Adopting a cultural relativist position on the suitability of a Western normative rights framework when applied to global contexts, it can be argued that the diversity in how gender roles are defined and women’s rights are recognised throughout the globe exemplifies the difficulty in asserting the universality of human rights norms. Moreover, owing to a lack of enforceability of international human rights law, the practical struggle against gendered violations is largely taken up by domestic and transnational feminist movements operating throughout the global North and South.
When second wave feminism gained traction in the global North during late 1960s and early 1970s, its prime areas of focus included confronting the structural imbalance and gender division of labour in the workplace and at home, advocating for equal pay and reproductive rights (Krolokke and Sorensen, 2006: 7-8). In the North American context feminist activists found themselves operating alongside civil rights, gay and lesbian, and anti-war movements, however, white feminists prominent in this era were criticised by women of colour for showing a lack of understanding of the complexities when speaking out on behalf of their oppression (Herr, 2014: 4). Emerging from the embers of the second wave in the 1980s, a rejuvenated feminist movement, its proponents mindful of the earlier backlash, sought to build upon the achievements of the second wave, but incorporate a more nuanced outlook to diversity. Third wave feminism emerged in the context of globalisation which forced feminists to question their own privilege and agency, and to delve variously into areas such as postcolonialism, intersectionality and queer theory (Krolokke and Sorensen, 2006: 19)
In 1992, Rebecca Walker, American writer/activist and founder of the Third Wave Direct Action Corporation, wrote an article in response to the high-profile contemporaneous Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill Senate hearings, in which she spoke out against structural sexism, proclaiming that, ‘To be a feminist is to integrate an ideology of equality and female empowerment into every fiber of my life’ (Walker, 1992). A prime example of third wave feminist activism surrounds the reclamation of women’s bodies and physical appearance from patriarchal societal norms and as a response to a lack of state protection and acknowledgement of sexual abuses and domestic violence (Nguyen, 2012: 178). The movement is characterised by an embrace of women’s individuality and diversity (Dunn, 2014: 322), but arguably the most difficult challenge for third wave feminism, existing amidst ‘unprecedented interrelation between the local and the global, between the West and “the rest’’’ (Woodhull, 2007: 165), has been to define whether Western feminist narratives can hold relevance outside of a white first-world setting.
From its onset the third wave cause in the US was taken up with particular gusto by young women involved in the Riot Grrrl punk rock and activist movement (Hanna and Klein, 1993) which sought, in particular, to empower the victims of gender-specific violations by focusing ‘more on the individual and the emotional than on marches, legislation, and public policy’ (Rosenberg and Garofalo, 1998: 810). Adopting a stance that was ‘anti-all-kinds-of-oppression’ (Rundle, 2005) in a political environment where declaring oneself as a feminist had become unpopular and sometimes dangerous (Marcus, 2010), Riot Grrrl communities confronted misogyny and taboo issues from deep within the private sphere to elevate everyday experiences into the activist realm (Dunn, 2014: 322). This was mostly facilitated at women-only gatherings where members were encouraged to discuss their experiences and express themselves through visual art, writing or music to ‘drive sex-positive first-person feminist expression into the grassroots of everywhere’ (Davis, 2013). Epitomised creatively by the US bands Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy, as well as UK counterpart Huggy Bear (Marcus, 2010), Riot Grrrls tethered their performative activism ‘to assertions of their own desires and pleasures as well as to grassroots political movements against racism and class exploitation’ (Woodhull, 2007: 157).
Still, the limitations of Riot Grrrl as a feminist movement remained its lack of engagement with queer communities (Davis, 2013) along with the fact that most of those involved were white women for whom discussing difference did not come easily (Marcus, 2010: 121) Indeed, Riot Grrrl meetings reportedly became sites of intense debate regarding by and for whom this strand of third wave feminism was being activated, with white members sometimes uncomfortably reminded of their narrow perspective on the priorities and motivations of women from alternate contexts (Hanna and Klein, 1993: 6). In a broader sense, this marks an intersection where third wave feminist activists and women’s rights advocates generally, face a challenge to overcome what cultural relativists might view as a singular, racialised narrative of women’s rights claims (Barker and Puar, 2004: 609) Taken to its full extent, a feminist focus relying on a particular set of Western norms can be perceived as a form of cultural imperialism when removed from its origins (Ayubi, 2011). On the other hand, an unexpected clash of divergent feminisms or approaches offers the potential for cross-cultural understanding which can breathe new life into women’s rights advocacy (Valassopoulos, 2007: 210).
It is evident that despite its roots in North America, the Riot Grrrl movement, has had broader resonance (Davis, 2013; Dunn, 2014: 325). This has been most apparent in the activities of Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist music and performance group which has taken a defiant stance against the state and church authorities in their homeland. Following their much-publicised incarceration, the core members of Pussy Riot moved on to campaigning for better conditions in Russian jails; thus extending the struggle for women’s rights into the broader human rights domain (Gentlemen, 2014). Meanwhile, further evidence of third wave feminism’s relationship to globalisation relates to a controversial punk movement in Aceh, Indonesia, which also took cues from the self-empowerment and DIY aesthetic espoused by Riot Grrrl (Dunn, 2014: 324). However, despite representing ‘one of the most potent expressions of third wave feminism’ (Woodhull, 2007: 158), Riot Grrrl’s own political focus remained contained with the context of the global North.
During the past 25 years, third wave feminism has directed its challenge towards the social constraints of patriarchy on women’s liberty, emphasising female empowerment and outspokenness on structural violence. Its achievements and energy may well have positively inspired women’s rights activists living in the global South, but the movement remains inextricably linked to the development of women’s rights as human rights in a Western liberal context. The question of whether women’s rights should ideally be mainstreamed within broader civil and political rights or upheld as a separate set of gender-based standards remains problematic. Mainstreaming has arguably assisted women’s rights advocates, supported by international human rights law and institutions, to be effective in raising awareness of a basic level of standards for states to protect. However, the limitations of the international human rights framework to maintain relevance in diverse contexts represents a microcosm of the cultural relativity of human rights in general.
*Edited extract from an essay I wrote for Human Rights, Peace and Justice course, University of Sydney, October 2014. A longer version appears here: https://davidhullwriting.wordpress.com/2016/01/25/womens-rights-as-human-rights-what-price-cultural-relativity/