Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Has international law re-imagined feminisms?

(Today IntLawGrrl Sari Kouvo contributes to our series celebrating Feminist Approaches to International Law)
Hilary Charlesworth’s, Christine Chinkin’s and Shelley Wright’s article Feminist Approaches to International Law – and the scholarship and activism that followed in its footpath – literally changed my life.
It shifted my interest in feminism and law from the Swedish and Nordic context to a global context.
It sent me travelling, via Geneva, New York, and Brussels, to Kabul and beyond.
Now re-reading the article, I envy the authors – or I envy the sense of purpose and vision that they managed to portray in the article.
The authors manage to, on the one hand, develop an analysis of international law that embodies feminism’s constant effort towards critical self-reflection and questioning about whether their analysis adequately represents:
► On the one hand, women’s experiences across the north-south divide and,
► On the other hand, feminism’s effort to deconstruct the masculine world of international law and reconstruct it as a tool for change for women.
In my view they manage to avoid some of the traps of feminist analysis, including that of ‘othering’ and victimizing the women whose experiences do not ‘fit’, and that of upping the emancipatory potential of international law just because the needs of change are so big.
I worry that, over the past two decades since the article was published, feminist scholarship and activism in international law have lost their way – or rather, they have lost their heart.
Allowing myself to generalize, I find that feminist scholarship on international law has become too concerned about whether it acknowledges all women’s agency on their own terms; while doing this, scholars have strayed away from the core analysis of dominance and power in international law and politics. This is important, because the 1990s’ ‘gender turn’ did make international law and ‘governance’ a possible career path for women. It moved the language of ‘gender’ and ‘women’s rights’ into the core of international law and politics. Women (feminists or not) and feminist analysis (albeit in a watered-down version) became part of – and tools for – the global enterprises of law, politics, economy and security.
Let me use a discussion from a recent conference at the Australian National University as an example.
One of the speakers at the conference told us about the efforts made in Australia to ensure that women would be allowed to participate in combat operations, including those in what apparently in military lingo was called the ‘sandpit’ (aka, Afghanistan). The speaker explained that after the legal hurdles of this equal rights battle were overcome, the few women who would choose this as their career path would still need to succeed in the physical parts of the training and be part of the bonding rituals of combat forces.
The bonding rituals apparently also included visits to strip bars.
My question to the speaker was:
‘I understand that ensuring that women are allowed to compete for positions in combat operations is an equal rights battle, but is it a feminist battle?’
While recognizing the importance of the equal rights struggle, I wanted to question the logic of promoting the equal rights of very few women to be part of combat forces, while at the same time accepting that this right apparently could only be enjoyed if women accepted largely sexist bonding rituals, and without reflecting on the bigger picture, on the role of national military forces in an era when military interventions seems to be an increasingly accepted tool of international law and politics.
That is, is it feminist to fight equality battles without reflecting on the institutions in which we fight these battles, or on what the results of our struggles are used for?

The Australian example struck me in part because of its link to Afghanistan, because it is an example in which a national equal rights struggle interconnects with a key issue of international law and politics. I have had the opportunity to work in Afghanistan for quite a few years now, and it has fundamentally changed my view on how women’s rights can be promoted and about the role of international law in international politics.
The critical self-reflection and the concern for women’s experience and for how power works, promoted by Charlesworth and her co-authors, as well as by many other feminist scholars of the 1980s and 1990s, has served me well. It has given me the necessary tools to always question my own assumptions, to be attentive to what happens in the margins, and to constantly ask:
‘Where’s the power?’
Over the years, I have many times been appalled by the lack of commitment to international law obligations, on the one hand, and lack of cultural sensitivity in women’s rights (and other) programming, on the other hand. In my most gloomy moments, it feels as if international organizations (both governmental and non-governmental) are actors in a play, with their organizational headquarters and the Western public as their audience. What the reality looks like behind the scene does not seem to matter, as long as the audience is happy. Reality is of course more complex, it always is, but not necessarily better.
Charlesworth, Chinkin and Wright did recognize in their 1991 article that they could not represent all women. And they were not overwhelmingly optimistic about international law’s emancipatory potential. However, the careful vision that they put forth was to suggest that a feminist re-imagination of international law could
‘permit international law’s promise of peaceful coexistence and respect for the dignity of all persons to become a reality’.
Two decades later, some of feminism’s conceptual and analytical frameworks have been integrated into the language of international law, politics and security: Public legitimacy for the US-led military intervention into Afghanistan was sought by emphasizing that this was not only a necessary step in the war against terror, it was also an important step in the liberation of Afghan women. (credit for photo of former U.S. 1st Lady Laura Bush, who made a 2001 public address in this vein)
This leaves me with the nagging feeling that the feminist re-imagination of international law has failed, and that, instead, it is we who have been re-imagined. If this is the case, it is then important that we go back to our toolbox and dig out those important questions about power – about how it looks and how it works – and start asking some difficult questions.

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