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The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights, by Minky Worden.

September 13, 2012

The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights, by Minky Worden.  Australia: Spinfex Press, 2012. 410 pp.

A powerful and important anthology of articles documenting the human rights abuses that women face all over the globe and the efforts to stop them.

I have often complained that feminists need to spend more time investigating issues that women face and less time arguing about theory.  This anthology does just that.  Its articles focus on current abuses of women in specific places.  Many were written by activists directly involved in fighting to end the abuses.  Several articles deal with abuses that have continued even as countries have become more democratic in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring.  They all point to the problem that even revolutionary changes often leave women behind.  While globally women are gaining educational, economical and other rights, much remains in need of urgent change if they are to able to function.

The principle underlying The Unfinished Revolution is that “Women’s Rights are Human Rights,” a principle which places the struggle to end abuses against women squarely in the tradition of activism for human rights.  Opening and closing sections of the book describe how women working together have pushed the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and American Civil Liberties Union to move beyond male-defined rights to address gendered violence against women, gendered problems with marriage and giving birth, and various legal restrictions and policies that cause particular problems for women.  Authors point to the need to frame women’s rights as human rights rather than allow them to be considered as private and thus secondary.  With the support of international law, they can be addressed by nations and cultures not simply by individual women powerless before family, religious leaders and local communities.

In 1979, the UN has passed a voluntary Convention on the Elimination of All Discrimination against Women.  CEADAW, as it is known, has been accepted by almost all nations except the United States, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, and a handful of smaller countries.  In the last decade global backlash and violence has left women particularly vulnerable.  Women from around the globe, however, continue to work together to document women’s abuses and to probe the connection between abuse and general degradation of women.  Whatever differences exist between women, all too often, as Charlotte Bunch says, “being a woman can be life-threatening.”

Last year’s revolution in the Arab Spring involved many women risking all in public protests.  Unfinished Revolution documents what is still problematic for such women.  Several of the articles raise the issue of pressure to enact conservative interpretations of Shira law.  Articles by Iranian women describe the enforcement of such interpretation in their country after their 1979 revolution.  Repeatedly Islamic women point out that other interpretations of Shira law exist that do not demand women be subservient, a point Leila Ahmed and others have made elsewhere.  This is a key point if feminists in other parts of the world are not to simplistically assume that Islam is fundamentally harmful to women.

Women working on the front lines document the vulnerability of women in the Congo, Somalia, and Afghanistan where rape has become an explicit weapon of war.  The articles about Afghanistan point out specific dangers women face, despite claims that they are being protected.  Some of the articles describe the physical abuses that women suffer, in part because violence against women is deemed acceptable and in part because women’s lives and bodies are not considered worthy of attention.   Disturbing stories describe the frequency of preventable maternal deaths and fistula damage that can destroy women’s lives.  Obviously such problems could be resolved by medical systems that improve the health care for both men and women, but at present the women suffer disproportionally.

The anthology also discusses the ways in which social and economic traditions threaten women.  I was previously unaware that in parts of Africa women do not own the land that they work to support their families.  The land is owned by husbands and if the husband dies, the woman rarely is allowed to keep the land.  His kin take back the land, leaving her and children homeless and without resources.  Some women try to retain their land by undergoing rituals including rape by an outsider in order to keep the land.

Marriage of girls in their early teens is another problem found in communities around the global.  Such marriages regularly result in lack of additional education for girls and lack of ability to support themselves.  In addition, maternal and infant death is very high among young girls.  Such problems are imbedded in problems of poverty and isolation which must also be addressed.

Some of the abuses discussed in this book take place in developed counties in Europe and in the USA as enforcers blur the lines between the sex trade, immigration, and domestic abuse.  A woman can get deported if she reports domestic violence.  Efforts to capture rapists get little attention from urban police.  With the Republican Party in the USA seeking to redefine rape and end health care for many women, the problems in the USA may get even worse.

The articles in Unfinished Revolution were sometimes emotionally hard to read.  I’d read a couple of articles and put the book down because I felt too angry to go on reading.  I often wished I had enough wealth to donate to some of the groups.  What these women ask for most, however, is international attention and support.  They know how to resolve the problems they face, but need outsiders on their side as they fight against those who would keep women “in their place.”  Those of us ouside these struggles need to insure that our governments do not take the side of those who would harm women, as has been the case so often in the past.  Women’s needs are easy to bargain away at negotiating tables—unless women are included in such negotiations.

Unfinished Revolutions should be required reading for all who consider themselves feminists, no matter where they live.  It also should be read by all those who claim that we live in a “post-feminist” era.  Spinfex Press is to be congratulated for publishing this important book and making it available globally as an affordable ebook.  They are a explicitly feminist press, a valuable source of various fictional and nonfictional books that focus on women globally.  Check them out as well as this book

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 13, 2012 12:56 pm

    Have you read Half of the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn? It does a good job covering a lot of the same issues.

    It sounds like The Unfinished Revolution is a bit more recent though and it would be interesting to read about effects of the Arab Spring on women.

  2. September 14, 2012 11:16 am

    I haven’t read that one and will add it to my list. I have read others and found this particularly well written and I love how very up to date it was.

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