One of the interesting things about the feminist movement (taken broadly of course, obviously everything I’m about to say here will be something of a generalization) is the way in which it has linked its program of gender equality to the Western liberal tradition of human rights. If all human beings have innate rights, then, clearly they should be not inhibited by anyone. Thus there should be no societal discrimination between men and women as both are persons and therefore entitled to the same rights.
This alliance between advocates of gender equality and the Western liberal tradition is a curious one if we stop and consider the genealogy of the language of human rights. The notion of human rights is irreducibly located in the enlightenment notion of a person, which Vinoth Ramachandra helpfully defines as “an independent, solitary will, lodged in an unsatisfactory body not of its choosing and entering into voluntary, contractual relations with other wills based on mutual benefit.” It is this autonomous subject that the Western liberal tradition puts forth as the bearer of human rights. However, it is important to note that “This rational, independent, self-legislating will is always identified with the male, while the fickle passions associated with the body with the female.”
The phrase “all men are created equal” is not empty sloganeering! The subject of human rights discourse in the Western liberal tradition is precisely the male subject defined over against the female. Rousseau, who by the way was dependent on the patronage of a rich woman, claimed that “Woman is made to submit to man and even to endure injustice at his hands.” In his book, Emile (on education), he argued that “girls should early be accustomed to restraint, because all their life long they will have to submit to the most enduring restraints, those of propriety. . . . They have, or ought to have, little freedom. . . . As a woman’s conduct is controlled by public opinion, so is her religion ruled by authority. . . . Unable to judge for themselves, they should accept the judgment of father and husband as that of the church.”
Ramachandra rightly notes the radical disparity between this language, coming from the mouth of an enlightenment philosopher and that of the villainous chauvinist, the Apostle Paul. For Rousseau a woman’s “dignity depends on remaining unknown; her glory lies in her husband’s esteem, her greatest pleasure in the happiness of her family.” For Paul, however, “the husband does not have authority of his own body, but his wife does” (1 Cor 7:4). It is quite ironic how much disparity can be found between the much-tauted religious bigotry and patriarchy of the Apostle Paul and the liberal discourse of human rights issuing from the enlightenment. No statements comparable to Paul’s about the wife’s authority over the body of her husband can be found anywhere else in the history of literature. Whatever other ambiguities there may be in our attempts to interpret Paul’s writings on men and women, this is surely a pretty significant point, especially when contrasted with the blatant sexism of Rousseau, to whom the whole discourse of human rights is indebted.
The point of all this is that, ironically enough, the views of women encoded into the enlightenment’s discourse of human rights have more in common with the Taliban than with any alleged Pauline chauvinism. The quest for “equal rights” is quite misguided if we allow the Western liberal tradition to continue to define the content and language of human rights. What we cannot have and do not need and should not want are “human rights” that cast us all in the role of the autonomous self-determining monad. The Western liberal tradition of human rights cannot eventuate gender equality, let alone reconciliation because encoded into its very fabric is an understanding (and practice!) of personhood that is violent, exploitative, selfish, and nihilistic. Thus, the only way for there to be any genuine liberation, equality, and communion between human beings is for all of us to reject the demonic fabrication that masquerades under the title of “human rights.”