The focus of this year’s Nobel peace prize on women’s rights around the world comes hot on the heels of the publication of the World Bank’s 2012 world development report (WDR), which focused on the importance of gender equality for development. Women’s rights have never been so high on the agenda of the development sector, and this is the culmination of many years of lobbying and struggle by persistent advocates.
That women’s rights are at the heart of political debate worldwide is an undoubted political and intellectual triumph. But, as with most victories won by social and political movements, the taste of success is accompanied by the threat of co-option.
What does it mean when staunch conservatives express themselves so comfortably in the language of women’s rights and gender equality? Might the radical nature of the movement be watered down to mean something more politically palatable but less transformative in its objectives?
One word, in particular, is conspicuous in its absence: feminism. The word is anathema to conservative or middle-of-the-road politicians in most countries, who see in it a radical and perhaps exaggerated voice.
But even some of the most ardent campaigners for women’s rights sometimes view parts of the feminist movement with mistrust, thinking that it represents an agenda for women who are not like them, either in their own country or in the richer western world.