Both cultural critics and feminists argue, convincingly, that the model of a rights-bearer inherent in the contemporary international human rights regime is based on the experiences of Western men. Agreement collapses, however, when the implications of this common position are explored. Liberal feminists wish to see the rights of men extended to women, while radical feminists wish to promote a new model of what it is to be human that privileges neither men nor women. Most cultural critics, on the other hand, wish to preserve inherited status and power differences based on gender. The contradictions here are sharpest when it comes to relations between the world of Islam and the human rights regime, largely because relations between Islam and the West are so fraught on other grounds that all differences are magnified. Radical or traditional Islamists argue for conventional gender roles, support quite severe restrictions on the freedom of women, and promote the compulsory wearing of restrictive clothing such as the niqab or the burqa. Many of these petty restrictions have no basis in the Koran or the Sayings of the Prophet, and can simply be understood as methods of preserving male dominance— although, it should be said that they are often accepted by Muslim women as ways of asserting their identity. More serious for the human rights regime are those verses of the Koran that unambiguously deny gender equality. It is often, and truly, said that the Koran’s attitude to the status of women was in advance of much contemporary seventh-century CE thought—including Christian and Jewish thought of the age—but it remains the case that, for example, in a shariah court the evidence of a woman is worth less than that of a man, and sexual intercourse outside marriage is punishable for a woman even in the case of rape. The other Abrahamic religions continue to preserve misogynist vestiges, but mainstream Christian and Jewish theologians have re-interpreted those aspects of their traditions that radically disadvantage women. Given the importance attached to the literal text of the Koran, this will prove more difficult for Muslims. The role of women under Islam will be a continuing problem for the international human rights regime as it attempts to divest itself of its Western Judaeo-Christian heritage and adopt a more inclusive framework, as well, of course, as being an even bigger problem for those women who live in oppressive Muslim regimes.

This philosophical point took on a political form in the 1990s. In the immediate post-cold war world, and especially after the election of US President Bill Clinton in 1992, there was some talk of the USA adopting active policies of democracy promotion, and a number of East Asian governments and intellectuals asserted in response the notion that there were specifically ‘Asian values’ that required defending from this development. The argument was that human rights boil down to no more that a set of particular social choices which need not to be considered binding by those whose values (and hence social choices) are differently formed, for example, by Islam or Confucianism rather than by an increasingly secularized Christianity. The wording of the Vienna Declaration on Human Rights of 1993, which refers to the need to bear in mind ‘the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds’ when considering human rights, partially reflects this viewpoint—and has been criticized for this by some human rights activists.

Returning to the history of rights, it is here that the distinction between rights grounded in natural law and rights grounded in a contract becomes crucial. As was noted above, it is only if rights are grounded in some account of human flourishing and reason that they are genuinely universal in scope. But is this position, as its adherents insist, free of cultural bias, a set of ideas that all rational beings must accept? It seems not, at least in so far as many apparently rational Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists, Utilitarians, and so on clearly do not accept its doctrines! It seems that either the standards derived from natural law, or some similar doctrine, are cast in such general terms that virtually any continuing social system will exemplify them, or, if cast more specifically, the standards described are not in fact universally desired.

Of course, we are under no obligation to accept all critiques of universalism at face value. Human rights may have first emerged in the West, but this does not in itself make rights thinking ‘Western’. It may be that an apparently principled rejection of universalism is, in fact, no more than a rationalization of tyranny. How do we know that the inhabitants of Saudi Arabia, say, actually prefer not to live in a democratic system with Western liberal rights, as their government asserts? There is an obvious dilemma here: if we insist that we will only accept democratically validated regimes, we will be imposing an alien test of legitimacy on these societies—yet what other form of validation is available?

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