Exporting Subjects: Globalizing Family Law Progress through International Human Rights

In our popular culture and social consciousness, women are no longer the second-class citizens they used to be. Magazines, television advertisements, and billboards featuring women show us how we have achieved independence, wealth, desirability, and our intelligence. We are no longer the supporting role in movies and entertainment but stars in our own right. For this, we can thank both changing society and the unrelenting work of many women who refused to bring the coffee for the boss. The women’s movement in the United States has made large gains for women through the use of social activism and legal action. Their successes have led to increased acceptance of women in the corridors of business and government; greater access to education; recognition of the harms of domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape; and the securing of reproductive rights. Like the Virginia Slims advertisement used to say: You’ve come a long way, baby. Despite these victories, Liberal legal feminism has also been critiqued by black feminists and Third World feminists for its narrow construction of women’s rights and its failure to include women at the margins of Liberal society. Its relationship to cultures and religions that are illiberal and non-Western has been fraught with tension and its track record on fighting for the rights of subordinated women of color both at home and abroad has been inconsistent at best. This Article examines the ways in which the prioritization of individual rights and freedom promoted by Liberal legal feminism, specifically with regard to family law reform, dictates the reform priorities articulated by transnational activists for women’s rights. As the Article explains, this American-born reform package is exported through international human rights channels, and at transnational meetings among transnational elites with an aim to reform “local,” “traditional” societies. When these reform priorities arrive at the intended local/ tradition society, they are met with resistance and alternative priorities that do not necessarily comport with Liberal feminist agendas. With this process in mind, the Article traces the journey of key familylaw reforms, namely with regard to reproductive rights and domestic violence, as these projects move from the United States through the transnational sphere and into local destinations in South Asia to show how these core projects are received and reprioritized. Further, the Article attempts to uncover the feminist subject that is concurrently exported. The feminist subject is comprised of a very particular set of ideas of what it means to be a woman, defining how women should be and what they should value and prioritize in both law and society. While the Liberal feminist subject may not necessarily be dangerous or destructive, this Article questions the ways in which such reforms impact “local women” themselves and explores the costs of that impact.