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As vague concepts as dignity and integrity
1 Aug 2010
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“I would just say I support the idea that in an ideal world, women as well as men can just be who they want to be and do what they want to do. Because that’s still not possible, there’s something to fight for, which could make me a feminist.”

Fleur van Leeuwen. L.L.M. Dutch-born professor of Human Rights Law at Bogazici University in Istanbul, Turkey. She conducts freelance human rights research with the Havva Human Rights ProjectFormerly worked for the expert center on women and law in the Netherlands, the Clara Wichmann Institute. PhD research at Utrecht University on women’s human rights and the United Nations. Interviewed August 2010.

As vague concepts as dignity and integrity

In law, you have these vague terms, but you have to be able to put real-life cases into concrete words. With women’s human rights, it is in a way even more challenging because the idea of what women's human rights entails is still discussed. What are women’s human rights? What does it mean to be equal? You cannot just study the law or take the law for granted. Often the law is gendered.

My aim in my classes is to make my students think and not just accept the law as it is. I’m not going to say, “Ok, this is what the United Nations says on women’s rights and, therefore, this is what you must know.” No. Is it ok that the United Nations says that? Should they say something else? Who decides what women’s human rights are? I try to make them look more critically at the law. 

You have to ask questions. We don’t know what is best. Should there be a specific focus on women or should they be part of the mainstream? Will that be bad? We don’t know what is best because all we know is the society that we have and almost everywhere women are subordinate to men.

How do we know what a society looks like where everybody is equal and one is not subordinate to the other? Is something like that actually possible? What are we aiming for? What do we want to achieve? How do we decide what is right? We can criticize. Sometimes it’s clear. We can say, “This is not working. This is to the detriment of women.” Sometimes it’s clear.

There are also issues you can question. Take positive discrimination for example. Will it help women forward? Or does it perpetuate women’s subordinate position on the labor market?

More or less what I’ve tried to do is make them see through gendered glasses. It’s very difficult to judge the society and surroundings you grew up and live in. Because you live in this society, this is the society you know, you take the rules for granted. It’s very difficult to stand outside of what you know and criticize that. Yet you see with most of the students that at the end of the course they manage to change their perceptions of things. They manage to see the gender side of certain issues. It’s not just that you suddenly see that some issues might not be right, but it’s looking at the world differently.

I have to admit, I did not start my work for mere idealistic reasons. Primarily I was interested in the field from an academic perspective. I found that the area is still in development; it is still being created and much is still unclear. It deals with such vague concepts as dignity and integrity. What do these mean? It wasn’t so much that I wanted to change the world. I wanted to find out what’s what.

With my research, I’ve looked at what several human rights bodies of the United Nations say in regards to issues that affect women in their enjoyment of human rights and examined their work from 1993 to 2010. You see that they actually cover a vast area of issues. You have domestic violence, you have rape, you have trafficking, you have reproductive issues, like abortions, maternal mortality, contraceptives.

Of course they are a bit reluctant to address abortion. Well, they address it but they mostly address it from the perspective of illegal abortions, so they say, “Oh, there is a really high maternal mortality rate in this country. Oh, you have very restrictive abortion laws. Please make sure there is sexual education. Please make sure there is access to contraceptives.” In some cases, they’ll say, “Please make sure women can have an abortion if her life depends on it.” They don’t say a woman has a general right to an abortion. They don’t say she can decide over her own body or has a right to choose. They’d rather not touch that subject. It’s too sensitive in many societies.

Prostitution is another topic they do not care to address, as well as Western beauty practices. Once eating disorders were mentioned in a human rights document on Norway but that was it. They said, “We are concerned because there are a lot of teenagers who have eating disorders.” The topic was probably brought up by Norway itself. Then, the committee will say something about it. It’s not like they have inquired in every country, “Do you have many eating disorders?” They don’t focus on it. It’s not an issue.

The interesting thing is, these mainstream human rights bodies, who do not focus on women specifically but on human rights in general, don’t look at systemic discrimination of women. They’ll never say, “Huh. Isn’t this remarkable? Such a high number of domestic violence, there must be something underlying it. There must be a perception about women in your culture or in your society.” They address the symptoms, like domestic violence or rape, but they don’t address the root cause.

I don’t think it’s something they do purposefully. They just don’t bring it up because they don’t think of it. Like, why do they now talk so much about domestic violence everywhere? It’s a hot topic. Why? Because prior to the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, the international women’s movement decided, this is an issue we’re going to use to show that our women’s rights are not protected.

First there needs to be an awareness before it becomes a topic that is discussed. This probably also holds true for the many underlying norms and perceptions that trigger violations of women’s rights.

Currently, I’m doing a project on the rights of lesbians, gays, bi- and transsexuals (LGBT). It is another area to conquer in the international human rights arena, and is still in its infant stages. It is a victory for equal rights that with only a very small majority of 23 against 19 the human rights council voted in favor of a resolution on LGBT rights. This is just a beginning. As long as many states do not grant equal rights to lesbians, gays, bi- and transsexuals and some even criminalize their sexual orientation and gender identity, there is a long way to go.

Besides this I am working on a project on violence against women—also very interesting and an area where much remains to be done.   

As far as women’s human rights are concerned, I think the issues at stake also really depend on the country. I couldn’t say there is one issue. What I find distressing is to see all these educated women that decide to stay at home full time to look after their kids, claiming it as their free choice. Can it really be a free choice, when societies, including the Dutch, still put so much pressure on women to be a good mum?

The other day a friend told me that her pediatrician asked her why she went back to work after six months. When she pointed out that she was only going to work for three days a week, the doctor told her this was way too much. It was “bad for the child.” Can you believe it? Sure, this may not be common practice, but the fact is that as a mom you have to live up to very high expectations and have to defend yourself in the smallest of actions.

It is a pity that societies, including the women and the moms themselves, perpetuate gendered stereotypes and expectations. By not working or only working a very limited number of hours a week, they almost always limit their career prospects and become financially dependent on the long term. That is not a healthy situation to be in. It shifts power balances in their disadvantage.

It’s not that I do not understand these women. On the contrary, now that I have kids myself I am very much aware of how I value my time with them. I have the good fortune to be able to gain experience and knowledge at work and at the same time spend a lot of time with my kids. I know this is not possible for everyone and in every profession.

As long as childcare remains the primary responsibility of the woman, nothing much will change. It is an issue that needs to be addressed in many other countries throughout the world.

I would just say I support the idea that in an ideal world, women as well as men can just be who they want to be and do what they want to do. Because that’s still not possible, there’s something to fight for, which could make me a feminist. I do not see the need to label, but I also do not like the fact that feminism is nowadays often considered to be something negative. I don’t mind calling myself a feminist and I do believe in opportunities and fulfillment for everyone despite gender, sexual orientation, or other differentiation ground.

I have a friend who once said that feminism is a feeling. You feel feminist or you don’t and you do not have to explain it. There are way too many different views on feminism to ever justify your stance anyway. I thought this was a beautiful point of view; she is a very smart woman. So I said OK, then, I’m a feminist.

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