: Gender Stereotyping: Transnational Legal Perspectives

Gender Stereotyping: Transnational Legal Perspectives

Rachel Ball

Gender Stereotyping: Transnational Legal Perspectives by Rebecca J. Cook and Simone CusackRebecca J. Cook and Simone Cusack; University of Pennsylvania Press; 2011;
270 pp; $US 24.95 (paperback)

How seriously should we take a snide ‘meow’ directed towards a female Minister during parliamentary debate? Should we care that Australian work safety advertisements depict scenes of women cleaning and caring for children while their breadwinner husbands are out to work? Does it matter that a Toronto police officer advised a group of students that if a woman does not want to be raped she should not ‘dress like a slut’?

According to Cook and Cusack, not only do these things matter, they are significant issues of human rights concern and must be acknowledged and addressed as such if we are to adequately respect and protect women’s rights.

Gender Stereotyping: Transnational Legal Perspectivesdefines stereotyping as ‘the process of ascribing to an individual general attributes, characteristics, or roles by reason only of his or her membership of a particular group’ (p 1). Stereotypes are harmful when they devalue women or justify and perpetuate their subordination by creating a climate in which violations of women’s rights go unnoticed and unpunished.

For example, the stereotype of women as psychically weak can lead to women being passed over for jobs which they are perfectly capable of performing. Stereotypes of women as sexually chaste, or as the sexual property of men, have been used to immunise men against accountability for sexual violence.

Cusack and Cook examine stereotyping through the lens provided by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Article 5 of CEDAW requires that State Parties:

modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women has further explained in its General Recommendation No. 25 that the elimination of gender stereotyping is central to State parties’ obligation to address all forms of discrimination against women.

Within this framework, Gender Stereotyping: Transnational Legal Perspectives considers the importance of identifying and naming wrongful stereotypes and articulating the harm they cause. Cook and Cusack examine how the law can be used to perpetuate or dismantle wrongful stereotypes and they provide helpful illustrations of judgments and treaty body views that present the high and low watermarks of judicial awareness of and resistance to stereotypes.

This book is important because it helps women’s rights advocates hold their ground when allegations of stereotyping are met with rolling eyes and disdainful grumbles. Cook and Cusack’s meticulous research and thoughtful analysis reinforces the role of stereotyping in violations of women’s rights and makes a strong case that domestic and international legal systems have an obligation to respond.

The text does not purport to provide a definitive answer to discrimination in parliaments, advertising companies and police forces the world over. The law isn’t a magic wand and placing stereotyping within a transnational legal framework will not make it go away. However, by aiding the identification of stereotypes, connecting them to violations of women’s rights and proposing appropriate remedies, Gender Stereotyping: Transnational Legal Perspectives contributes to achieving a meaningful transformative equality for women.

RACHEL BALL is Director of Policy and Campaigns at the Human Rights Law Centre.

(2011) 36(3) AltLJ 217
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