Little Bee, the main character of UK writer Chris Cleave’s novel of the same name, offers readers a hard view of gender relations when she narrates the story of a fellow asylum seeker incarcerated in one of England’s processing centers:
I remember she told me her story once and it went something like, the men came and they-/ burned-my-village-/tied-my-girls-/raped-my-girls-/took-my-girls-/whipped-my-husband-/cut-my-breast-/I-ran-away-/through-the-bush-/found-a-ship-/crossed-the-sea-/and-then-they-put-me-in-here. Or some such story like that … All the girls’ stories started out, the-men-came-and-they. And all of the stories finished, and-then-they-put-me-in-here. All the stories were sad. …(2008: 11) This passage, unencumbered by theory, explanation, or equivocation, presents a blunt view of the gender dynamics informing global violence against women – whether delivered by hired military thugs doing the dirty work of corrupt government officials and profit-maximizing transnational corporations (TNCs), or by official representatives of the law mandated to preserve order within the borders of the nation-state. I begin with this passage to stage a discussion of what it means to critically read human rights literature for its insights into the gendered nature of rights and rights violations, and the gendered nature of remedies for such violations. In Little Bee, plot structures and character formations contribute to deeper understandings of human rights as law and human rights as culture, the ways in which both legal and cultural sites of rights talk and practice are gendered – as well as the limits of the novel of human rights when it comes to addressing such complexities. Such narrative strategies address the ongoing critique of human rights as a Eurocentric, imperialist imposition upon postcolonial states, as harmful as it can be preventive, ameliorating, or healing; indeed, the novel raises the alarm of a First/Third World divide only to reveal that it may not, in fact, be a bridgeless ravine, and that constructions of gender have a great deal to do with the possibility (or nullification) of productive crossings. Further, narrative strategies employed in the novel of human rights demonstrate just what “indivisibility” can mean in the rights context, and how damaging to the work of protecting the rights of all humans has been the split of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into the two major human rights conventions between civil and political rights (the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR]) and economic, social, and cultural rights (International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights [ICESCR]). Finally, such narrative strategies blow out the letter of the law to show how the interactions among humans in both public and private contexts (and as those spheres overlap) inform the global distribution of safety and harm in surprising ways.