Particularity of Rights, Diversity of Contexts: Women, International Human Rights and the Case of Early Marriage


Bunting, Margaret Annie. 1999. "Particularity of Rights, Diversity of Contexts: Women, International Human Rights and the Case of Early Marriage." SJD Doctorate Thesis, University of Toronto.

Author: Margaret Annie Bunting


This thesis presents an alternative way of approaching and analyzing practices that are criticized on the basis of human rights and defended on the basis of culture. I illustrate the thesis through the case of early marriage. Rather than reinforcing the dichotomous debate between universalistic conceptions of human rights and culturally relative challenges to universalistic interpretations of rights, this thesis inhabits the space between the dichotomous poles. I argue that human rights can be appropriated, particularized and used in diverse contexts, but not without attention to the local and global socio-political contexts in which the rights debate takes place.

I argue throughout the thesis that, to address practices that are criticized according to international women's rights and defended as integral to culture, the presuppositions of judgement must be exposed and criticized. This methodology includes an understanding of the context in which the practice takes place as well as the context from which criticism emanates. I argue that this is particularly true when the external critics are evaluating practices that take place in a Muslim context, given the problematic manner Muslim women's bodies have taken center stage in the international debates. This thesis critically interrogates the preoccupation with Muslim women in international human rights and the treatment of Muslim women's claims in the case of early marriage.

This thesis proceeds along three levels: the international, national and local levels. On examining the international level through the work of the women's committee, CEDAW, I show the predominance of the universalism/relativism dichotomy, with CEDAW invested in rhetorical claims to the universality of human rights. This thesis demonstrates that the practice in the area of marriage age tolerates particularity and variance. Further, I argue that a strength of international law on this point is its flexibility or ambiguity, which can allow for constructive particularity, without sanctioning all instances of cultural particularity. The local level of analysis stems from fieldwork in northern Nigeria and grassroots activism to address early marriage. Finally, I evaluate the national domestication of international norms through the example of Canadian refugee cases concerning marriage and culture.

Topics: Displacement & Migration, Refugees, Gender, Women, International Law, International Human Rights, Religion, Rights, Human Rights, Sexual Violence

Year: 1999

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