Recognition and Rights: The Worth of Women

After the Cold War, in a 1989 article and 1992 book, Francis Fukuyama suggested we might have reached “the end of history,” as liberal democracy had already won the battle of ideas.  Without the conflict of “isms,” the world might be left to the hum-drum task of institutionalizing a democratic order, like a European Union writ large.   These predictions seem outlandish, given an undemocratic China on the rise, radical Islamism as contender against a democratic order, and an E.U. and its common currency starting to splinter.

Yet Fukuyama’s thesis may prove correct.  The Arab Spring signals change in one of the last realms holding out against democracy; even reactionary Saudi Arabia has announced first steps to introduce women’s suffrage.   Fukuyama was right in fixing upon “thymos,” the concept of “spiritedness” of Plato and the ancient Greeks.  He interpreted it as the craving for recognition. People crave an acknowledgement of their humanity from every other human being. Fukuyama argued that this desire could only be satisfied by an egalitarian democracy.  People get chided for cravings, but this one is good.

The most grave human rights abuses deserving the attention of policymakers are those in which a whole category of people are denied their equal worth to other human beings. These abuses violate fundamental human dignity. Across the world we see instances of this systematic oppression, particularly against women.

One particularly heinous denial of dignity involves rape of women.   When women who are raped are treated as adulterers to be punished, even stoned under some Muslim regimes, they are rendered sub-human.   Moreover, in Bosnia, Burma, Darfur, and even Zimbabwe, women have been targeted for systematic sexual violence as a political weapon.   The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) rightly established this as a crime against humanity.

Commercial sexual exploitation of women is another denial of dignity.   As U.S. Ambassador-at-Large to Combat Trafficking in Persons at the State Department, I met children and coerced adults who were sex trafficking victims in 29 countries.  If there were no sex trade -- whereby men’s demand turns women into mere commodities – then the acute abuse of sex trafficking would not occur.   The leading feminist scholar, Catharine MacKinnon, has drawn this link, as part of her agenda of asking when women will be treated as humans in full.

Another example of women systematically being devalued is the sad practice of sex selection abortion in populous China and India.   Using technology to check if a fetus is male, using that information to cut off a girl’s chance of life is the ultimate violation of female dignity.  However, seen in South Korea’s campaign to encourage people to “love your daughters.”

Many other groups have been devalued and dehumanized.   These include: the global poor, denied access to justice by corruption and apathy of authorities; migrants lacking legal rights; minorities and racial groups (from black South Africans under Apartheid to the Karen people under Burma’s junta); and children, such as those subject to the worst forms of child labor.

What about females within these other groups?   A UNIFEM official in Jordan told me that even in somewhat more liberalized Arab nations, to be both female and a migrant is to be treated doubly as unworthy of legal rights – explaining gross abuse of some domestic servants hidden in homes.  Women in other devalued groups may face a larger danger of human rights abuses.

The persistence of gender discrimination gives women a unique understanding of the importance of recognition. This understanding allows some women to carve out large roles in the struggle for a universal recognition of human dignity.

At Harvard last spring, I had the opportunity to talk with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. A few months later, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to build democracy in a war-torn society.  Sitting and talking one on one, I asked for her chief lesson for successful democratization.  She said societies needed to prepare to select and accept leaders to succeed transformative and charismatic figures.  She was obviously thinking of who would fill her own shoes.

Sirleaf is not alone.  I organized a videoconference in Washington this week with another Nobel Laureate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.  She would meet with Secretary of State Clinton the very next day to assess whether Burma’s regime is truly liberalizing.

History may well be slowly driving toward an end goal – recognition of all people’s distinct identity and dignity.  As such, we must recognize not only female dignity, but the unique role of women as champions for the dignity of all people.