The use and abuse of rights-based approaches to furthering gender justice has been the subject of much debate and contestation in feminist scholarship. This paper engages with the feminist anti-imperialist critique of rights discourses, particularly when used as a theoretical lens to understand or evaluate women’s rights movements, or gender related campaigns for justice in non-democratic settings.
The paper argues that anti-imperialist critique is caught up in a binary of universalism versus cultural relativism, a form of a meta-narrative that disregards the personal narratives of struggle and the fragments of history that are absolutely necessary for a holistic understanding of historical moments. Secondly, it argues that the anti-imperialist critics disregard insights gained from Edward Said’s important intervention on ‘Traveling Theory’, and how ‘travel’ to another context enables a new process whereby the theory or concept is assimilated and new meanings emerge.
The paper engages with these issues by focusing on the issue of violence against women in Arab and/or Muslim societies, examining the struggle of women rights activists in Egypt to campaign and raise awareness. Ultimately the paper ends with a plea to historicise and stay focused on the global/local variations in power relations, requiring a constant reappraisal of the critical lens and tools for understanding and making sense of the world. By doing this it will help to avoid the pitfalls of interpretive frameworks becoming normative dogma.