Becoming sexual subjects: Rape and the political meaning of violence in the age of human rights

Zain Lakhani, University of Pennsylvania


By the turn of the twenty-first century, sexual violence had become the primary framework for women's human rights. In ways that would have been inconceivable fifty years earlier, the sexually violated woman had become the ultimate casualty of global patriarchy, and the predominant way in which women were seen as victims of armed and political conflict. On the one hand, women's human rights challenged the public-private divide and extended human rights protections to non-state actors in the private sphere. On the other hand, the movement brokered women's relationship to the state through the lens of violence, making them politically visible as victims in ways that ultimately curtailed their access to human rights aid. Becoming Sexual Subjects explores the creation of America's global platform on women's human rights. Specifically, it traces how women's human rights were made legally and politically meaningful within a globally focused United States. Women's human rights gained political salience precisely as refugee, asylum, and other forms of state-based humanitarianism were in decline. The expansion of women's rights into the political realm of human rights thus required new metrics for policing the boundaries of state responsibility, as the United States sought to expand its rhetorical but limit its material commitment to aid. As this dissertation argues, the criteria for assessing the credibility of claimants emerged predominantly from within the women's human rights movement itself. Rather than rejecting the validity of gender-based persecution or challenging the disintegration of the public-private divide, policy makers sought to embed the tenets of trauma, victimization and violence directly into the law itself, in ways that ultimately circumscribed women's access to aid. However, these inherently subjective criteria were also subject to both legal and cultural readings in the courtrooms, interview halls and chambers where women's human rights were practically negotiated. The multifaceted cultural framework that judges, asylum officers and other administrators brought to bear on gender based cases also, at times, critically shifted the definition of persecution, and expanded notions of the political to include culturally, if not legally legitimate claims.

Subject Area

American history|World History|Gender studies

Recommended Citation

Lakhani, Zain, "Becoming sexual subjects: Rape and the political meaning of violence in the age of human rights" (2014). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3670925.