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International Affairs, review on "Gender Justice, Development, and Rights", edited by Maxine Molyneux and Shahra Razavi

27 Sep 2004


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  • Title: Book review: Gender Justice, Development, and Rights
  • Author(S): Chris Corrin
  • Date: 2 Jan 2004
  • Publication: International Affairs

In this collection contemporary feminist authors assess shifts in democratic and development agendas, reflecting on the gender content of the new neo-liberal economic and social policy agenda and how it has been contested in various local contexts. These studies examine how contemporary liberalism exists and is resisted in developing and post-transition societies, considering how many positive changes in women’s rights and political representation were not complemented by parallel growth in social justice. With a wide variety of case-studies, authors reflect on the gendered content of the neo-liberal policy agenda and how it is variously contested.

Section one lays out arenas for debate in challenging various forms of liberalism. Nussbaum differentiates between diverse historical strands in the Western tradition, highlighting the ‘negative’ strand of liberalism as protection from state interference. Elson proposes the basic value of neo-liberalism, freedom of contract, is an unsustainable defence of freedom, if subjects lack conditions and resources on which enjoyment of their rights and freedoms depends. Phillips highlights that freedom to choose depends on substantive conditions, at a minimum having the political and civil freedoms to voice objections and educational and employment opportunities that make ‘exit’ a realistic choice. In assessing ‘positive freedom’ with an active role for the state, Nussbaum proposes a theory of liberal feminist justice giving consideration to the preconditions necessary for formal rights to be realized in everyday life. Assessing Nussbaum’s contention regarding a basic minimum ‘threshold’ that all governments should provide, Phillips illustrates how far it moves from a discourse of equality. This can be seen in economic development writings with concerns about issues of poverty rather than inequality, and in social policy work with focus on basic services for the ‘poorest’ rather than universal welfare provision. Free enterprise can flourish, Elson suggests, at the expense of human capabilities: ‘market-based entitlements are thus inherently male-biased and women are penalized because much of their work is non-market work’ (p. 105). Gender budget initiatives at least offer opportunities to capitalize on the gains women have made in civil and political rights to begin to transform the economic policy agenda.

Section two assesses social sector restructuring and social rights. Considering political and social citizenship in Poland, Heinen and Portet examine how the market economy has eroded old social rights that benefited women, especially as mothers. Now, ‘marginalized in the labour market and widely affected by the pauperization of part of the population, they have paid the highest price in the transition’ (p.142). Although current trends remain geared towards marginalizing women into second-class citizenship, women are participating in the mounting criticism regarding growing inequality. That 60 per cent of women and 50 per cent of men believe a feminist movement is necessary shows an advance on former outlooks. As with Poland, Schild shows that in Chile economic and social policy reforms are threatening to undermine gains made and neoliberalism is associated with the demobilization of women’s movements. In India, Subrahmanian highlights that reforms deny any progressive realization of non-discriminatory system of reasonable jobs, public services and broad-based security systems. Female educational deprivation is part of a wider canvas of class and gender relations combining with social hierarchies of case and kinship that produces a daunting challenge for public policy. Critical here is the lack of institutional access of socially disadvantaged groups to formal state institutions including mechanisms for justice.

In section three, analysing women’s movement struggles in Iran to oppose current interpretations of women’s rights, Paidar shows that despite the burgeoning of women’s political, cultural and grass-roots initiatives and the politicization of gender issues, the women’s movement was weakened by internal divisions reflecting those between Islamist and secularist strands. Blondet’s consideration of the diverse women’s groups entering public office in Peru under Fujimori raises questions concerning the colonization and dependence of social organizations. Goetz and Hassim compare the rapid increases in women’s participation in local and national politics and Uganda and South Africa, highlighting differences in how institutional forms facilitate meaningful representation of women’s interests.

Considerations of multiculturalism in practice form the final section with three case-studies assessing the relevance for ‘developing’ countries if debates conducted under differing conditions of liberal democracy. Mohamad examines how identity politics in Malaysia linked with constitutional pluralism from the colonial period became channels to ensure state rule. Although the political transition transformed the situation, allowing discussion of women’s citizenship rights, dangers of co-option for women’s representatives remained. Mohamad shows how reform in women’s rights depends on universal values and on democratic politics. Considering how the Zapatistas tried to reconcile the conflict over women’s rights and customary law (rape, domestic violence, bride abduction), Hernandez Castillo shows that both liberal and customary rights need to be understood, translated and claimed in local contexts. This includes how the concept of culture is negotiated and challenged by Indian women. The locus of struggle in the south is shown to be mainly about politics, not culture. Through analysing female genital cutting and virgin rape in Uganda, Tripp shows that cultural identity does not need to depend on practices harmful to women. Yet, as women’s access to land ownership shows, women’s rights can jeopardize cultural continuity so that preserving culture and granting women’s rights can be incompatible.

This solidly researched collection is a work of mature scholarship that will be widely read by academics, activists and administrators across a variety of fields.

by Chris Corrin, University of Glasgow, UK

This review is posted with the permission of “International Affairs”, (Volume 80, No.1, January 2004)