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Home arrow Sociology arrow Ethics and Human Rights in Anglophone African Women’s Literature: Feminist Empathy
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Human Rights and Literature

What are human rights? How different are African and Western notions of human rights? Might they inform one another and thereby create a more robust understanding of the human person in society? How can literature prompt us to read, think, or talk about human rights and other ethical issues? I work provisionally with the definition of human rights as “rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status.”103 Though this definition is fairly incontestable, differences and disagreements emerge in practice. In the introduction to their important collection of essays, An-naim Abdullahi and Francis M. Deng argue that local African cultural values can be used to check human rights abuses especially when leaders seek “shelter behind cultural relativism.”104 Assessing the various contributions to the collection, they, however, admit to the problems of defining the proper roles of various cultural traditions in regard to assuring the rights of individuals. The contributors have mixed feelings about this because “the assertiveness of these traditions acts as a force that casts doubt on the universal validity of international standards.”105 So, then, how do we mediate between universal human rights in theory and the often contradictory demands of different cultures in practice, especially in Africa?

Marie-Benedicte Dembour has identified four schools of thought in human rights discourse. The natural school understands “human rights as those rights one possesses simply by being a human being.” The deliberative school “conceives of human rights as political values that liberal societies choose to adopt.” The protest school is “concerned first and foremost with redressing injustice.” And the discourse school argues that “human rights exist only because people talk about them.”106 To date, the natural school’s vision of human rights seems most widespread; it is also the one adopted by the United Nations in their Universal Declaration of Human Rights.107 Thomas Buergenthal recalls that it is rare to read this declaration without thinking of the American Declaration of Independence, the ensuing Constitution, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man.108 Lynn Hunt and Jack Donnelly argue that the conceptions of human rights as they have been formulated and adopted by most countries of the world are the invention of the West; they are therefore historically contingent.109 The issue, however, is not whether human rights as we know them today are Western inventions; it is whether the ideas inherent in them are universal.110 Jack Donnelly argues that “if human rights are the rights one has simply because one is a human being as they usually are thought to be, then they are held ‘universally,’ by all human beings. They also hold ‘universally’ against all other persons and institutions.”111

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has its provenance in the European Enlightenment. As a reference point, I use the Kantian categorical imperative, which states that one should treat oneself and all humanity as an end and never as a means. Immanuel Kant is widely acknowledged as the philosophical father of human rights.112 He understands humans to be endowed with reason and free will. For him, right consists in individuals exercising their free will in virtuous action. The categorical imperative is a universal principle that will guide people’s relations to others: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”113 But the categorical imperative might become problematic when put into practice, because people might consider their own individual actions to be universal and a justification for lording themselves over others. Kant therefore offers another imperative that would check the other in practice. He argues that:

every other rational being thinks of his existence on the same rational ground which holds also for myself; thus it is at the same time an objective principle from which, as a supreme practical ground, it must be possible to derive all laws of the will. The practical imperative, therefore, is the following: Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as means only.114

Kant’s ideas are in the tradition of Descartes, who firmly established the duality of mind and body, reason and feeling; his formulation of right and dignity is centered on “I” even while referencing the other. The “I” is always at the center, and it is the “I” that has the capacity for reason. As Elizabeth S. Anker argues, even though the notions of human dignity upon which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is based are useful, they are ultimately fictions, because of the “contradictory status of the body within” that liberal tradition:

As liberalism scripts the human, the dignified individual in possession of rights is imagined to inhabit an always already fully integrated and inviolable body: a body that is whole, autonomous, and self-enclosed. This premise turns corporeal integrity into something of a baseline condition that precedes the ascription of dignity and rights to an individual. At the same time, it posits a dangerously purified subject, one purged of the body’s assumedly anarchic appetencies: its needs and desires, its vulnerabilities and decay. And when the body cannot be thus ignored, the liberal tradition generally treats it as an entity that must be repressed, quarantined, or otherwise mastered by reason.115

At the core of Anker’s argument is that the Enlightenment-based formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights fails to locate the human body at the center of consideration. The degree to which the body is removed from consideration of dignity parallels the distance between the individual and community. This is perhaps where the African conceptions of human rights can help.

African conceptions of human rights are codified in the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, also known as the Banjul Charter.116 As most African scholars of human rights argue, Africa is not averse to the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There are, however, disagreements as to the specificities deriving from its genealogy. Sylvia Tamale argues that the formulation entrenched in the UN’s declaration “reflects normative values, inspirations and interests of Western culture of a specific state of historical evolution.”117 In her thinking, African cultures and African feminism are not of necessity incompatible with human rights; indeed, African cultures have mechanisms to enhance women’s rights. She cites article 29.7 of the Banjul Charter118 and argues that any work designed to liberate women’s sexuality and grant them their human rights has to address questions such as how cultural processes work and how to seize opportunities within systems that discriminate against women. Based on her research among the Baganda people ofUganda, she argues that African cultures have openings in which advocates of human rights can work. Her work on the sexuality of Baganda women has shown that it is possible for women to discover their agency within the parameters of African cultures. She “discovered how the evolution of Ssenga practices has allowed women to negotiate agency, autonomy and self-knowledge and their sexuality. This illuminated the liberatory value of indigenous institutions.”119 At the core of the Ssenga ritual is the maximization of female sexual pleasure, that is, a statement about women’s ownership of their bodies. Tamale argues:

At the helm of this elaborate socio-cultural institution is the paternal aunt

(or surrogate versions thereof), whose role is to tutor young girls and

women in a wide range of sexual matters, including pre-menarche practices,

pre-marriage preparation, erotic instruction and reproduction.120

For Micere Githae Mugo, the African conception of human rights is closely aligned with the understanding that life does not belong to individuals alone. An individual is part and parcel of community, and whatever happens to this individual happens to the community. As she argues, orature was an important tool for “instilling consciousness pertaining to human rights among the Gikuyu” in zamani times. It is through orature that “the community and especially its young were nurtured.”121 For example, the Shona oral culture “includes ritual greetings and laudatory praises, myths, legends, stories, proverbs, riddles, word games and songs,”122 and in each instance the individual was always embedded in the consciousness of the community. The reverse is also the case. She further notes that “the birth of a Shona child was received with happiness not only by his/her family but also by the whole community. S/he was in fact considered to be the child of every other parent in the commu- nity.”123 Mugo introduces the helpful concept of “ubuntu, which perceives communalism and collective growth as core aspects of any vision of human rights.”124 Mugo is not advocating a return to ancient collectivism. Rather she draws attention to the inseparability of the individual from community, and, by implication, the idea that rights and life are one and the same.

Mugo’s concern, in my understanding, is how to embed the individual or the body in the life of community so that being human and living fully are manifested in the individual in that community. It is to be deduced that the community cannot willfully do harm to the individual because the community considers the individual as an organic part ofitself. Tamale and Mugo do not suggest that there is no discrepancy between the ideals of the African notion of human rights and the reality on the ground. It is, however, instructive that both emphasize the body embedded in the community consciousness.

Ubuntu, a concept of African human rights, has experienced a robust revival, especially since Desmond Tutu praised it as an important element in South Africa’s peaceful transition to democracy and its successful Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I have discussed ubuntu in full elsewhere.125 I use Tutu’s explication of the concept to support a distinctly African idea of human rights. For Tutu, ubuntu:

speaks of the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, “Yu, u nobuntu": “Hey, so-and-so has ubuntu." Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours." We belong in a bundle of life. We say,

“A person is a person through other persons." It is not, “I think therefore I am." It says rather: “I am human because I belong. I participate. I share."126

In my view, a key to determining whether human rights are, or ought to be universal, lies in applying some of their assumptions to the lives of individuals, especially those suffering oppression, when they manifest in intersubjective relationships. By this, I mean that for every universally held idea to be relevant it must be capable of addressing the body. Indeed, it must consider the body as its locus. Barring the influence of ideologies, every human being, or rather every body, wants to be treated with dignity. That body wants to relate to other bodies in total freedom; that body wants to be seen not as a means to some end. These are the moral conditions that lend human rights their universality. I work within the contexts of the normative conception of morality, which stipulates that there are universal codes of conduct that can be justified by a systematic application of reason in all societies. All those who recognize the principles derived from that process can conduct themselves accordingly.127 It is in this sense that I interpret feminist concerns framed as human rights as moral and universal. One of those concerns is the simple idea that male and female bodies are equal as human beings and should be treated accordingly.

Desmond Tutu contrasts ubuntu with Western thinking. “It is not, ‘I think therefore I am.’ It says rather, ‘I am human because I belong. I participate. I share.’"128 What Tutu and Micere Mugo say in regard to the African understanding of human rights is that the person (the body) is always embedded in the thinking of community. There cannot be an

“I” without a “You” and a “We.” The expression, “I am because you are” places the condition of the existence of my body in that of the other. The “you” refers to the singular and the plural forms of the second person. Human flourishing implies the flourishing of the individual in the company of others.

Yet the African conception of human rights as posited above risks subsuming the individual within a collective “we,” which might in turn be guided by the abstractions of ideologies. It is fair to argue that the African notion of human rights does not seek to replace the Western view; it makes the latter more palpable by incarnating the body in community. I agree with Elizabeth Anker that literature incarnates “facets of selfhood that liberal human rights obscure,” and that writers “reclaim and reanimate registers of corporeal engagement.”129

Joseph R. Slaughter asks how we can translate the abstract formulations of human rights into palpable forms, how we can render it legible. For him, this legibility is best achieved by the “Bildungsroman, whose plot we could provisionally gloss as the didactic story of individuals who are socialized in the process of learning for themselves what everyone else (including the reader) presumably already knows.” 130 Slaughter argues that, in effect, the Bildungsroman and the liberal formulations of human rights:

are mutually enabling fictions: each projects an image of the human personality that ratifies the other’s idealistic visions of the proper relations between the individual and society and the normative career of free and full human personality and development.131

As Slaughter rightly observes, the Bildungsroman is exemplary in enabling our reading of human rights because of “its technical capacity to make the convoluted, esoteric, and improbable narrative grammar of citizen-subjectivation not only legible but ordinary, so ordinary that it often goes unremarked, seeming merely to conform to common sense.”132 The Bildungsroman is not the only literary form that achieves that goal. Poetry and other novel genres achieve it, although in varying degrees and in different forms. Indeed, narrative aids our comprehension of human rights, not only because it articulates human development or that it provides an idealistic vision of humanity, but also because it simply presents humanity in all its imperfections. As David Palumbo-Liu argues, literature “delivers” the lives of others to us and challenges us to respond and to relate to them.133 With regard to the African women’s writing under discussion here, literature delivers their pain and in so doing privileges those bodies in the community. One of the mechanisms through which literature and orature embed the body in the thinking of community is through empathy.

As Donnelly argues, human rights “should not be confused with the values or aspirations underlying it or with enjoyment of the object of the right.”134 We speak of rights when abstract aspirations or values such as dignity are realized socially in the lives of individuals. As far as abstract values go all peoples believe that every human being has dignity. In matters of rights though, opinions diverge. How then can there be universal rights when cultures and traditions are unique and opinionated? How can we find a justification to grant individuals in different cultures rights to their bodies, that is, the freedom to live their lives as they deem fit? What should we do, for instance, when cultural traditions allow for child marriage?135 In Chapter 5, “Abstractions as Disablers of Women’s Rights,” I show that rationalizations based on cultural pluralism that had once been used to fend off the arrogance of Western cultural imperialism no longer suffice, There, I cite Jacob Zuma’s recourse to his culture as a justification for having sex with a woman against her will. Indeed, contemporary African women writers reject these rationalizations, and they do so by telling about their bodies.

As I have already noted, women’s rights are now widely accepted as human rights. A component of the rights Clinton spoke of is “the right to speak freely and the right to be heard.”136 These specifics recall the Cavarero/Butler question: “Who are you?” To speak is to provide an answer to that question, and to listen is to relate to the speaker. When we listen, we do so because we are morally obliged by the speaker’s personhood. Consistent with Levinas’s thinking, the speaker’s face arrests our spontaneity, and imposes responsibility on us.

In the subsequent section, I discuss how literature enacts the other body’s speech, or answers the question, “Who are you?” I seek to answer the question of how literature disposes us toward empathy.

 
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