Perhaps the most interesting question in the juxtaposition of women’s rights (or gay rights, or ethnic minority rights) and democracy is not whether some people’s rights are sacrificed for popular rule (they are), but rather whether they should be as a matter of principle.
Over the past week Libya’s interim prime minister Abdel Rahim al-Keib has made numerous statements about human rights, at times announcing high priority to the protection of rights in his administration, at others hinting that some Libyan citizens (notably women) shouldn’t expect too much.
Judging from experiences in other countries women may not fare better after a dictatorship or autocratic rule than before it. In 2009, Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a bill that made women subordinate to men, allegedly in an attempt to win votes. And earlier this year, peaceful female demonstrators in Egypt were submitted to forced virginity tests and brought before a military court a full month after Hosni Mubarak had resigned.
Setting aside for a moment the question of whether the current political set-ups in Egypt, Libya, or Afghanistan are more democratic than what came before, it is valid to ask whether women’s rights often are sacrificed for the sake of popular rule. In last month’s Tunisian election, the Islamist party Ennahda won approximately 40 percent of the votes, making many worry that this country, with arguably the most advanced legal protections for women rights in the region, might slide backwards. Others countered that Islamism and feminism aren’t necessarily opposites but can, in fact, be linked.
The truth of the matter is, however, that without certain potentially unpopular back-stops to protect the rights of the disempowered, majority rule (or ruling party rule) does not always protect equal rights for all. Indeed in the most extreme cases, state officials accused of wanting to annihilate entire groups of people within their own country can be democratically elected.
It is noteworthy that governments seeking to limit the human rights of a particular group often use the same justifications, regardless of geography or political set up. The two most popular excuses are these: 1) our culture does not support that kind of thing; or 2) we just have a different way of doing it.
When the first type of justification is used—such as for example in the case of rampant and very violent homophobia in Uganda and Nigeria—any criticism is highlighted as external interference with “our way of life” and ascribed to neo-colonialism or worse. This happens whether the criticism comes from in- or outside the country itself.
When the second type of justification is used—such as for example when Princess Loulwa Al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia said that women in her country are better off than in the west because “men have a duty to look after them”—those who push for more inclusive policies are simply seen as misguided: they just don’t understand.
To be sure, notions of equality, including gender equality, as a social good have not been static throughout history and the expression of what equality looks like varies a lot even within countries. While I believe that equality is absolutely essential to human dignity, I therefore accept that this belief has not always been as broadly accepted as it is now.
But perhaps the more interesting question in the juxtaposition of women’s rights (or gay rights, or ethnic minority rights) and democracy is not whether some people’s rights are sacrificed for popular rule (they are), but rather whether they should be as a matter of principle (I think not).
For me this is more than just a question of conviction. Equality has proven to be intrinsically linked to happiness, health, and peaceful societies. In comparative studies, those societies with more equitable distributions of wealth do better than more unequal neighbors on a number of social parameters such as infant mortality, crime rates, and individual contentment. Moreover, we already know that where violence against women surges, general violence is likely to grow too.
So next time someone questions the support for the rights of a specific group of people, you might want to ask them if they support those same rights for themselves. Not to show them up by highlighting their hypocrisy—though that might be an added benefit—but rather to make the point that we are all interdependent. Libya’s prime minister would do well to remember that too.