One reason the Gita Sahgal-Amnesty International controversy has been confusing to many people is that the underlying philosophical differences have been expressed in the technical language of human rights. These philosophical differences exist in the progressive movement as well as the human rights community, and they go back a long way.
The basic issue is the centrality of feminism to social change. By feminism, I mean not only support for equal treatment of women but also a radical skepticism and a fresh eye on political issues like war, power, economics, labor, nationalism, and the environment. Feminists question any analysis based on the assumption that the experience of men is the rule and the experience of women is an exception to the rule.
We have been developing a different approach for the last forty years, first in our separate countries and, more recently, globally. Our thinking by now has attained considerable sophistication. We see that issues involving gender underlie every other political question. We know, for instance, that nation states constructed on the basis of male identity will tend to assume that war is a natural and inevitable means of resolving differences, and that this assumption will not change until large numbers of women can represent a different point of view at the negotiating table.
We also know that a vision of human rights issues based on what happens to men will not cover a lot of what happens to women. In wartime, at work, and when we try to express our views, women are subject to extra forms of assault and humiliation; we remain responsible for complex family obligations, and meet barriers to free expression not faced by men.
It is therefore necessary to integrate the experience and needs of women into the analysis of every other social and political question. Strategies for social reform and transformation must begin with such excluded forms of knowledge.
Many progressive people and human rights activists have not grasped this radically new vision of our common struggle for social justice. They still see women’s interests as sectoral—in US terms, they see women as one stripe in a rainbow made up of different interest groups: African-Americans, Latino/as, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, queers, workers, farmers, prisoners, immigrants, etc. In addition, they often see the world in terms of one monolithic enemy—US imperialism—that crushes little people everywhere. Their strategy is to unite all the rainbow stripes against the main enemy.
To feminists, this worldview seems simplistic. For one thing, the stripes in the rainbow are very different and have different structural relationships to one another. For another, the little people have more than one enemy. US imperialism is responsible for a lot of what is wrong with the world but not everything. And some of the people who oppose it are unacceptably authoritarian and regressive themselves.
In the nineties, when the global women’s movement grew in influence, our way of thinking had an impact on other civil society movements, and major human rights organizations like Amnesty International added gender sections. But, like the women’s committees of the old socialist and communist parties, these cannot always make their voices heard.
Amnesty is a very big organization, with 2.2 million members and a professional staff of 500 people, each representing different programs and points of view, each trying to shape the organization’s priorities. Activists who see US imperialism as an enemy so great it dwarfs all other considerations prefer to see people whom the US has violated as pure victims. At the moment, they do not seem not be open to questions about a close alliance with Cageprisoners, even though Cageprisoners clearly supports a form of politicized Islam that is extremely regressive in terms of other people’s rights. Rather than rethinking the issues, Amnesty seems to have decided to circle the wagons and give legalistic answers—“nothing has been proven; this is guilt by association; we have to defend all prisoners”—that sort of thing.
But, though they do not say so, this position must stem from a worldview that has never grasped the depth of the feminist analysis but sees women as one interest group among many. If women are just another interest group, why should our views matter in relation to prisoners who were tortured by US imperialism?
But women are not just another interest group. We are half of the world’s population and our issues arise within every other question and sector. For the last twenty years, feminists have stressed the dangers of fundamentalism because we have experienced these dangers more sharply than many of our brothers in the Western human rights movement. We have also experienced the sufferings caused by imperialism; the global feminist movement has been extremely critical of both globalization and the so-called war on terror. But we see that the world is a complex place and freedom has more than one enemy.
The struggle between the two philosophies outlined here is going to be a long one, for cultural assumptions about the comparative value of men and women are very slow to change. All the more reason to bring out the underlying differences—for if minds are not clear, practice is bound to be muddy.
Note: This blog has now been translated into French. You can find it at