MINKY WORDEN (ed.) The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights. Reviewed by Sophie Read-Hamilton
Whether you agree with Greer or not, The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights makes it abundantly clear that the revolution is nowhere near finished. This book is an impressive and readable collection of essays detailing the tremendous progress made over the past two decades towards recognising women’s rights as human rights.
The collection, edited by Minky Worden, director of global initiatives for Human Rights Watch, documents the history, achievements and challenges still facing the global struggle for women’s human rights. It includes contributions by luminaries of the international human rights movement such as Charlotte Bunch, Gracha Michel and Mary Robinson, Nobel laureates including Tawakkyl Karmen and Jody Williams, and perhaps most powerful of all, frontline activists like Shirin Ebadi and Hawa Abdi who share their experiences, sometimes life-threatening, at the coalface of the struggle.
This book brings together perspectives and experiences of human rights researchers and activists on a wide range of contemporary human rights issues facing women around the globe, detailing violations and abuses of women and girls in the context of political revolutions and transitions, armed conflict, and in so-called developing and developed countries. Describing how women’s rights are violated across political, economic and social spheres across the globe, The Unfinished Revolution covers rights violations perpetrated against women in the family, community and by the state, including denial of property, education and labour rights, health and reproductive rights, and violence against women in its many forms.
The thesis of the book is bittersweet. Whilst significant and remarkable gains have been made at international and national levels in the past two decades in building awareness, instituting legal protections and taking action to promote women’s full enjoyment of their human rights, the status, well-being and health of women and girls in much of the world remains dismal. In fact as one author puts it, ‘being female can be life threatening and often constitutes not only inhuman and degrading treatment but also torture, terrorism and slavery’.
The book begins with an introduction to women’s rights as human rights, and the way in which the feminist agenda of ending women’s oppression has been mainstreamed into the human rights movement, a movement that until only two decades ago was ostensibly unresponsive to the needs and issues of half the population. As explained by Charlotte Bunch in her chapter, gendering the human rights movement challenged the notion that violations of women’s rights are somehow inevitable, and established that women are equally entitled to human rights, with the state bearing primary responsibility for securing these rights. However, as demonstrated throughout this book, states have not always willingly taken up these responsibilities.
The commitment of states to furthering the women’s rights agenda in the Middle East and North Africa, in the context of political revolutions and transitions, is shown in The Unfinished Revolution to be shaky at best. For example, in her chapter about Iraq, Samer Muscati points out that women in that country enjoyed greater protection of their freedom and rights under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, a fact which stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric around freedom and democracy propagated by the architects of the downfall of that dictatorship.
The argument, highlighted in this book, that women’s rights are a negotiable variable in the murky worlds of politics and religion is not a new idea, but one that reinforces the feminist standpoint that so long as women are excluded from political processes and systems, or allowed to participate on limited (men’s) terms, they will continue to be second-class citizens, their needs and rights subjugated to those of men.
The challenges facing women’s rights in the context of religious fundamentalism, militarism, cultural and repressive regimes are recurrent themes throughout The Unfinished Revolution. The book does a thorough job of unpacking a number of contested issues related to the intersection of human rights with gender, culture and religion, including challenging the argument that women’s human rights are a Western feminist construct. Contributors also address cultural relativism as a justification for harmful practices such as the marriage of young girls and female genital mutilation. In the chapter dedicated to religious dress and women’s rights, Judith Sunderland discusses how forcing Muslim women to wear a face veil, or forcing them not to, both undermine women’s autonomy and self-determination.
The depressing realities of life and death for women and girls around the world are depicted through explorations that include the impact of armed conflict, human trafficking, maternal mortality and other reproductive health issues and harmful practices such as early marriage and female genital mutilation. Although one section of the book is dedicated to the subject of violence against women, including an examination of the treatment of sexual assault victims in the criminal justice system in the US, and responses to domestic violence in Europe, the distressing pervasiveness of violence in the lives of women and girls globally is evident in almost every chapter of The Unfinished Revolution.
This book describes the huge strides made in putting women’s rights on the international political agenda and in developing human rights standards and mechanisms to promote women’s empowerment, however it also highlights the systematic human rights violations experienced by women and girls through trafficking, sexual violence and slavery-like domestic servitude. It draws attention to how achievements at the global level have done little to promote the safety, security and dignity of many women and girls around the world.
In examining the limitations of international and national legal systems in protecting even basic human rights for women and the shortcomings of the international community in acting when the state is unable or unwilling to protect its citizens, contributors to The Unfinished Revolution demonstrate that ending discrimination requires not only concerted efforts by governments and civil society, but that supporting women’s movements and campaigners at the coalface of the struggle, whether in war-torn eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, across the Middle East and North Africa, or fighting globally for domestic workers’ rights, is absolutely essential.
Some readers of this book may be surprised that while it does an admirable and comprehensive job of overviewing the achievements of the human rights movement in promoting and protecting women’s rights, providing a glimpse into the pervasive discrimination and violence that characterises life for millions of women and girls around the globe, it does not offer any analysis as to why women’s rights are so systematically abused and violated across place, culture and context. Whilst some contributors hint at the need for transformation of oppressive patriarchal social relations as a prerequisite for fulfilling women’s rights and achieving gender equality, discussing the why of women’s oppression may have been incredibly helpful to those who do not have a background in the women’s movement or the politics of gender.
The Unfinished Revolution is an accessible introduction to the issue of human rights from a gendered perspective, and the stories and voices of women and girls who have suffered the most appalling abuses, as well as those who have shown the most amazing courage, are incredibly moving. The book is also a testimony to the human rights organisations, such as Human Rights Watch, researchers and activists who tirelessly bear witness and campaign on behalf of women and girls around the world.
As we witness the erosion of the gains made by the women’s movement in many parts of the world, erosions made by fundamentalism in some places and by complacency in others, this book is essential reading not only for anyone with an interest in human rights, international law, feminism and gender equality, but also for those who have an opinion on the current debate about misogyny in Australian politics, or those who think the women’s movement has achieved its goals and that feminism is passé and no longer relevant in our globalised world.
As The Unfinished Revolution demonstrates, systematic and pernicious violations of women’s and girls’ basic rights continue around the world daily, and in some cases gains made in recent decades risk being undone. There is therefore much left to do to create a world, countries, communities and families in which women are no longer second-class citizens, and The Unfinished Revolution urges each of us to reflect on our role in creating that world.
Minky Worden (ed.) The Unfinished revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights, Spinifex Press, 2012, PB, 410pp, $37.97
Sophie Read-Hamilton has worked for the past two decades on issues relating to violence against women, in Australia and internationally. Since 2000 she has managed programs and provided technical advice to various NGOs and UN agencies, much of the time in Africa.
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