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Department of Political Science


The central question we were asked to address in the Michigan Journal of International Law's Symposium, "Dueling Fates," was, "Which international legal approach more effectively protects women's rights, the collective or the individual?" I am a political sociologist, without legal training, although I have been publishing in the field of international human rights (including women's rights) since 1980. This Article will focus on some underlying assumptions about the nature of society, and women's roles in it, that are pertinent to this central question.

The position argued in this Article is that women's rights are individual rights. To explain this position, the Article will progress along the following arguments:

1) The dichotomy between Western individualism and non- Western collectivism is false.

2) Much of the debate regarding the role of women and women's rights confuses interest and identity.

3) Women do not necessarily constitute a social group.

4) "Women's" rights are actually universal human rights: they pertain mostly to women, but also to men.

5) The debate about whether women are a social group is rooted in part in differing conceptions of women's embeddedness in society.

6) The debate is also rooted in part in differing conceptions of women's embeddedness in their own religious group.

7) Even though women's rights are not collective rights, they will only be attained in situations in which women (and some men) act collectively.


This article was originally published in Michigan Journal of International Law, 24: 227-240. © 2002 Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann. Reproduced with permission.