Rights for women are controversial; over time they have been alternatively advocated and condemned by scholars and activists concerned with improving the status of women around the globe. The panel speaks to this controversial context, addressing the following questions: What are women's rights and how do they operate? Do women's rights operate to support women, or can they further contribute to their oppression? How are rights for women elaborated in different cultural contexts, and are there problems involved in doing so? In what real ways and in what real areas are rights claimed for women, and what are the gains and losses associated with such claims?
The first speaker was Janet Wesselius, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Alberta, who gave an overview of the framework for women's rights. A typical misunderstanding in rights talk has been that women's rights aren't needed specifically, because they should be covered under “human rights,” since we are all human. She noted that while there is a lot that makes sense in that way of thinking, nevertheless women need the ability to freely participate in and shape culture as women, and often that option is not open to them without directly making it an option. She thus also challenged the notion that human rights are universal and ahistorical, saying that women (and men) are not ahistorical, so why should human rights be ahistorical? She brought up the Nature/Norm debate and noted that, while we often talk about rights as though they are natural, there is a definite normative component to them. So do we impose our norms on others? Or should we tolerate/be indifferent? But this is a false dichotomy, she explained. She noted that the category of “women” makes the “story” of human rights problematic because social imaginaries, which are always plural, are both real and true—they have real impact on people in society. In addition, those imaginaries both constrain us and give us possibilities. Do women have specific rights, then? There are conflicting social imaginaries: some will say yes, while others say no. Additionally, some imaginaries violate other imaginaries' social or cultural norms. Therefore, one of the issues is that these social imaginaries (all of them) can be, and sometimes need to be re-interpreted.
The question was raised, how do you begin, in a context where human rights are not “possible,” to effect change? Wesselius responded by turning again to the social imaginaries and to “re-interpreting the stories/narrative that support them.” It is only through such a re-interpretation that we can begin to effect real change, and it takes time.
Minoo Derayeh, Associate Professor of Equity Studies at York University, spoke next on the topic of Islam and women. She noted that, when it comes to women's rights, both cultural relativism and anti-orientalism need to be critiqued. On the topic of Islam and women specifically, she mentioned that 83 verses in the Qur’an disadvantage women. In order to really move forward with women's rights, these verses have to be re-interpreted, and the Hadith (tradition) as well as Sharia law must also be re-examined. She noted the issue of polygamy, where only men are allowed multiple partners, while women are not afforded a similar choice. She also brought up problems with inequities in divorce in Sharia law, and disparities about the age of maturity when it comes to women and men: the age of maturity for a female is 9 (lunar years), while the age for males is 14. Thus often a girl is said to be “mature” for marriage, etc. even before her first menstruation. She also said that under Sharia law women cannot testify in cases of rape—that in fact they will be lashed for doing so. Instead the testimony of four men is required. She concluded that Sharia law is not compatible with Canadian law.
Johanna Birenbaum, Legal Director of LEAF (Women's Legal Education and Action Fund), was the third and final panelist to speak. She spoke on the importance of gendering rights claims. She challenged the notion that the way law is presented is neutral. Instead she asked the question, “How does the law affect different people?” LEAF believes that fighting for the rights of women is about fighting for the inclusion of women in social services; gendered context surrounding services and life in general is hugely important! She brought up the recent case where a woman wearing a niqab was told that she had to take it off in order to testify in the case of sexual assault she had brought in a Canadian court. She fought that decision, arguing it was her right as part of freedom of religion to keep the niqab on. So a tension became evident between what she was claiming as part of her religious freedom and what the defendants claimed as their right to a fair trial (since they claimed they would not have a fair trail if they could not see her face during her testimony). Birenbaum noted that this must be looked at in terms of gender, however, asking whether this was just an attempt by the defendants to humiliate and bully the woman bringing the charge of sexual abuse. Questions like these make context so important. Birenbaum repeated Wesselius's earlier point about how we (both women and men) are not ahistorical, and so treating rights claims as though they exist in an ahistorical or universal context can be highly problematic.
There was no time for questions, but the presenters stayed and spoke with several people after the panel was done.