtaposition we sought to present our readers with either of two meanings. On the one hand, were we celebrating the successful transposition of domestic (&quot;the personal&quot;) feminism onto the international (&quot;human rights&quot;) scene? If it takes the statements of more than sixty highly committed, deeply respected, and <span data-scayt_word="geopolitically" data-scaytid="2">geopolitically</span> diverse essayists to affirm the coming of age of the women&#39;s human rights movement as an international phenomenon, we could well say that the anthologies reviewed in this article effectively sealed further debate on the question. To borrow a much-abused <span data-scayt_word="Ugandanism" data-scaytid="3">Ugandanism</span>, international feminism has truly &quot;arrived!&quot; 6</span></span></p><p style="text-align: justify;"><span style="font-size:14px;"><span style="font-family: lucida sans unicode,lucida grande,sans-serif;">On the other hand, despite the affirmation of achievement represented by the mere fact of publication, a number of issues seemed to have been handled only obliquely by the contributors to these new volumes. Other issues were treated with the silence of omission. This led us to the second theme underlying our inquiry and further confirmed our decision to place the two slogans side-by-side in our analysis: the proposition that the domestic had been transposed on the international with only semantic modification. In other words, had domestic Western feminism emerged dominant on the international stage? Coming from a context that has known both colonial domination and neocolonial exploitation, such caution evolves as second nature. It is particularly germane given the historical practice of western societies capturing, defining and transforming, or [End Page 693] &quot;<span data-scayt_word="orientalizing" data-scaytid="4">orientalizing</span>&quot; 7 realities in the &quot;third world.&quot; 8 On further reflection, the marriage of these slogans suggested a third level of inquiry: which sphere is paramount, the domestic or the global? Posed in this way several related issues arose, particularly when placed against the backdrop of international impotence and neglect in the face of the genocidal rape in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, <span data-scayt_word="Chechynya" data-scaytid="5">Chechynya</span>, and Somalia. This essay addresses both the tension of these two slogans&#39; juxtaposition and their seemingly fluid blending. With particular respect to the African woman: how indeed are women&#39;s rights human rights?<br />B. Facing Down the Inquisition</span></span></p><p style="text-align: justify;"><span style="font-size:14px;"><span style="font-family: lucida sans unicode,lucida grande,sans-serif;">From its earliest days of inception--commencing with the United Nations International Decade of Women (1975-1984) and culminating in that memorable gathering of activists, intellectuals, and strategists in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi in 1985--this question has continuously haunted international feminism. 9 This question is not moot, given the continual marginalization of women and the &quot;<span data-scayt_word="ghettoization" data-scaytid="6">ghettoization</span>&quot; of gender issues by the dominant structures of race, capitalism, and patriarchy. 10 Furthermore, this question is still relevant in the face of serious and probing efforts to achieve a more profound and relevant conceptualization of the meaning of women&#39;s liberation in the <span data-scayt_word="1990s" data-scaytid="7">1990s</span>. It is very much alive despite the active processes of [End Page 694] fragmentation, dislocation, and backlash unleashed against the movement, and the global assault on human rights in general. For African women the question is particularly important given the incipient nature of the women&#39;s human rights movement on the continent and the intricately linked and <span data-scayt_word="multistructured" data-scaytid="8">multistructured</span> layers of oppression by which the movement is confronted.</span></span></p><p style="text-align: justify;"><span style="font-size:14px;"><span style="font-family: lucida sans unicode,lucida grande,sans-serif;"><span data-scayt_word="Halim" data-scaytid="9">Halim</span> reminds us in Gender Violence that issues of strategy and style are as important as questions of content and substance, and might preoccupy the movement for several years to come. 11 How do women increase their involvement in political activity without falling prey to state-cum-male machinations of <span data-scayt_word="cooptation" data-scaytid="10">cooptation</span>? 12 What is the most appropriate level at which to pursue the struggle: the national or the global; the regional or the local? How do they complement or contradict one another? As we progress towards the fourth women&#39;s summit in China, this essay asks: where exactly are we heading; toward local globalism or universal nationalism?</span></span></p><p style="text-align: justify;"><span style="font-size:14px;"><span style="font-family: lucida sans unicode,lucida grande,sans-serif;">The process by which we arrive at Beijing evolves in the following manner. First, we lay the foundations for a debate on the place of an African perspective within international feminism. Then, we examine the question of &quot;cultural relativism,&quot; identified by Peters and <span data-scayt_word="Wolper" data-scaytid="11">Wolper</span> in Women&#39;s Rights as the phenomenon human rights advocates and governments must face in the twenty-first century. 13 Next, we consider the extent to which the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (<span data-scayt_word="CEDAW" data-scaytid="12">CEDAW</span>) 14 has lived up to its promise. By closely examining the various contributions dealing with the African situation and the mechanisms of the African Charter on Human and People&#39;s Rights (<span data-scayt_word="Banjul" data-scaytid="13">Banjul</span> Charter), 15 we deliberate on the impact of feminism within the regional context. Finally, we analyze the two main paradigmatic frameworks within which the collections under review are philosophically anchored--law and feminism. The full measure of the distance remaining is considered in the last section, which looks at the world of African women before and after Beijing. [End Page 695] Informing the discussion at all times is the belief that while we quite rightly should celebrate the achievements of the movement, we must at the same time acknowledge that so much still remains to be done.</span></span></p>