Are Women’s Rights Really Human Rights? Feminist Critiques of Human Rights

Feminist critiques of human rights tend to present two main arguments. First, human rights discourses’ reinforcement of the private vs. public sphere. Secondly, that the precarious nature of an emphasis on the “right to culture” is a tool of repression for women.  Additionally, Third World Feminists emphasize that the focus on the “universality” of women’s rights homogenizes the experiences of women who are unable to identify with mainstream feminist rhetoric.  These women must situate their own experiences within the context of other rights they lack due to their race, ethnicity, social class/caste or identity within indigenous communities.  This essay will present the feminist views of the private vs. public sphere debate, critiques related to an emphasis on cultural rights, and criticisms presented regarding the universalizing of women’s experiences.

Patriarchy is a gender arrangement that is characterized by men’s domination of women in all or most aspects of society.  It emphasizes the essentialist nature of gender and gender roles.  It is built upon the idea that roles for men and women are fundamentally set and clear.  In most societies maleness is the norm and femaleness becomes the other (Fleay, 2018).  Patriarchy also reinforces gender as a binary, establishing rigid categories that, while evolving, are a cornerstone of most Western cultures.  “Patriarchy is essential to the understanding of gender inequality” (Johnson, 1997)

This is the context in which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Covenants were developed.  Built upon theories of “natural rights” developed during the Enlightenment when rights were extended only to propertied white men, the documents reinforced ideas which existed in 1948 during the development of the declaration and later in 1966 with the two covenants.  Even the women involved in the development of the declaration likely held ideologies that emphasized men’s experiences as central.

Public vs. Private Sphere Debate

The separation of private and public spheres is evident throughout the development of human rights discourse.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights reinforced these spheres with an emphasis on the importance of “family”.  While there is evidence of this throughout the document (for example, “human family” in the preamble), the most pronounced instances appear in Article 12 and 16 (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948).

Article 12 states that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence…. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948).  For most women around the world, the private sphere, including home and family, is the environment where they are the most likely to experience human rights abuses.  The U.N. notes that 1 in 3 women will experience some form of intimate violence and less than 40% of the worlds women have been able to access help or support (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2015).  In “Feminist Analysis of Human Rights Law” Shazia Qureshi recounts Engles’ references to the precarious conditions of women’s lives, and quotes “most feminists view the private sphere as the ‘locus of women’s oppression’” (Qureshi, 2012). (Engle, n.d.).  This “bifurcation” of spheres, makes the private sphere virtually untouchable by the state, providing few remedies for women in their own homes.

Additionally, Article 16 sets forth the central unit of society as “the family”.  It states, “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948).  In addition to the specific view of the family articulated by this Article (that of man and woman, not kinship networks or other alternative family structures), it centralizes the experiences of women in relationship to family.  While other Articles attempt to be “gender neutral” this Article specifically places women’s role within the family and centralizes it.  While it is the only Article that creates a distinct set of rights for women, those rights are within the context of family and marriage.  Binion identifies the fundamental problem with this approach.  She states “A separate spheres approach has relegated women to the home, away from…”public institutions that determine the nature and quality of life in a community…and …subject to the control of patriarchal familial authorities…therefore, beyond the scope of governmental authority and intervention” (Binion, 1995).

Emphasizing “Cultural Rights”

Arguments in the development of human rights have frequently emphasized the “westernization” of rights.  Efforts to draw distinctions between individual rights and collective rights have resulted in continued debate on how to implement rights most effectively.  For women, this is not grounded in their lived experiences.

The emphasizing of “cultural rights” is evident in the bifurcation of civil and political rights from economic, social and cultural rights.  In 1966 the UN National Assembly adopted the dual Covenants of “Civil and Political Rights” and “Economic, Social and Cultural Rights” (The Minnesota Human Rights Resource Center).  While this was an attempt to implement rights schemes and meet the demands of states adverse to the imposition of “Western Liberal Values”, this bifurcation of covenants had its greatest impact on women’s access to rights.   By reinforcing the separation of rights as “cultural” or “political” it served as a legal reframing of the “private” vs. “public” spheres debate. 

While, feminists disagree as to whether this bifurcation of rights advantages or disadvantages women, advocates of “cultural rights” frequently argue limiting state intervention when cultural practices limit women’s power and bodily autonomy.  Binion observes that “feminist scholars have asked why culture appears to be a defense only in regard to gender roles and to the governmental and nongovernmental denials of fundamental rights to women.” (Binion, 1995).

Universalizing Women’s Experiences

“Women’s Rights are Human Rights” has served as a catalyst for a mainstreaming of the experiences of women in relationship to human rights.  Charlotte Bunch notes that it became a “guiding framework” for integrating women’s experiences into human rights discussions, “development and other aspects of the UN operations” (Bunch, 2013).    

In “Feminist praxis and women’s human rights” Laura Parisi lays out the balancing act of feminist contributions to human rights discourse.  She documents the efforts of early western feminists to ensure that the private and public sphere gap was intentionally filled.  They emphasized the political and civil rights of women.  However, she notes that these rights did not address the experiences of women in most parts of the world which included issues of poverty, malnutrition and population, frequently grounded in cultural and economic, not political realms. (Parisi, 2002)

Collins et al express concern about this “mainstreaming approach” to human rights through the articulation of the stories of women who are human rights workers.  They write about the diversity of women’s experiences in relationship to the “framing” of women’s rights.  By providing examples of women whose social location is intersectional, they challenge the notion of a universal women’s experience (Dana Collins, 2010).  Similarly, in “We are Not Victims, We are the Protagonists of this History” Viviana Beatriz Macmanus points out that women’s experiences related to human rights discourse are frequently captioned as “victims”, particularly victims of sexualized violence and familial abuse.  Without denying that these are experiences that impact women around the world, she is concerned that a simple narrative of “sexual assault victim” for women may not contextualize their full experience and ensure their protection in the vast range of human rights abuses they experience, including as political activists.  She identifies a gender normative approach to feminist and human rights scholarship that “reduces women’s histories of resistance to their experiences as passive victims of sexual violence and/or as grieving mothers and partners.” and by doing so reinforces hierarchal structures of women as subordinate and passive (Macmanus, 2015).

A primary feature of feminist critique is its ability to look inward.  While it is a pertinent practice to analyze the existing norms and ideology that disadvantage women outside of feminist circles, it is just as critical to look within for areas of continued growth.  Therefore, feminist critique is not reserved for documents, ideas and cultural traditions developed by men in a patriarchal society but is also used as a tool to view internal biases.

While the conceptualization of human rights provides a mechanism by which we can measure and account for human needs and state responsibility, it is also constructed within social norms.  Those norms advantage certain individuals over others, providing a shaky foundation on which to build the rights of the disadvantaged.  Charlotte Bunch describes the events leading up to Vienna as a method of incorporating women’s experiences that did not attempt an “add and stir” approach (Bunch, 2013).  The question remains, without a new approach that involves women’s diverse experiences, can the documents developed to protect all humans really claim universality? 

Feminist critique has challenged the idea of private and public spheres and emphasized the falsely developed dichotomy.  It has called attention to the problems of viewing “culture” through a monolithic lens and even challenged other feminists notions of the “universality” of women’s experiences.  Through the process of critique, feminists have engaged in a robust discussion that can result in human rights schemes that are not absent the needs of more than half of the human population.


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Bunch, C. (2013). ‘Legacy of Vienna: Feminism and Human Rights’. International Expert Conference on Vienna + 20. Vienna.

Dana Collins, S. F. (2010). ‘New Directions in Feminism and Human Rights’. nternational Feminist Journal of Politics, Vol. 12, No. 3-4, 298- 318.

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Fleay, C. (2018, October). Human Righs and Feminist Critique. Human Rights Theory and Philosophy. Perth, WA, Australia: Curtin University.

Johnson, A. (1997). The Gender Knot: Unraveling our Patriarchal Legacy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Macmanus, V. B. (2015). ‘We are not Victims, we are Protagonists of this History’; Latin American Gender Violence and the Limits of Women’s Rights as Human Rights. International Feminist Journal of Politics Vol. 17, No. 1,, 40–57.

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United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (2015). The World’s Women 2015; Trends and Statistics. New York: United Nations.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (1948, December 10). Paris.