Feminist Perspectives on Slavery, Segregation and Genocide

Feminism is the radical notion that women are people”.

Cheris Kramarae & Paula Treichler

Amjad Nazeer[1]


In plain terms feminism can be defined as,….”a movement for social, cultural, political and economic equality of men and women. Though the issues of feminism might vary from culture to culture they are globally tied together in their campaign to end gender-based discriminatory practices against women[2]“. No singular feminist perspective or unified theoretical framework exists around. The most prominent ones’ are radical feminism, socialist, modern, post-modern and liberal feminism. But this distinction hardly matters to discuss and underline feminist contribution to our understanding of genocide, slavery, segregation, and apartheid that this article is meant for. Most feminists agree that socially and culturally institutionalized patriarchy and unequal distribution of power between men and women are the sources of violence, discrimination, and exploitation of women.


Feminist Perspectives on Slavery:

It was Harriet Stowe’s novel, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ by that first brought the issue of slavery to the public in America and even contributed to the civil war and later on public policies in the 1830s. Likewise, Francis Wrights’ radical ideas that made her notorious non-conventional ideas influenced the public mind. Anti-slavery and women rights campaign in the same era by the two sisters Sarah Grimke and Angelina, beginning by their hatred for slavery for being severely reprimanded by their parents on teaching a slave companion, an illegal act then. Refusing marriage and the conventional life they joined Quaker society in Philadelphia and found it too conservative. Both organized women for ‘American Anti-Slavery Society’ delivered fiery speeches, prepared pamphlets and profoundly influenced public conscience and national agenda surmounting general disliking and attempts on their lives (Becoming Human, HRQ, p.10,11).

Ms. Deborah G. White describes the plight of women slaves and the general effect of slavery on American society and culture, much neglected by male historians, in her landmark work, Aren’t I a Woman?: Female slaves in the plantation south (1985). Both black and white men treated female slaves as a sexual substance, she observes. The role of a slave woman and her significant contribution to the plantation economy and the division of labor based on age health and fertility status was understudied. She was grossly misunderstood as a (slave) child-breeder, a nurturer and an asexual mother (earth). Her relationship to other women and her role in the black family and culture was rarely taken into consideration. She reveals a startling fact that post-child-bearing-age women were most often assigned heavier tasks than men. She believes that Occidental, white, racist, imperial, slavocrats and masculine mentality misrepresented female slaves under their preconceived patriarchal notions. (Deborah G. White 1985 in Thomas, G. 2005).

Slavery annulled woman’s identity as ‘women’ and their institutionalized rape was used to annihilate their and their men’s resistance. The western patriarchal mindset reduced women’s identity to objects of servitude or simply non-beings. Superimposed western notions of ‘manhood’ and ‘womanhood’ as biological facts served to continue slavery and exploitation (Davis A.Y.1971 as in James J.1998). Virginity, purity, and domesticity were the defining characteristics of Victorian women, all denied to a slave women. Black women were presented as an entity without soul associated with overt sexuality and perverted behavior, simply an animal that breeds while it is the white women who mothers. ‘White man’ was predated by ‘black women’ threatening the sanctity of white woman and her household. Not possessing a male protector, family and home – signposts of western womanhood – further added to her purported sub human status. Surviving institutional rape constituted her demonized character because a true woman would rather prefer death than being sexually abused. Hence the interests of white men were juxtaposed with white women[3].

Institutions and practices endorsing coerced, servile or highly unequal marriages and the sale of wives and minor girls subjected to prostitution, debt-bondage, recruitment of child soldiers, traffic in persons and the sale of human organs constitute new forms of slavery even if they are embedded in cultural norms or opted out against poverty. Such Obvious forms of human rights abuses tantamount to slavery but are tolerated under institutionalized cultural and patriarchal values. The same values are sometimes somewhere translated into the legal norms (OHCHR Fact Sheet, Welch, C. E. 2009:100).

Kavin Baily argues that despite legal abolishment, sexual slavery thrives in the new global economy aligned with the mechanics of violence. For instance, young girls are commoditized in the international spots of tourism and several metropolitan capitals of the world, at times with parental consent. Far worse than the old slavery, victim women are marketed and disposed of quite quickly given their age and sexual utility. Investors from various countries are very active in this quick-to-start, low-investment, high-return business usually run in collusion with the police and high officials. Severely beaten up into submission, they are coerced or raped to elicit consent for sexual slavery. In turn, the victims receive nothing save a bare minimum food and a place to squeeze in. Around 27 million people are damned to slavery or live in slave like conditions even today (Bailey, K. 1999).

The Slavery Convention 1926 defines it as “the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers of ownership are exercised (OHCHR).” It failed to include bonded or farm labor, child sale, pornography, genital mutilation, sexual enslavement and forced prostitution despite recommendations by certain members of the Slavery Commission. Thanks to the gender-sensitive efforts of ‘Anti Slavery’ (NGO), the Supplementary Commission of 1956, however, includes a host of practices defined as contemporary forms of slavery including sexual exploitation of underage children. Despite long recognition of such practices as new forms of slavery and outright human rights abuse, its abolition is proving difficult and protracted because of the state collusion, social acceptability and underlying interests of patriarchal institutions. Feminists believe that gender equality and abrogation of culturally endorsed slavery-like practices alone can help eliminate new forms of slavery (Welch C.E. 2009:98-100).

Feminists Perspectives on Segregation:

Slavery and apartheid are squarely condemned but ironically, women’s subjugation and truncated rights of property ownership, business management, involuntary veiling, workplace discrimination, denying voting rights, confinement and even their lack of control over their own bodies are considered to be the cultural values (Fellmeth A. 2000: 695). With the commencement of Taliban regime in Afghanistan (1996), as one of the worst example, women’s rights were the first causality. Their Right to schooling, work, voting, and movement were immediately suspended through the enactment of such measures grossly illegal under the international law. More or less a similar situation exists in several other countries of the south (Verdirame. G. 2001: 4). Women’s disadvantageous position in the labor market is reinforced by patriarchal traditions of housekeeping, child-care and their subordinated role in society. Roles like a nunnery, teaching, nursing, catering, typing, assisting, corresponding to their stereotype roles, dismisses them to become a proprietor, engineer, supervisor etc (ILO 2000: 115).

Women’s work is supposed to be under-skilled, undervalued and underpaid, all because of the public-private split in the market-sphere denying them the status of full personhood, citizenship and entitlement to human rights (SEP: 2004). Corporations and Religio-political institutions, antagonizing women’s human rights, exploit public-private division by low wages, keeping women’s policy priorities secondary and sustaining inhumane conditions of work (Binyon G. 1995).

Marxist feminists believe that the equal status of men and women in the communal forms of production was skewed in favor of men with the invention of private property and its control by men. Surplus generation thereby changed the family structure to patriarchy where women and slaves were assumed to be part of the property. Economic development proved a counterproductive force for women. Their emancipation can come through their economic liberation and equal participation in the market. Other feminists argue that women’s biosocial reproductive role must be given equal economic significance, ignored by conventional economists (Reed 1973, Leacock 1972, Saffioti 1978, Vogel & Benston 1995 as cited in SEP 2004).

Feminist Perspectives on Genocide:

Ethnic cleansing or willful elimination of an entire social group perpetrated by the state or a powerful faction in their struggle of nation-building, state-formation or manufacturing a homogeneous identity constitutes genocide. Although the mass killing of men is inseparable from genocidal attacks, women are specifically subjected to brutal sexual and physical violence. In a genocidal situation the most intensive, horrifying and bestial acts of violence committed against women. Violent bands usually rape, humiliation and torture them to disgrace separatists or an adversary. The women-specific massacre has been seen in Indian Gujrat 2002, Rwanda 1994, Bosnia 1993-1995, East Pakistan 1971 and Nanjing 1937 in the near past. (Mojab, S. 2003, 1-2).

Horrendous torture was inflicted upon Tutsi women in Rwandan genocide 1994. Along with rape, spears, arrows or other sharp objects were pierced into the vaginas of women or shot into their genitals. Characteristic organs of Tutsi women such as the sharp nose or long fingers were cut off. Several Tutsi women were given to Hutu men in reward of killing maximum Tutsis. Women were forced to have sex in exchange for temporary shelter or held captive for sexual slavery by the militia or military. Women were gang raped, their sexual organs were mutilated and in some cases raping corpses was also reported (AI, 2004: 2-5).

Abdomens of pregnant women were slashed open to throw their fetuses into the fire during the genocidal attack against Muslim women in Indian Gujrat 2002. Tender age children were sexually molested and burnt alive. Hindu religious symbols were cut out on the bodies of sexually assaulted women. Bharat Mata, ‘the motherland of India’ was ideologically blended with the persona of Hindu women. Muslim rule in the past was interpreted as the mythological rape of Hindu women, hence justifying the rape of Muslim women. In other words, it was an act of reclaiming the motherland of India (IIJ, 2003: 4-21). In the former Yugoslavia, a public assault was used as a weapon of terror and ethnic cleansing.

The pattern of violence suggests that women’s bodies were the particular site of brutalities with innovative forms of torture. Their bodies were perceived to be the reproductive medium of a particular Ethno-religious identity (Sarkar, T. 2002). In their violent attempt of shifting the demographic ratio, the rapists described their act as changing the victim’s identity. It reflects the nationalist patriarchal perception that male ‘germ’ constitutes one’s identity while woman’s body is just a container. Humiliating women is perceived as vital part of constructing the manly image of ‘patriotic’ attackers (Panwani J. 16, IIJ 2003: 30).

Rape often results in pregnancy, disease, divorce, stigma and stereotyping. In many cultures victim, women are abandoned or killed by their male relatives to avoid ‘shame’ (Rowland, R. 1995: 12). Rape survivors impregnated or otherwise and the windows are discriminated or ostracised within their own families and communities. Contracting HIV/AIDs, STDs[4], fistula, trauma and other psychological disorders is a lifelong ailment that causes social humiliation. Many keep silent under the fear of being stigmatized, marginalized or discriminated. During post-conflict investigations, several women told, they were guilty of being survived. Some of their own community members asked them to have cooperated with the perpetrators if they had survived. Several women were discarded by their husbands, many could never get married and other told of not seeking medical assistance, even if it was available to conceal the fact of having been raped (Al 2004: 5-7).

Police remained either silent or collaborated with the extremist Hindu groups during the genocidal attacks in Gujrat. Several years down the road, the criminals could not be brought to justice simply because of the patriarchal and communal biases of the judges and prosecutors. The law is inherently skewed towards men. The absence of the witness or rejecting women’s witness plays assists denying justice to the victim women. (AI 2005).

The Genocide Convention 1948 defines genocide as: “killing members of a group, causing serious mental or bodily harm to the members of a group, deliberate inflicting on the group the conditions calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part and imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group….. (UN CPPCG).” ‘Intent’ is considered to be a defining characteristic of genocide, emphasizing on ‘the purpose of the offender’ not the ‘outcome.’ For women, the ‘outcomes’ are as serious as ‘intent’. The term ‘genocide’ and its’ subsequent definition, though quite broad and rich in semantics and content, still ignores several aspects and impacts of genocide that women specifically experience. The term ‘gendercide[5]’ i.e. sex-selective mass killing coined by Mary A. in 1985 is a theoretical breakthrough in the field of genocide research. Although ‘femicide’ and ‘gynocide’ are also used somewhere but to her keeping the term gender-neutral is important. The rubric however mostly covers humiliation and rape of women followed by murder (Gendercide Watch 2010).

Gendercide happens both in times of peace and war. Nation-building, state-formation, identity-preservation and patriarchal culture are the key culprits causing genocide. Non-state oppressive groups and communities, religious establishments and/or military are the potential perpetrators. It is not a mere coincidence that patriarchal and state violence go side by side. In-fact the state itself, all its apparatuses and institutions are inherently intertwined to serve and protect patriarchal structures. Feminists argue that violence against men is classified as a matter of public concern, calling for state intervention, while rape and torture against women as a private matter to be resolved by the individuals implicated, causing a greater barrier in seeking justice (Fellmeth, A.X 2000: 668).

The ideas and insights shared by feminist analysis of genocide call for incorporating elements of gender in the UN Convention on Genocide. Their analysis helped to add aspects of gender to the racial, ethnic and religious groups as mentioned in the respective convention and offers policy options and strategies to prevent genocide (Mojab, S. 2003).


State sovereignty and authorizing the state to eliminate human rights abuses holds little value to women as it means more powers to men and patriarchal orders within the state. State sovereignty structurally undermines men’s oppression of women. Manoeuvring public-private classification men halt state intervention to eliminate injustices both at home and outside. The very division is manipulative, failing to contribute in policy measures favoring women. Women suffer violence more at the hands of men than from the state. It is one of the reasons that little changed has occurred despite state’s commitment in CEDAW to eliminate sexism from their respective societies. Several states still have reservations even to sign in on cultural grounds (Fellmeth, A. 2000: 669-677, 695).

Ideology, institutional structure and human rights practices subordinate distinctiveness of women rights, violence against women in particular. For instance, rape is far more a serious crime than simply a breach of human rights. Feminists are battling to incorporate women rights into the patriarchically defined bill of human rights that ignores several discriminations and violence suffered by women both in times of peace and war. The terms ‘people’ and ‘everyone’ used in UDHR ignores the fact that men wield more power and subjugate women in most societies.  By subordinating compliance to the culture and politics UN undermines built-in prejudices and violence against women. Male dominated definitions of ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’ stressing rights exercised in the public sphere, makes women rights infringement invisible. The ‘declaration on the violence against women 1993′ is a milestone achievement of feminists as it acknowledges the inequities of power resulting in systematic violence and discrimination against women (Rowland, R.  1995: 9).

Both CEDAW and CEVAW[6] were brought into existence with the feminists’ efforts stating that both public and private discrimination against women violates women’s human rights calling upon member states to take action (Fraser A. 1999). It is with the feminists’ struggle that international law is progressively realizing the significance of women rights and the need of protecting them from genocide, institutionalized segregation, and sexual slavery. Contrary to the conventional human rights theorization – which is abstract, deductive and hierarchical – feminist understanding is empirical and compassionate. It is self-conscious, tentative and rooted into the contemporary socio-political and economic realities. Conventional jurisprudence, essentializing human persons as legal entities, is less likely to acknowledge claims made by women. It boils down international human rights into international politics only. Therefore human rights law has been a miserable failure. In-depth analysis reveals law to be inherently a gendered and oppressive system, reflecting male interests and experiences, vehemently purported by liberal nation-states. Feminist contribution underpins the insights of life that women experience differently from women. Precisely, inclusion and plurality is the essence of feminist thought. The broader outcome of feminist contribution in human rights is not women-specific; it rather engenders a profound impact for the betterment of whole society (Binyon G. 1995: 2-5).


References Cited:

Books, Reports and Articles:

  1. Aaron Xavier Fellmeth 2000, Human Rights Quarterly No. 22, pp.658–733, Johns Hopkins University Press, USA.
  2. Arvonne S. Fraser 1999, on Becoming Human: The origins and Development of Women Human Rights, No. 21.4, 853-906, John Hopkin University Press, USA.
  3. Claude E. Welch, Jr. 2009, Human Rights Quarterly, Vol 31, 2009, The John Hopkins University Press.
  4. International Initiative of Justice, 2003, Threatened Existence: A Feminist Analysis of the Genocide in Gujarat-
  5. International Labour Office 2000, Woman, training, work and gender: A partnership of equals, Geneva, Occupational sex segregation, Inefficiency, rigidity and discrimination.
  6. Kevin Baley, 1999, Slavery, Economy andDisposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, Los Angeles, University of California Press. Human Rights Quarterly, Book Review.
  7. Shahrazad Mojab, 2003, Kurdish Women in the zone of genocide and gendercide, Al-Raida, Volume 21, No. 103, Fall 2003,
  8. Rowland, Robin 1995, Human rights discourses and women: Challenging the rhetoric with reality, in Symposium: Human rights and the sociological project, ANZJS Volume 31, No.2, August 1995.
  9. Sarkar, Tanika 2002, Semiotics of Terror: Mulsim women and children in Hindu Rashtra, Economic and Political weekly, July 13, 2002.
  10. Gayle Binyon 1995, Human Rights, A feminist perspective, Human Rights Quarterly, 17.3, 209-526, John Hopkin University Press.
  11. Guglielmo Verdirame 2001, Testing the Effectiveness of International Norms: UN Humanitarian Assistance and Sexual Apartheid in Afghanistan, Human Rights Quarterly 23, 733–768, The Johns Hopkins University Press, USA.
  12. Amnesty International: India: 2005, Three years later still no justice for the victims of violence in Gujrat, Public Report, 25 February 2005.

Web Sources:

  1. Amnesty International, 05 April 2004, See: http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/AFR47/008/2004, Site hit on July 07, 13:14,
  2. Definition of Feminism, Ezine Articles, See: http://ezinearticles.com/?Definition-of-Feminism&id=1697184, Site hit on July 07, 2010, at 09:26hrs
  3. Gendercide Watch 2010, What is Gendercide,  http://www.gendercide.org/what_is_gendercide.html Site hit on July 02, 2010 at 13.hrs.
  4. Definition of Feminism, See:  Site hit on July 07, 2010, at 12:29 hrs.
  5. Jyoti panwani, 2003, Communalism combat completes a decade, See: Site hit on July 2010, 22:36 hrs.
  6. OHCHR, Fact Sheet No- 14, Contemporary Forms of Slavery,  Site hit on July 08, 2010 at 12:13 hrs.
  1. OHCHR, Slavery Convention signed at Geneva on 25 September 1926, See: Site hit on July 09, 2010 at 13:34 hrs.
  1. OHCHR, Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, See: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/slavetrade.htm, Site hit on July 09, 2010 at 13:36 hrs.
  2. Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy 2004, See:  http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-class/, Site hit on July 7, 2010, at 17:52 hrs.

10.  Thomas, Grg. 2005, Man and woman, slavery and empire, Reconstructing gender                 in Plantation America, GENdA, A Journal of African Culture and African Women                    Studies, Issue 7, 2005, See: , Site hit on June 28, 2010, at 13.00 hrs.

[1] The author is a peace and human rights activist and works for a an international human rights NGO in Pakistan. The article was written in July 2010.

[2] Definition of Feminism, See: http://ezinearticles.com/?Definition-of-Feminism&id=1697184

[3] Hazel H. V. Carby, 1984: Ideologies of womanhood ( as mentioned in Thomas, G. 1987:  19, 27 in JENdA),

[4] Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD),

[5] Marry A Waren first coined in the term in her book, Gendercide: The implications of sex selection in 1985. She says that, by analogy, gendercide would be the deliberate extermination of persons of a particular sex (or gender)…. The term also calls attention to the fact that gender roles have often had lethal consequences, and that these are in important respects analogous to the lethal consequences of racial, religious, and class prejudice” Her analysis mainly focuses of anti-female gendercide. Source: Gendercide Watch.

[6] Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW 1979) and  Coalition on the Elimination of Violence against Women (CEVAW)

Source by Amjad Nazeer