International Human Rights Law: Towards Rethinking Sex/Gender Dualism and Asymmetry
Forthcoming in A Research Companion to Feminist Legal Theory, M. Davies and V. Munro (eds.), Ashgate 2013
23 Pages Posted: 21 Nov 2012 Last revised: 10 Jan 2013
Date Written: November 20, 2012
This chapter rethinks the tradition of sex/gender dualism and asymmetry in international human rights law. By charting a genealogy of feminist engagement with this body of law, the issues thrown up by the dualistic and asymmetrical assumptions of feminist advocacy focused on women’s rights are critically examined. It is argued that this approach has become counter-productive because it reinforces the naturalized moorings of sex/gender and supports concomitant conceptions of women (and men) that justify protective and imperial, rather than rights-based, responses to women’s human rights violations. Duality and asymmetry also have exclusionary effects, silencing gendered discrimination and human rights abuses suffered by men and others, whose gender expressions and identities are erased or demonized by gender binaries. Further, despite widespread acceptance that sex/gender is a social rather than biological category, the conflation of gender with women continues to dominate feminist human rights theory and advocacy. Efforts over the last two decades, by feminists and others, to rethink sex/gender in the context of international human rights law are then examined through two developments: the formal adoption of the language of ‘gender’, and the implementation of ‘gender mainstreaming’. This examination shows that reconceiving sex/gender as plural rather than binary, and fluid rather than static, does not mean forsaking feminism’s long-standing commitments. Rather, cognizance of the whole spectrum of harms that flow from gendered hierarchies and power will strengthen the feminist project in law. A framework of gender pluralism provides a better means of troubling the persistent reproduction of protective, victimized and formally equal representations of women, and challenging conservative views about women’s sexuality, homophobia and trans-phobia. Only by treating gender as a fully de-naturalized social category will human rights law realize its potential, if it exists, to operate as a language of emancipation and justice.
Keywords: international law, feminist, women
JEL Classification: K00, K33, K39
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation