Barely legal

Catharine MacKinnon's new book argues that when it comes to human rights, women are hardly in the picture.

Published July 27, 2006 5:04PM (EDT)

For those unfamiliar with the writing of feminist legal scholar and practicing lawyer Catharine MacKinnon, a review of her new book -- "Are Women Human?" -- in the Nation serves as an excellent introduction. The book gathers her speeches and articles of the past 20 years on the subject of sex equality and international law. Arguing that "the risk of violence and violation within the household is one thing women, irrespective of their social position, creed, color or culture, share in common," MacKinnon goes on to show how, despite supposedly far-reaching international human rights laws, women remain unprotected.

The lack of action for human rights abuses against women is what MacKinnon terms "double-edged denial." As reviewer Martha Nussbaum -- a respected feminist legal scholar in her own right -- explains it, "the abuse is considered either too extraordinary to be believed [such as mass rapes during wartime] or too ordinary to constitute a major human rights violation [such as a wife tortured by her husband]." Nussbaum goes on to write that "until recently, abuses like rape and sexual torture lacked good human rights standards because human rights norms were typically devised by men thinking about men's lives." As MacKinnon shrewdly puts it: "If men don't need it, women don't get it." The result of this male-centered worldview is that "women have not yet become fully human in the legal and political sense, bearers of equal, enforceable human rights."

If you think MacKinnon's title is a little over the top, spend some time reading the astounding amount of research she has compiled, the reports, stories and cases she herself argued -- and won -- and you will start to get an inkling as to how women are repeatedly disgraced in the eyes of the law. One of the most arresting examples MacKinnon gives is on the matter of torture.

As Nussbaum, incorporating MacKinnon, cogently writes, "There is a category of torture, and we think we know how to define it. We think we know what it does: It uses violence to control and intimidate. And yet when violence is used to control and intimidate women 'in homes in Nebraska rather than prison cells in Chile,' we don't call it torture, and we somehow think it is not the same thing. Torture in Chile is not explained away as the work of isolated sick individuals. We know it is political, and we can see how systemic it often is. When violence happens to women in Nebraska, we say, 'Oh well, that was only some sicko, and men aren't really like that.' Well, given the numbers, shouldn't we ask more questions about that?"

By Sarah Goldstein

Sarah Goldstein is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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