//Women’s Rights as Human Rights

Women’s Rights as Human Rights

Zehra F. Kabasakal AratHuman rights are rights claimed against the State and society by virtue of being a human being. However, the human rights of most people have been continuously violated all around the world. Since all civilizations have been patriarchal,1 regardless of the overall human rights conditions maintained in a society, women have been subject to more human rights violations than men. Women constitute the poorest and the least powerful segments of their communities. They are denied equal access to education, job training, employment, leisure time, income, property, health care, public office, decision-making power and freedoms, as well as control over their own body and life.2Cultural norms, laws and philosophies, including those that are considered progressive and emancipatory, have usually discriminated against women.


The ancient Stoics’ notion of natural rights, that human beings are created with certain inalienable rights, did not encompass women. When the Christian Church leader St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274) was exposed to ancient Greek philosophy—largely through the writings of the Muslim philosophers Avicenna (Ibn Sina, 980–1037) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd, 1126–1198) who studied ancient Greek philosophy, reconciled reason with faith and championed equality and religious tolerance—he incorporated natural rights theory into his teaching. However, he ignored Averroes’ egalitarian approach that opposed the unequal treatment of sexes and considered the reduction of women’s value to childbearing and rearing as detrimental to the economic advancement of society and thus causing poverty.3 Instead, Aquinas revived Aristotle’s misogynous perception of woman as “misbegotten man” and wondered why God would create woman, a defective creature, in the first production of things;4 while other church leaders later questioned if women had souls, that is, if they were fully human.

In modern times, progressive philosophers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), could promote political freedoms and rights, but reject the notion of equality of the sexes. The revolutionary fervour of the eighteenth century that opposed oppression led to the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789). However, the articulation of human rights in this document, which continued to inspire people all over the world for centuries, could not escape sexism prevalent at the time and omitted women. Nevertheless, a few elite women, such as French playwright and essayist Olympe de Gouges (1748–1793) and English philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), raised their objections and defended women’s rights by issuing The Declaration of the Rights of Woman (1790) and A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1791), respectively. The collaboration of Harriet Taylor Mill (1807–1858) with her husband John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) resulted in writings that advocated women’s rights and political equality.5

Yet, gender biases prevailed throughout the twentieth century. Even members of the Commission that drafted the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights were willing to employ the word “man” in reference to the holder of the rights. When the Soviet delegate, Vladimir Koretsky, objected to using the words “all men” as “historical atavism, which preclude us from an understanding that we men are only one half of the human species”, the Commission Chair, Eleanor Roosevelt, defended the wording by arguing: [in English] “When we say ‘all men are brothers’, we mean that all human beings are brothers and we are not differentiating between men and women.”6 Thus, the language was maintained for some time. The final draft mostly employed the gender-neutral terms of “human being”, “everyone” and “person”, and the Preamble included a specific reference to the “equal rights of men and women”, thanks largely to the efforts of two female Commission members, Hansa Mehta of India and Minerva Bernardino of the Dominican Republic.7

However, the Universal Declaration and the subsequent human rights documents adopted by the United Nations and other intergovernmental organizations have continued to employ the nominative and possessive pronouns “he” and “his”, in line with the established tradition and understanding that male nouns or pronouns would stand for the female ones as well. Despite their clearly and repeatedly stated anti-discrimination clauses, which specify that sex as a characteristic or status cannot be used as grounds for discrimination or for denial of human rights, documents issued by the United Nations fell short of ensuring that human rights are equally applicable to both sexes.8 Gender gaps were visible even in the United Nations, which did not have women in high office posts, as they were concentrated in clerical and lower-paying jobs, thus maintaining occupational segregation. Starting in the 1970s, however, some significant steps towards addressing gender disparities have been taken by various intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations and government agencies.