Research Handbook on Feminist Engagement with International Law
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Research Handbook on Feminist Engagement with International Law

Edited by Susan Harris Rimmer and Kate Ogg

For almost 30 years, scholars and advocates have been exploring the interaction and potential between the rights and well-being of women and the promise of international law. This collection posits that the next frontier for international law is increasing its relevance, beneficence and impact for women in the developing world, and to deal with a much wider range of issues through a feminist lens.
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Chapter 14: Revisiting the category “women”

Jaya Ramji-Nogales


Mindful of the rather provocative nature of the question, this chapter asks whether the category “women” can be used to inspire a more broadly inclusive approach to international law. The chapter explores how female international lawyers, a group of elite women, might play a role in unlocking international law’s emancipatory potential. From this admittedly narrow social location, this chapter defines inclusion both quantitatively, focusing on numbers of women in the power structures of international law, and qualitatively, seeking to invite a broader range of voices to the table. Mindful of its historical failures, understanding and concurring with the reasons for its demise, this chapter takes seriously the inquiry as to whether there is some life left in the category “women” for this particular project at this particular time. Specifically within the field of international law, is it possible to leverage the category to raise political consciousness without falling into the trap of essentializing its inhabitants? Given that international law is largely the province of the privileged, the resurrection of the category “women” risks obscuring differences in life experience and perspectives and, perhaps more importantly, making invisible disparities in wealth, status, and power. Taking as a foundational tenet the understanding that women in international law have lived a broad range of experiences and hold a plethora of different normative perspectives, the chapter lays out a strategy for a new approach to the category “women.” It begins by identifying an overarching common experience of exclusion from international law’s power structures, from which it proposes to draw to encourage a shared critical approach to international law. Understanding the category “women” to be political rather than essential, women in international lawmaking and reform should consistently ask who is being left out of current legal frameworks and structures. The chapter offers a few strategies for inclusion of relevant voices, but emphasizes that such efforts must be tailored to specific situations. There are, of course, numerous questions raised and ongoing challenges presented by the use of the category “women.” In response, the chapter recognizes and addresses alternative approaches – why women rather than gender or feminism? It then engages with the perils of a theory that emphasizes inclusion of multiple voices, from the risk of too little impact to the challenges of incorporating a cornucopia of perspectives. This critical approach seeks to achieve one central goal: expanding the range of voices that inform international lawmaking and reform. This method holds the potential to transform structures of power over time by enabling the law to reflect the perspectives of those it claims to govern. The chapter’s central suggestion for the future of women’s engagement in international law is that women in lawmaking and law reform should be vigilant in identifying groups impacted by legal structures in order to include as many voices as possible in determinations of whether and how international law can play a role in addressing problems relevant to their lives.

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