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Bargaining in Democracy PART I

April 21, 2010

The term “bargaining chip” is common place in liberal outlets nowadays to conceptualize the fate of women’s rights in political landscapes influenced by fundamental Islam. I first saw the term used in a New York Times op-ed piece on women and Islam by Mona Eltahawy. I then started hearing it being used in liberal circles in Male’. Last I saw it was in a petition supporting Gita Sahgal, Head of the Gender Unit at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International, who voiced out against Amnesty’s practice of striking bargains with certain morally-bankrupt groups.

As I understand, the group of 32 who met with President Nasheed has similar concerns- that women’s rights are being bargained away for political expediency.

Things really hit home for me when I heard President Nasheed declare himself part of the state and no longer an activist. He is not willing to curb freedom of expression, whether this is because he is a politician or a firm libertarian, I do not know. My suspicion is that it is the latter, since libertarians value freedom above all- freedom here referring to negative freedom which means that “[one] must do everything [one] can to avoid interfering with each other’s projects” (Steven Luper-Foy).

But one thing I know for sure is we need to explore this idea of freedom of expression. For the sake of this discussion, let’s call freedom of expression, the right to express opinions. Now consider women’s rights- included here would be the right to mobility, right to education, right to work and so on. In this context, we have two conflicting rights: the right of the preachers or lecturers (attn: Sheik Shaheem) to express their views on religion, laced with misogyny, which is in direct violation of these women’s rights mentioned earlier.

What happens then? Who decides which right to keep and which to give up? And how does one arrive at such a decision?


In order to answer these questions, we need to understand the concept of rights- what are they, where do they come from? Who came up with the idea of rights?

Rights, a dominant theme in liberal discourse, are generally defined as the minimum basic requirement for a human being to live a respectable life. The post-enlightenment views on rights generally branch into two camps: those who believe that rights exist in the state of nature, i.e. prior to the formation of the state, and those who argue that rights are a social construction and depend on the state of society at that time. The most often cited thinker on the legitimacy of natural rights would be John Locke. For Locke, three main rights hold supreme: right to life, liberty and private property- private property defined more or less as the value of labor for working the land.

The most convincing thinker from the contractarianism camp would be Thomas Hobbes. For Hobbes, rights were simply those concessions agreed to at the time of making the social contract. There was no such thing as natural rights. In a Hobbesian world, rights are only as good as the legal system that guards them.

French philosopher Jean-Jaques Rousseau’s view on rights sums up this brief introduction to the origin of rights very aptly: natural rights (that exist in the state of nature) become legal rights at the time of making the social contract. For Locke and Rousseau, rights exist before the state, which means they come from somewhere that is not a constitution or a bill of rights. Do they come from God? Or does the notion of rights emerge with the development of a human conscience or a consciousness? It could be both.

For Hobbes, rights are what we would term today as the law of the land. Therefore, they come from a constitution, a bill of rights or some such other legal document.

The fundamental question now is, can a Universal Declaration of Human Rights exist? Can humans, and more specifically women world over, have a standard set of basic rights that protect their physiological and psychological integrity? The answer to this depends on which camp one identifies with: those of us who are Hobbesians will disagree, since rights are specific to a society at a particular time. Those who believe in natural rights will subscribe to the declaration. (Notice the verb used in the first two questions is ‘can’ not ‘should’, meaning that I am posing not a normative question, but a positive one).

This is the first of a series of three articles exploring the concept of rights, values and the bargaining of rights and freedom in democracy.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Natural Order permalink
    April 21, 2010 8:35 am

    Deviating from the article i would like to contribute to this platform the wisdom of this esteems psychologist and author of the Book The Sexual Paradox, to actually understand the differences of sexes.

    Here is a Interview of her on Youtube

  2. April 21, 2010 2:47 pm


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