Professor Sally Engle Merry, Director of the Law and Society Program and Professor of Anthropology at New York University, addressed the American University Washington College of Law community at the Annual International Week on Thursday, September 24, 2009. She spoke on translating international law into local justice.

Professor Merry’s recent project is an ethnographic examination of women’s rights movements in Peru, New York, India, and China. At the intersection of anthropology, gendered violence, human rights, and the law, her work confronts whether there is an intrinsic conflict between the advancement of women’s rights and traditional culture.

Many international women’s rights issues center on controversial practices rooted in cultural traditions. Practices like female genital cutting, dowry murder, female infanticide, honor killings, sex trafficking, and child marriage, for example, are seen by many as oppressive to women but still sustained by tradition. As an extension of this dichotomy between culture and tradition, Merry argues that the human rights movement often inadvertently characterizes women in developing countries as young, innocent, passive, vulnerable, and oppressed in their sexuality. Consequently, women need “masculine” western interventions to rescue them and “give them” equal rights, creating a system in which equality comes at the price of culture. Merry argues that classifying rights and culture as opposing forces hinders our ability to understand these complex issues.

Merry examines how women’s non-governmental organizations use a process she calls “vernacularization,” or the adaptation of human rights vocabulary, concepts, and technology developed in cosmopolitan centers such as United Nations conferences in New York and Geneva into terms that work in local contexts. On the ground, Merry’s ethnographic approach shows that rights and culture are in the process of re-making each other. Local actors use human rights tools and language in a way that fits local culture. Local culture, in turn, shapes the rights discourse on the local level. Based on her research she outlined two types of “vernacularization.” Some grassroots organizations use rights discourse in a diffuse, broad fashion; Merry categorizes this as an inspirational, “imaginative space” created by the concept of gender equality. Others use a more explicit legal framework, turning to transnational support to implement and enforce human rights norms and standards on the local level.

To combat the notion of a top-down structure in which “the west” gives “developing nations” the gift of human rights, Merry contends that even the concept of human rights is a cultural phenomenon, and the process of articulating and negotiating human rights standards and norms is a multi-faceted cultural process. The separation between “us” and “them” fails to describe the reality of women’s rights movements. Human rights workers need to be aware of the way human rights issues are constructed and commodified. Social rights movements need supporters, media attention, and money to generate visibility and political momentum. This system creates pressure to “tell the story” in a certain way. The story of the passive, traditional woman oppressed by culture is, for many, a compelling one, but Merry’s work maintains that women are not passively waiting for rescue; rather, they are actively constructing and re-imagining the human rights movement from a local perspective, whether in New York or Lima.

Professor Sally Merry is Director of the Program on Law and Society and Professor in the Department of Anthropology at New York University. Her most recent publications include Gender Violence: A Cultural Perspective (Wiley Blackwell, 2008); The Practice of Human Rights: Tracking Law Between the Global and the Local (Cambridge University Press, 2007), with Mark Goodale; and Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice (University of Chicago Press, 2006). She is the author of over one hundred articles and reviews on law, anthropology, race and class, conflict resolution, and gender violence.