Arab Women in Revolution: Reports from the Ground

Part: 6

Human Rights Groups Blur Issues of Women Rights

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Women's rights groups are criticizing Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, for neglecting women's rights violations in an apparent rush to defend political Islam.

Page 2 of 2

Group Response

This debate has a long history. The modern human rights movement began during the Cold War with a focus on political and civil rights violations committed by states.

During the 1990s, women's rights activists all over the world--including Americans like Rhonda Copelon and Charlotte Bunch--fought to transform this focus and build a movement. They battled to give equal weight to economic, social and sexual rights and to target violence against women and crimes committed by "non-state actors"-- militias, paramilitary groups, religious fundamentalists, even fathers, brothers and husbands.

At the 1994 Vienna Conference on Human Rights, activists rallied a groundswell of support for the idea that women's rights are human rights.

In response, powerful organizations such Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch set up gender units.

But that does not mean that everyone in these organizations fully grasped the new analysis.

Refocusing on State Abuse

When 9/11 came along, some fell back into focusing on state abuses. During the Cold War, the normative human rights subject had been an Eastern European writer in prison; now it became an accused jihadi in Guantanamo. Inevitably, people defending accused jihadis tend to see them simply as victims and do not look hard at fundamentalist ideas and practices for fear of complicating the issue.

Even before 9/11, there were human rights scandals involving terror, Islamic fundamentalism and gender.

During the Algerian civil war, both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch vigorously defended the rights of Islamists attacked by the state, but paid comparatively little attention to the rights of women, intellectuals, and civilians who were terrorized, raped and killed by these same Islamists. And a major scandal erupted in Amnesty International in February, 2010, when Gita Sahgal, head of their gender unit, was suspended after she publicly expressed concern about the group's close alliance with Cageprisoners, an advocacy group for pro-jihadi prisoners.

For a number of women's rights activists, Sahgal's suspension was the last straw, showing the extent to which universality--the idea that everyone's human rights are equally important--had been eroded by treating jihadis as campaigning partners. The affair was a media disaster for Amnesty; a global support petition for Sahgal drew 1,500 signatures; and a year later, a group of women's human rights defenders formed a new think tank, the Centre for Secular Space, headed by Sahgal. Its goals are to fight fundamentalism, strengthen secular voices, and promote universality in human rights.

The Centre for Secular Space, based in London and New York, was just one of many organizations involved in drafting the Open Letter, including groups based in Bangladesh, Canada, France, Italy, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Senegal, Serbia, and the U.K.

Like the campaign to support Sahgal, the Open Letter to Kenneth Roth has broken the unspoken taboo against public criticism of human rights organizations by people who have been their partners. As such, it is bound to be controversial. But women cannot defend universality without challenging taboos.


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Meredith Tax has been a writer and political activist since the late 1960s. An historian, novelist, and essayist, she was a member of Bread and Roses in Boston and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union; founding co-chair of the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse (CARASA); founding chair of the International PEN Women Writers Committee; and President of Women's WORLD, a global free speech network of feminist writers. She is currently U.S. director of the Centre for Secular Space. She blogs at

For more information:

Open Letter to Kenneth Roth:

Petition to Support Separation Between Religion and State:

Kenneth Roth's essay, "Time to Abandon Autocrats and Embrace Rights":

Impact of "war on terror" on women's rights:

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Media Stories

Embattled Gender Analyst Leaves Post at Amnesty

Mr. Roth's dismissal of women's rights violations in Tunisia is regrettable, but it is symptomatic of a greater problem. Around the world, women's rights are seen as an appendage to human rights--not one of their central elements. This is why Human Rights Watch, an organization that claims to "expose human rights violations and hold abusers accountable," can overlook women in effort to consider the "bigger picture."

I do not suggest that HRW does not take the violation of women's rights into consideration when evaluating states. On the contrary, HRW brings to light many women's issues around the world, such as sexual violence, reproductive freedom, and sex trafficking. However, Mr. Roth's essay shows that violating the rights of women does not disqualify a state from the organization's good graces. In times of rapid change (especially in Arab Spring nations, where relationships to western norms have yet to crystalize), HRW is prone to issue a "pass" on women's rights. This would not happen if HRW truly believed, as Hillary Clinton once said, that "women's rights are human rights and human rights are women's rights."

Excellent article by Ms. Tax! The Islamists in many parts of the world are becoming emboldened by such support as that by Mr. Roth. I hope women, including at the Centre for Secular Space, can be more effective than women have been with Amnesty International in such situations.


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