By Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of education and history at NYU
Last Sunday, at the United Nations, world leaders marked the 20th anniversary of the landmark Beijing accord on women’s rights. They celebrated women’s progress—especially in education, health, and labor—and underscored ongoing gender inequalities.
But they also condemned the jailing of female political dissidents in China, which co-hosted Sunday’s summit. And, most importantly, they didn’t debate abortion, contraception, or forced marriage. That might signal a decline of the global culture wars about gender and sexuality, which have defined the Beijing legacy since 1995.
The Beijing agreement was the first international affirmation of women’s sexual autonomy, declaring that women have the right to “decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality.” And that was anathema to conservatives around the world, who saw it as a prescription for sexual license and an assault on traditional institutions. If all women were sexually independent, could parents no longer arrange their marriages? And would women also have the right to engage in sex outside of marriage, despite traditional religious prohibitions on the same?
Before the ink was dry on the Beijing accord, delegates from Muslim countries and the Vatican joined hands with American right-wing activists to condemn it. They also forged new organizations like the World Congress of Families, which galvanized conservatives around the globe—“the most orthodox of each group, people that are least likely to compromise,” as the WCF declared—to challenge the Beijing principles.
So when delegates assembled at the United Nations in 2000 to mark the fifth anniversary of the accord, they were met by waves of right-wing demonstrators. “Come to the UN to fight,” one organizer urged, in a letter to fellow conservatives. “You will work alongside Catholics, Evangelicals, Jews, Muslims, and Mormons . . . We are the children of Abraham arising to fight for faith and family.”
Women wearing “Motherhood” buttons pigeonholed delegates at the 2000 conference, warning them that the Beijing treaty would weaken family bonds. Long-bearded friars arranged themselves in the shape of a cross, exhorting delegates to follow God’s dictates instead of Beijing’s.
As late as 2010, when the UN commemorated the 15th anniversary of the accord, critics from Qatar, Syria, and Iran joined American conservatives in attacking abortion, contraceptive services, and other threats to “traditional marriage.” They also earned a rebuke from women’s rights groups, who feared a backlash against their efforts. “We’re celebrating 15 years since the Beijing Conference, but they want to scale back on reproductive rights victories,” one activist worried.
But such debate was virtually absent from last Sunday’s 20th-anniversary conference, which focused instead on women’s economic and political status. And the biggest controversy surrounded China’s detention of five female activists back in March, when they tried to organize a demonstration against sexual harassment in public spaces.
“If you want to empower women, don’t imprison them on the basis of their views or beliefs,” declared Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential frontrunner Hilary Clinton added her own barb at Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who gave the keynote address to Sunday’s conference. “Xi hosting a meeting on women’s rights at the U.N. while persecuting feminists? Shameless,” Clinton tweeted.
The Chinese fired back, of course, insisting that the episode was nobody’s business but their own. “We must recognize that countries have different historical processes and realities,” Xi told a news conference in Washington last week, “that we need to respect people of all countries in the right to choose their own development independently.”
But you didn’t hear anyone at Sunday’s UN conference say that each country should also get to determine the rights of women inside its borders. Instead, delegates tripped over each other in proclaiming their commitment to gender equality in education, health, and politics.
To be sure, as the delegates acknowledged, we have a long way to go in meeting this egalitarian ideal. Yet nobody questioned the ideal itself, or suggested that it should vary across countries and cultures.
Nor did anyone denounce the conference for destroying the family or promoting abortion, as culture warriors have long warned. Those voices are still out there, of course. But as women gain more equality around the world, we’re likely to hear more about their rights as individuals—and as citizens—and less about their gender and sexuality.
“Women’s rights are human rights,” then-First Lady Hilary Clinton famously told the Beijing Conference on Women in 1995. Xi Jinping echoed those words on Sunday, but he could live to regret them. If women really have the same rights as everyone else, that raises the question of just which rights everyone should have. And Xi might not like the answer.
Image courtesy of Ted Lipien
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education,” which was published in March by Princeton University Press.