Tracing a Global History

Ph.D. candidate Zain Lakhani historicizes the politics of sexual violence against women in the age of human rights.
August 5, 2013

History Ph.D. candidate Zain Lakhani set out to study sexual violence in the United States, but the more she learned, the more she realized she was telling a global story. Her dissertation, “Bodily Harms: Rape and the Political Meaning of Violence in the Age of Human Rights,” investigates the ways in which shifting domestic ideas interact and re-form in arenas of global debate to create new definitions of violence, women, and body.

“The issues we often imagine as contemporary problems—from violence against women in armed conflict to sex trafficking—have a history as political ideas,” Lakhani says. "These histories have a profound impact on how these ideas are negotiated on both the domestic and the international stage.” In order to understand how these issues affect real people, she argues, we need to understand how we got here, and why.

Lakhani traces the history of how “women’s rights” became incorporated into America’s global platform on human rights. She explores the confluence of long term social transformations and key turning points such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, which began in 1993 and sought to include rape as a crime of war. “Of the extensive literature on sexual violence and human rights,” she says, “very little considers this as an historical process.”

While it might seem to be too soon to see the “women’s rights as human rights” era of the 1990s-2000s as an historical period of its own, Lakhani argues that major shifts occurred domestically and internationally in that time. Global definitions of violence that emerged reflect a tangled web of intersecting ideas and assumptions about rape, race, violence, and the body. Neither the trajectory of the movement or the definitions within it were inevitable, as the strategy, streamlining, and compromise required for change tends to bring some issues to light while subordinating others.

These definitions have consequences, Lakhani says. The circumstances under which a person can successfully seek asylum in the U.S., for instance, is directly reflective of how victimization is defined. Nafissatou Diallo, the Guinean immigrant who accused Dominique Strauss Kahn of rape in 2010, claimed refugee status in the U.S. by stating she had been raped in her home country. The debates that swirled around her veracity reveal how much definitions of women’s human rights impacts women’s ability to move, act, and gain recognition within the global arena.

“The way in which we define sexual violence also influences the formulation of these terms in domestic law and international policy,” Lakhani says. She cites the case of Jyoti Singh Pandey, the woman who was gang-raped on a bus in Delhi last December, as an example of sexual violence that is recognizable as such and so of a type that has become the foundation of international attention and domestic law. “But in India as in many other parts of the world, most acts of sexual violence do not occur as isolated incidents,” says Lakhani. “They are as much a part of women’s lack of access to resources, economic marginalization, caste position, or lack of political power as they are to cultural conceptions of inequality.”

"Most daily acts of sexual victimization are embedded within a broader constellation of marginalities that deny women control over their bodies" A woman who cannot choose when she has sex with her husband, for instance, Lakhani says, “may not have experiences that fit neatly into a delimited narrative of ‘rape;’ rather she is part of a larger structure that locates her body within a series of economic, cultural, and productive systems over which she has limited control.”

By extension, the issues most central to these women may not in fact be sexual violence, or even violence as traditionally defined by international gatekeeper organizations. Inadequate access to food and clean water, the inability to control where they live or how they work, forced migration, or lack of mobility may be equally or more important in the daily lives of many women than direct instances of rape or domestic abuse.

“The pressure to enumerate, count, and classify incidents of sexual violence,” Lakhani says, “has forced global definitions of what is and is not rape, violence, and abuse—definitions that exclude and limit as much as they include and allow.”

Lakhani’s research was informed and supported by the 2012-2013 Penn Humanities Forum. This spring she was named a Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellow by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.