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The Tragedy of Victimization Rhetoric: Resurrecting the Native Subject in International/Postcolonial Feminist Legal Politics

Posted: 17 Aug 2005 Last revised: 18 Jun 2013

Ratna Kapur

School of Law, Queen Mary University of London

Abstract

In this Article, I examine how the international women's rights movement has reinforced the image of the woman as a victim subject, primarily through its focus on violence against women (VAW). I use the example of India to examine how this subject has been replicated in the post-colonial context, and the more general implications this kind of move has on women's rights. My main argument is that the focus on the victim subject in the VAW campaign reinforces gender and cultural essentialism in the international women's human rights arena. It also buttresses claims of some "feminist" positions in India that do not produce an emancipatory politics for women. This focus fails to take advantage of the liberating potential of important feminist insights. These insights have challenged the public/private distinction along which human rights has operated, and traditional understandings of power as emanating exclusively from a sovereign state.

In the first Part of this Article, I examine how the victim subject has become the dominant focus of the international women's human rights movement. I examine this move specifically within the context of VAW campaigns and then look at the broader implications it has for women's rights. I argue that the victim subject has reinforced gender essentialism and cultural essentialism. These have been further displaced onto a Third World and "First World" divide. I discuss how this displacement resurrects the "native subject" and justifies imperialist interventions. In the second Part of the Article, I show how the victim subject has been central to feminist legal politics in India and how this focus, in turn, is a symptom of post-coloniality. The victim subject has invited a protectionist response from the state. The focus on the victim subject at a time when the Hindu Right dominates electoral politics in India has reinforced this protectionist response. In the final Part of this Article, I argue in favor of transcending the victim subject and disrupting the cultural and gender essentialism that have come to characterize feminist legal politics. I then discuss the political and emancipatory value of focusing on the peripheral subject and identifying her locations of resistance when addressing women's human rights. Finally, I discuss the importance of engaging with non-state actors and with new sites of power in order to address a broader array of rights and a broader range of arenas that implicate women's human rights.

Keywords: Victimization, cultural essentialism, gender essentialism, trafficking, beauty queens, peripheral subjects, human rights, violence against women, authenticity, nationalism, dowry murders, honour killings, sati, subaltern, women's rights, feminism

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Kapur, Ratna, The Tragedy of Victimization Rhetoric: Resurrecting the Native Subject in International/Postcolonial Feminist Legal Politics. Harvard Human Rights Law Journal, Vol. 15, p. 1, 2002. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=779824

Ratna Kapur (Contact Author)

School of Law, Queen Mary University of London ( email )

Mile End Road
London, E1 4NS
United Kingdom

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