Feminism v. Feminism: What is a feminist approach to transnational criminal law?

Catherine O'Rourke

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The American Society of International Law (ASIL) has been engaged in an ongoing conversation on feminist interventions in international law. The focus of these conversations has been on two areas critical to feminist inquiry: power and difference. But feminist talk of power and difference today is distinct from that in the past. In particular, questions concerning power have flipped. As the legal scholar Janet Halley has observed, in the international arena, at least, feminists are no longer outsiders speaking truth to power. Today, feminists wield real, legal power themselves. Halley and others here at ASIL have urged that feminists come to grips with their own power and critically assess the effects-both beneficial and detrimental-that feminist legal interventions have had on real women and men on the ground.But some of the contributions of this year's panelists seem, at least implicitly, to challenge this story of "governance feminism"-that is, feminism as all-powerful, particularly in the international arena. We hear of the cooptation of feminists in campaigns for legal reform in the area of human trafficking, where religious moralists and colonial impulses to "save" brown women from brown men obscure feminist goals. We hear the suggestion that we must move from our myopic focus on legal reform to address underlying social and cultural norms that more profoundly affect women's lives. Domestic violence laws, for example, are underenforced because of prevailing notions of privacy surrounding the family home. Similarly, we learn that anti-trafficking laws do little to change the plight of women in a world of dramatically unequal social and economic relations. As Catherine O'Rourke concludes, "Legal change can be affected without significantly impacting the context from which the problem emerges."Do these arguments disprove governance feminism? Or do they suggest exactly why we need to take a break from feminist lawmaking? Stated differently: is the problem with transnational criminal law reform that it is too feminist or not feminist enough?
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)274-278
JournalAmerican Society of International Law Proceedings of 102nd Annual Meeting
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 2008


  • Transitional Justice
  • International Law
  • Violence Against Women
  • Gender
  • Feminism


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