Students at a computer

UChicago students

UChicago campus

The University of Chicago campus in spring

Students in class

UChicago classroom discussion

Students study in the Quads.

Students study in the Quads.

College students present to a local community group.

College students present to a local community group.

The Joe and Rika Mansueto Library provides a study space on campus.

The Joe and Rika Mansueto Library provides a study space on campus.

Professor Martha Nussbaum holds a seminar in her home.

Professor Martha Nussbaum holds a seminar in her home.

Students gather at an Office of Multicultural Student Affairs event.

Students gather at an Office of Multicultural Student Affairs event.

International Women's Human Rights: Paradigms, Paradoxes, and Possibilities

Project Description

The seminar is designed to address contradictions within the concept and practice of women's human rights. Such contradictions can be seen in the notion of a "women's crusade" that sets up an increasingly suspect opposition between the plights of women in developing countries on the one hand and advanced industrialized countries on the other, in the appropriation of the language of women's rights by groups unsympathetic to Western rights-based feminism, in the use of human rights discourse to justify military interventions, and in the reliance on a Western liberal framework that is inattentive to crucial cultural, social, and political national differences, that privileges civil and political rights over social and economic rights, and that tends to construe women in the developing world as victims of a stalled or failed modernization process. The seminar's task will be to address, but also attempt to move beyond, current formulations of the inherent difficulties and complexities associated with thinking about transnational feminism as a practice of declaring and claiming women's human rights. This will involve, among other things, a comparative approach to women's human rights which analyzes the differences and similarities between the European and the Indian rights traditions.

This Seminar is generously sponsored by the John E. Sawyer Seminars on the Comparative Study of Cultures of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Spring 2012: Engaging Possibilities

In an effort to avoid constructing a genealogy/counter-genealogy of women's human rights and instead engage the world of practical multiple possibilities, the Spring Seminar will focus finally on two prospering schools of legal thought and their possible application to questions of human rights.

Ongoing events: Biweekly meeting of faculty, postdoctoral, and dissertation fellows

Special events:
Wednesday, April 4: Public lecture, Nivedita Menon: "Science in the laboratory of politics: Commercial surrogacy and the question of the natural."
See calendar »

April 19-20: Symposium, "Sexuality in Colonial Black Atlantic Cities"

  • Thursday, April 19
    Keynote Address, Cassandra Pybus: "Doll Thomas, 'The Queen of Demerera': Race and Gender in the Atlantic World in the Age of Revolutions."
  • Friday, April 20
    Panels: Arts and Publics, Geographies of Rights, Politics of Sex in the City
    Closing Keynote Address, AbdouMaliq Simone: "Passages and Miracles: Notes on African Contributions to Urban Life."
See symposium website »
See calendar »

Friday, May 4: International Conference, "Engendering Rights in India: The Colonial Encounter and Beyond"
Keynote Lecture: Tanika Sarkar
Public Lectures: Charu Gupta, Zoya Hasan
Roundtable: Martha Nussbaum, Rajeshwari Sunder Rajan, Ruth Vanita
See calendar »

Tuesday, May 8: Public lecture, Leila Ahmed: "A Quiet Revolution: The Veil's Resurgence from the Middle East to America"
See calendar »

Steering Committee

  • Jane Dailey, Associate Professor, History
  • Susan Gal, Mae & Sidney G. Metzl Distinguished Service Professor, Anthropology
  • Michael Geyer, Samuel N. Harper Professor, History; Faculty Director, Human Rights Program
  • David Nirenberg, Deborah R. and Edgar D. Jannotta Professor, Social Thought
  • Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor, Law School
  • Linda Zerilli, Charles E. Merriam Distinguished Professor, Political Science; Professor, Gender Studies; Faculty Director, Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality

Faculty Participants

  • Lauren Berlant, English Language and Literature
  • Jennifer Cole, Comparative Human Development
  • Jane Dailey, History
  • Roxana Galusca, Society of Fellows, Media and Cultural Studies
  • Leela Gandhi, English Language and Literature
  • Susan Gzesh, Human Rights Program
  • Alison James, Romance Languages and Literatures
  • Agnes Lugo- Ortiz, Romance Languages and Literatures
  • Rochona Majumdar, South Asian Languages and Civilizations
  • Tianna Paschel, Political Science
  • Charlotte Walker, Human Rights Program
  • Tara Zahra, History
  • Linda Zerilli, Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality and Political Science

Postdoctoral Fellow

  • Zahra Jamal, PhD, Anthropology, Harvard University

Dissertation Fellows

  • Julia Kowalski, Comparative Human Development
  • Caroline Schuster, Anthropology

The Seminar (Autumn and Winter Quarters)

Autumn 2011: The European Rights Tradition

The first part of the Seminar was devoted to situating feminist theory and practice around human rights in a broader, historically-informed debate about the formation of political communities and the subject of rights, especially as it emerged in eighteenth and nineteenth-century discussions about citizenship and the rights of Man.

Ongoing events: Biweekly meeting of faculty, postdoctoral, and dissertation fellows

Special events:
October 21: Symposium, "Sexual Rights as Human Rights: Reproduction, Ritual, and the Reconstitution of Sexuality in the Human Rights Agenda"; participants: Mary Anne Case, Scott Long, Alice Miller, Mindy Roseman, Charlotte Walker.
November 1: Public lecture, Robert Meister, “After Evil: A Politics of Human Rights.”
November 10-11: Symposium, "Women's Human Rights in Latin America: The State of the Question"; participants will be Julieta Paredes, Aurea Cumes, Rocío Silva Santiesteban, Marlene Duprey, Zandra Pedraza, Lucía Melgar, Rita Laura Segato.
November 14: Public Lecture, Catharine MacKinnon, “Trafficking, Prostitution, and Inequality.”
November 29: Public Lecture, Samuel Moyn, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 in the History of Cosmopolitanism.”

Winter 2012: The Idea of Rights in the Developing World

The initial focus on feminism and the European rights tradition will be complicated by a study of the idea of rights as it emerged in the developing world, especially in anti-colonial struggles in Africa and India, where a conception of rights as requiring "the right to have rights" may well have been present.

Ongoing events: Biweekly meeting of faculty, postdoctoral, and dissertation fellows

Special events: March 1-2: Symposium, "Symposium: Understanding Sexual Violence in Conflict: Gendered Dynamics of Victimization"; participants will include Elisabeth Wood, Dara Cohen, Jocelyn Kelly
See calendar »

March 7: Evren Savci, "Muslim to One's Self or Muslim to Everyone: Universal Human Rights and the Production of an Islamic Backlash in Contemporary Turkey."