Rebecca Cook: Thoughts on Revisiting Vienna

Revisiting Vienna where the Human Rights Conference was held in 1993 has allowed me to reflect, with the benefit of hindsight, why Vienna was an historic milestone in the international women’s movement. The movement was at a crossroads in 1993. It could continue to remain in its silo, or it could forge a path forward to ensure recognition of women’s rights as human rights. In order to forge this path forward, the movement had to include women from all walks of life, no matter what their experience of subordination were.

In rereading Demanding Accountability-The Global Campaign and Vienna Tribunal for Women’s Human Rights by Charlotte Bunch and Niamh Reilly (1994, the Center for Women’s Global Leadership and the United Nations Development Fund for Women), the 1993 Vienna Tribunal provided a forum for women from many regions of the world to testify about the many forms of oppression. In so doing, the Tribunal laid the foundation for an inclusive and engaged form of feminism, not a detached or, for example, a western form of feminism. The Tribunal gave women of many backgrounds and identities the space to name the multiple dimensions of the gendered harms they had experienced because they are women.

With the benefit of hindsight, I understand better the tensions that existed in the international women’s movement in 1993. The Vienna Tribunal ensured that the international women’s movement recognized its commonalities, but also its differences. It did not paper over these differences, but rather to it put them on the table so that respectful, and sometimes difficult, dialogues could ensue. In practicing an engaged and inclusive form of feminism for the world to see, the Tribunal ensured that the international women’s movement follow a path that incorporates diverse women’s voices.

For me, the practice of inclusive and engaged feminism at Vienna Tribunal is the historic achievement that set the international women’s movement on a path of genuine solidarity where respectful exchange of ideas and strategies is possible.

The particular memory of the Vienna Tribunal that remains with me is the courage of the organizers of the Tribunal and those who testified. The organizers showed political courage in envisioning and executing an agenda for the Tribunal that exposed the many different forms of oppression. They understood that in order for international feminism to thrive, it has to engage with all types of subordination with different historical legacies, not just a homogenized understanding of subordination that was particular to one region of the world.

The personal courage of the women who testified was contagious. In testifying, they helped other women find their voices to speak about their experiences of gender injustice, often interlocking with other forms of injustice. In testifying, they found the courage to reach into their past experiences of subordination, experiences that they would have rather left in the past. In testifying, they forced the world to bear witness to the unspeakable practices that they had endured. In testifying, they inspired men and women to find their own courage to address the causes and consequences of such practices, work that continues to this day.

Rebecca J. Cook is Professor Emerita in the Faculty of Law, the Faculty of Medicine and the Joint Centre for Bioethics, and Co-Director, International Reproductive and Sexual Health Law Program, University of Toronto.   She is Ethical and Legal issues co-editor of the International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics. Professor Cook is a Member of the Order of Canada, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the recipient of the Ludwik and Estelle Jus Memorial Human Rights Prize and the Certificate of Recognition for Outstanding Contribution to Women’s Health by the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics. Drawing inspiration from the 1993 Vienna Women’s Rights Tribunal, she edited Human Rights of Women: National and International Perspectives (UPenn Press, 1994), co-edited with J. Erdman and B. Dickens, Abortion Law in Transnational Perspective (UPenn Press, 2014), and co-authored with S. Cusack Gender Stereotyping: Transnational Legal Perspectives, all of which are also available in Spanish.