2 J. Comp. L. 6 (2007)
Women's Equality and Culture in the Context of Identity Politics

handle is hein.journals/jrnatila2 and id is 271 raw text is: Women's Equality and Culture in the Context of Identity Politics

Women's Equality and Culture in the
Context of Identity Politics
MADHU MEHRA*
INTRODUCTION
The tension between the discourse on cultural rights and women's equality is not a
new one. Women's rights have historically been, and continue to be, mediated through
culture. More notable since the 1990s, however, are two competing global trends that
address identities, cultural differences and women. On the one hand are alliances forged
by women's movements across regional, cultural and developmental divides to assert
women's equality in all contexts; on the other are transnational cultural identity projects
that seek to draw boundaries between communities, within and amongst nations, on
cultural differences alone. Both these trends speak to human rights law: the former to
engender human rights to enhance the realisation of women's rights, and the latter to limit
the application of human rights, particularly in relation to women.
The 1990s have witnessed the most significant incorporation of gender specific
concerns in international human rights law, changes that followed an intense engagement
by women's movements with the human rights system. The recognition of violence
against women as a central human rights concern, acknowledgement of women's rights
as human rights,2 and of gender specific forms of war crimes, genocide and crimes against
humanity,3 are notable examples of such incorporation. These developments resulted from
a commonality of experiences and convergence of struggles by women's movements across
disparate contexts. Accompanying these developments are common patterns of resistance
to women's rights by countries that are otherwise divergent in their cultural and political
systems. At the national level, such patterns are visible in debates on plural legal systems
* Executive Director of Partners for Law in Development, a resource group on women's rights in New Delhi. This
paper is a revised version of study undertaken at the Centre for International Studies, University of Cambridge
during a term's visiting fellowship supported by the DC Pavate Foundation and the University of Karnataka in
2005. Thanks are due to Ann Stewart, beng hui and Urvashi Butalia for their comments on the earlier version of
this paper and to the Pavate Foundation for enabling deeper engagement with issues discussed.
I The UN Declaration on Violence Against Women 1992, and the subsequent appointment of the UN Special
Rapporteur on Violence Against Women. Also, the General Recommendations 19 to CEDAW on gender based
violence, 1992.
2 The World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, 1993, acknowledged for the first time that 'the human
rights of women are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights'.
The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court established in 2002 enumerates gender specific crimes,
such as rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, enforced sterilization, enforced pregnancy, sexual violence
and gender based persecution as forms of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity

6      JCL 2:2

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