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While we live in an Age of Rights, culture continues to be a major challenge to the human rights project. During the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in the 1940s and during the Cold War era, the periodic disputes that erupted over civil and political rights in contrast to economic, social and cultural rights could be read either explicitly or implicitly as a cultural debate.

Gender has figured prominently in this perceived culture clash, for example, with the Bush administration's use of Afghan women as cultural icons in need of liberation--a claim that helped justify the overthrow of the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

According to this culture clash notion, the West is governed by rationality and enlightenment, rather than culture. By contrast, "[t]he notion that non-Western people are governed by culture suggests they have limited capacity for agency, will, or rational thought." As such, the West is assumed to provide a culturally neutral baseline or measuring rod against which to evaluate the progress of the rest of the world, whose cultural practices are said to clash with what is perceived to be a Western liberal human rights tradition.

While culture clash theorists and other scholars have focused mainly on cultural practices affecting non-Western women (as well as minority and immigrant women in the West), far less attention has been given to the complex ways in which cultural claims are advanced to limit women's human rights more generally in the West, much less in the United States. Consider, for example, the fact that the primary cases advanced in the debate over whether human rights are universal or culturally relative--female circumcision, bride burning, honor killings, veiling, polygamy--are largely drawn from non-Western States.

By contrast, this article examines cultural arguments made in opposition to the United States' ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) during hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2002. By offering a home grown illustration reflecting how cultural claims are advanced to limit women's human rights in the United States, this article provides a window into the complexity of cultural arguments. Because this article assumes that there is much we still do not fully understand about how culture operates, its focus on the United States serves as a warning against oversimplifying cultural claims at home or abroad.

Publication Citation

57 Hastings L.J. 331-383 (2005)