When Rights Go Wrong: Culture Versus Women's Rights
In 2013, several Paris suburbs erupted in violence in response to abusive police and vigilante enforcement of the French "burqa ban." The ban, passed in 2010, prohibits the covering of the face in public and targets Muslim women's face veils. French politicians from across the political spectrum and many French feminists support the ban. Among their justifications for the law is the belief that Muslim men force Muslim women to wear the veils, and that the government must protect women's rights. In contrast, most international human rights organizations and many Muslim women oppose the ban. They argue that Muslim women have the right to choose to wear the face veil and the right to express their cultural identity and religious beliefs in public.
Over recent decades, policy debates about issues like the burqa ban have multiplied. Indeed, Muslim women's dress is just one issue among many—including female genital cutting, polygyny, and dowry—generating widespread controversy. As a result, pundits, politicians and scholars have asked: what should liberal democracies do about non-liberal cultural practices that conflict with women's rights?
When Rights Go Wrongturns this question on its head. The book argues that the question facing liberal democracies is not how to resolve conflicts between culture and women's rights, but how to ensure that women members of minority groups exercise sufficient power to shape public policy that is about them. This argument emerges from the finding that these women frequently envision a mutually reinforcing relationship between their culture and women's rights. That relationship dissolves conflicts between the two, but fails to gain political traction when it clashes with the interests of politicians pandering to powerful voting blocs. Instead, politicians invent other relationships between culture and women's rights, including conflict, to justify policies that advance the interests of the most advantaged. When Rights Go Wrong analyzes three different cases to make this argument: Muslim women who wear the face veil in France, the expulsion of native women from the tribe for marrying non-native men in Canada, and polygyny in South Africa. In each of these cases, political actors such as majority politicians, minority cultural leaders and feminists, told competing stories about the relationship between multiculturalism and women's rights. Some offered a narrative in which no relationship between the two sets of rights existed, others described non-liberal cultural practices as being in conflict with women's rights, and still others characterized non-liberal cultures and women's rights as mutually reinforcing.
By reclaiming their culture, many minority women's organizations constructed a mutually reinforcing relationship between their culture and women's rights . For example, the Native Women’s Association of Canada demanded that the government recognize aboriginal sovereignty and also reinstate the tribal membership of women expelled for marrying non-native men. The Native Women's Association linked aboriginal rights to women's rights by chronicling the gender relations of native peoples. They argued that women's expulsion was rooted in patriarchal colonial norms that violated indigenous matrilineal traditions. The Native Women's Association thus reasoned that ending colonial rule necessitated native women's return home.
Minority women's vision of a mutually reinforcing relationship between culture and women's rights did not carry the day in any of these cases. Instead, politicians devised and promoted a relationship between the two that best served their electoral agenda. In France, mainstream politicians seeking to capture right-wing votes argued that Muslim women's face veils threatened liberty, fraternity, and women's equality. As a result of the 2010 ban, Muslim women who wore face veils reported feeling like prisoners in their own home. In Canada, cabinet ministers aiming to avoid expenditures to resettle native women on underserviced, overpopulated reservations argued that the government could not intervene in tribal disputes given its commitment to multiculturalism. When native women won the right to return home in 1985, the executive branch denied them the necessary funding to do so. In both of these cases, elite politicians insisted a conflict between non-liberal cultures and women's rights existed to advance their preferred policy outcomes. In South Africa, leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) constructed two relationships between multiculturalism and women's rights; mutually reinforcing and independent. Their goal was to win the approval of chiefs who could deliver millions of votes while also maintaining their status as champions of women’s rights. ANC policy elites thus blamed European rule for the failure of customary law to protect women's rights. They argued that as Europeans had declared polygyny morally repugnant, the new South Africa must legalize it. They also argued that because Europeans had codified customary law, it contained sexist practices and must be reformed. As a result, in 1998 black women living under customary law won modest legal gains but failed in their bid to end polygyny. These findings contradict mainstream beliefs that liberal democracies face hard choices between culture and women’s rights. Instead, When Rights Go Wrong reveals that conflicts between culture and women's rights are manufactured by political actors, and that conflicts are only one of several possible relationships that political actors create. If liberal democracies wish to avoid these conflicts, they could endorse the mutually reinforcing relationship championed by many minority women. This is unlikely to occur, however, as politicians have little incentive to promote justice for minority women when it clashes with the interests of the powerful.