Are Women Human?

by Susan G. Cole

Over the past 25 years, Catharine MacKinnon has changed the face of feminist legal theory. A law professor at the University of Michigan, she is, as one reviewer notes, “a famously polarizing figure.”

She pioneered the legal claim for sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination, and her belief that pornography violates women’s civil rights influenced Canada’s redefinition of obscenity law from sexual explicitness to a harm-based approach a decade ago.

Over the past 25 years, Catharine MacKinnon has changed the face of feminist legal theory. A law professor at the University of Michigan, she is, as one reviewer notes, “a famously polarizing figure.”

She pioneered the legal claim for sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination, and her belief that pornography violates women’s civil rights influenced Canada’s redefinition of obscenity law from sexual explicitness to a harm-based approach a decade ago.

The author of several books on equality rights has taken her gendered critique of the state to the international plane. A new collection of MacKinnon’s speeches and writings, Are Women Human?And Other International Dialogues (Belknap Harvard) takes note of the political work she has done in Canada, the U.S. and abroad and asserts her recent approach to accountability in the global human rights arena.

Discussing ritualized forms of violence conducted by military forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina and other regions, she argues that international human rights measures can be applied to halt such forms of violence against women.

Herizons columnist Susan G. Cole spoke to MacKinnon about some of the themes the book explores.

Herizons: Let’s talk first about your current work, in particular your attempt to introduce rape into global discussions of genocide. What have been some of the obstacles to getting the issue on the international agenda?

Catharine Mackinnon: I think it’s hard for some people—especially people with power—to think more than one thought at a time. If they’re looking at genocide, they’re thinking it’s either based on religion, or race, or nationality. To them, it can’t be all of those things while also being sex-based at the same time.

Is that because these tribunals only see the killing and aren’t able to see the everyday effects of rape?

Catharine Mackinnon: That’s part of it, but they saw a lot of other things in the definition of genocide that didn’t involve killing and included a lot of the prominent forms of the daily subordination—other conditions that were imposed in order to make it hard for people to exist.

What happens in these cases is that there is a blindness to it. They can think about race and religion and national origin, but then they have to exclude larger atrocities on those grounds because they are about being a woman.

I was really taken with your September 11 piece because it points out that in the international community fighting rape has always been difficult when the state itself was not the perpetrator. But when it comes to terrorism, when people in power want to go at a problem that’s not state-based, they will.

Catharine Mackinnon: The response in the international community is an object lesson in that. First, notice that what happened on September 11, 2001, involved non-state actors attacking non-state actors. The state is neither the perpetrator nor the victim, and international law is typically written for states—whether victims or perpetrators.

We are endlessly told that international law can’t be used to stop violence against women because it’s all that private stuff where non-state actors are acting against non-state actors. So, along come these private people who do this thing that kills the same number as the women killed by men—every year—and suddenly we’re told we can do a lot about this problem of terrorism. We have institutional overhauls, we have re-interrogations, we have the international community at a crossroads, to use Kofi Annan’s terms. We see our border policies redrawn….

Catharine Mackinnon: Yes. So, structurally and formally speaking, you can look at violence against women as a war and as a form of terrorism, and it sits well, at least as well as this aggression by al Qaeda.

So, having tried to square the circle for a long time here, in walks this thing—you kill men and women—and all of sudden the whole world is turning handsprings —not only the U.S. and the U.K. but the UN Security Council and NATO and all sorts of international entities that are doing things they wouldn’t think of doing for women. In Ontario, a recent proposal to allow Muslim communities to function under sharia law was rejected by the legislature.

In your piece, “Sex Equality Under the Constitution of India,” you proposed to offer Muslim women a choice between applying their religious-based law and subscribing to a state-based, less discriminatory set of rules.

Catharine Mackinnon: It’s a complicated thing and different in each place. In Canada, there is an actual equality standard for law in the Constitution, so you’re promoting equality through law.

In India, they don’t have an equality standard like that, but they do have communities that purport to speak for Muslim women, where women say that if you have a plain civil standard that everyone has to use, then it’s going to be imposed on Muslim women who are a minority. The idea there was to empower these women, without disempowering the community as a whole.

So the suggestion was to make it possible to choose. In one sense, that puts an unacceptable burden on women, one at a time, who will be walking out from under their communities and may well be punished for that. In fact, the woman who won the first case against the Muslim maintenance law in India has never collected a cent.

Paying a woman after divorce can cause riots and killings in some countries. This is serious stuff.

I want to talk about pornography. There is more of it than ever now, with new technologies, digital cable.

Catharine Mackinnon: That’s because nothing effective has been done to stop it—specifically, a civil rights claim that would make it possible for women hurt by it to get relief for the harms done to them.

What would you say to a woman who says, “I like it—it’s working for me.”

Catharine Mackinnon: Well, first of all I’d say that’s not true for all women. It’s not [simply] an issue of what they feel and if they want in it.

One thing women aren’t in control of is how it’s used on other people and how other people are being used to make it.

There’s the perception that women are making a lot of money in this industry.

Catharine Mackinnon: Well, they’re not. I mean, there are a couple. I can name them all. Which I guess makes the point that there can’t be too many of them.

But there are also many people writing to me about how pornography is being made of them in ways they didn’t know about or didn’t consent to, or didn’t want and now can do nothing about it. They have no rights in relation to the materials, unless they are famous women and thus have a financial interest in their image and name so that they can sue somebody for exploiting them.

In other words, they’re already exploiting their own image and name and would be making x amount of money were it not for the fact that this other person has done this thing to their image and name. But you’ve got to have a name already.

It feels like we’re losing.

Catharine Mackinnon: Oh, we lost. The idea that pornography is this isolated thing that happens over here and has nothing else to do with anything else in life—it’s an illusion. Mainstream media is more sexually explicit and abusive, particularly the Internet.

Pornography is accessible in all spheres of society and it’s reshaping our standards of literature and commercial advertising. This is the point where we say, ‘We told you so,’ while not being happy about it.

The postmodernism and human rights piece is the only pure theory piece in your book. You talk about how postmodernism’s proponents—preoccupied as they are with subjectivity and the notion that there is no such thing as women’s experience or identity—have trivialized and misrepresented feminism. What made you write the essay?

Catharine Mackinnon: I resisted writing it for about a decade. In the U.S., postmodernism isn’t worth the time, but students kept asking me about it and it was really getting in the way.

They were being taught that this is what theory is and that this is what it is to be radical.

Which, I think, is worse.

Catharine Mackinnon: Yes, because it takes all the radical students, the ones who have a real desire to change things, and siphons them off into this self-rotating, misinterpretation-y, lit crit-y way of life.

Is there a particular place in the world that you see as the current—terrible term, here—hot spot for the work you’re doing right now?

Catharine Mackinnon: One place to start would be in the place where the conditions are the worst—Central Africa, for example, where it’s genocidal.

Women are being raped by men who are in military forces and there seems to be an ethnic component involved. And it’s happening on a mass scale. There’s lots of powerful organizing going on in Africa to achieve an African protocol that has a more concrete and higher equality standard than any other multinational international [human rights] document.

That document was written, marked up, altered and reconstructed by a coalition of pan-African organizations who then lobbied and got it passed—including a right to food, to peace and not to be sexually assaulted or to have forced sex. There, violence against women includes economic issues, and we’re dealing with an extraordinary diversity of cultures— hundreds of language groups and ethnicities.

So, you’re hopeful?

Catharine Mackinnon: Well, I’d say I’m determined.