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Women’s Human Rights in Africa: Beyond the Debate Over the Universality or Relativity of Human Rights

by Diana J. Fox


In the fifty years following the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, anthropology as a discipline has embraced a predominantly ethical relativist stance toward the idea of human rights as a legitimate universal concern for all cultures. In the past decade, however, the rising prominence of women’s rights as human rights has challenged this point of view. Within the context of the global women’s human rights movement, feminist anthropologists are in the forefront of this challenge, striving to uphold anthropology’s important focus on cultural context, while at the same time exhibiting a deep concern for practices which harm women, including female genital mutilation and satie, both of which may be argued to be morally objectionable outside of any given culture. Feminist anthropological theory and feminist legal scholarship have questioned the desirability of objective ethnographic reporting of such practices, claiming that to remain aloof from statements of value implies complicity through silence (1).

Objective reporting, it is argued, denies the existence of the researcher as a “positioned subject” with a point of view, such that the absence of a point of view in reality is a point of view that is not articulated. The effort to articulate a feminist anthropological position on human rights not only undermines the validity of ethical relativism, but also emphatically argues that the western liberal tradition, which informs the bulk of the contemporary human rights movement, represents a fragmentary discourse on human rights, and so cannot currently make claims for universality. In addition, human rights are not yet recognized as universally valid, and the dominant focus in the movement is still on political and civil rights, or first generation rights, as compared to the weaker emphasis on important economic, social, and cultural rights. These second generation rights, in addition to third and fourth generation rights (group rights and women’s rights, respectively), are not nearly as well integrated into the existing international instruments dealing with reporting, evaluation, and monitoring procedures of human rights violations.

Feminist anthropology endorses the view that context is critical in our understanding and explication of any given situation; however, it also insists that cultural context, like any particular situation, is only a part of a much deeper and complex totality within which a particular context is necessarily subsumed. To strive toward completeness is to strive to embrace multiple traditions under the umbrella of universal human rights, and to do so the significance of second, third, and fourth generation rights must be regarded as significant a priority as first generation rights.

Feminist anthropologists who support women’s human rights must face the same conundrum that feminist legal scholars, such as Rebecca Cook, have articulated, namely, “how can universal human rights be legitimized in radically different societies without succumbing to either homogenizing universalism or the paralysis of … relativism?” (2).

This question is the central concern of this paper. It rests on the assumption that international human rights norms should indeed become part of the legal culture of any given society, and to do so, they must strike responsive chords in the general human public consciousness (3). This paper argues that a defensible way in which this challenge may be met is to acknowledge that universality and specificity are not necessarily intrinsically oppositional forces, or, if you wish, they are not mutually exclusive, either conceptually or practically (4).

To demonstrate this point, a number of prerequisite points must be made: (1) ethical relativism is an untenable position; (2) relativism does not preclude cultural context, but the anthropological position generally has overlooked this fact; (3) a human rights discourse containing universal principles which are culturally meaningful depends on inter- and intracultural dialogues; (4) the topic of women’s human rights in Africa encapsulates many of the contentious issues swirling around international human rights, prominently among them, the relationship between the individual and society.

To explore these claims, I draw primarily upon my recent experience co-editing a volume of essays entitled, “Women’s Rights As Human Rights: Activism and Social Change in Africa” (5). The process of pulling the project together produced significant discussions around the tensions between relativism and universality, and the tendency to confuse universality with moral absolutism–a rigid position which obscures the flexibility which universality can encompass. Because the process by which the editors have come to adopt such a perspective sheds light on the argument itself, this paper outlines the stages through which these perspectives emerged.

The project’s initial goal was to bring together scholars and activists to think about women’s human rights in diverse African situations. The co-editor of the volume, Dr. Naima Hasci, is both a social anthropologist and an international development worker with the World Bank, most recently the United Nations Development Program, and thus brings perspectives from both endeavors. Hasci’s work with Somali refugee women in Kenya provides an especially interesting example of not only the value but the necessity of bringing together universal principles and cultural context so that women’s human rights can be upheld. I begin the inquiry into this process first by examining some of the internal contradictions of ethical relativism.

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Diana J. Fox is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Susan B. Anthony Women’s Center at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, Massachusetts.