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Statement by Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights at the Seventy-second session of the General Assembly Item 73 (b & c)

  New York
25 October 2017

Distinguished Delegates, Honored Chairperson, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Good morning.

I am here to talk about the world your daughters will inherit and some of the most urgent threats their human rights will face in coming years. My report is focused on the impact of diverse forms of fundamentalism and extremism, across all regions, on the cultural rights of women. I was deeply gratified that my report to the 34th session of the Human Rights Council in March, which covered the impact on cultural rights generally of these phenomena, was so positively received by member states and civil society. 

For this session of the General Assembly, I have built on the foundation of that report, to focus on the relevant impacts on women’s rights within the scope of my mandate because experts report that fundamentalism and extremism, again in diverse forms and in all regions, are amongst leading threats to women’s human rights, including cultural rights, in today’s world. I thank the more than 54 states and civil society organizations which made submissions for this report.

Fundamentalist and extremist ideologies and the movements and governments that espouse them seek to roll back advances achieved in securing women’s equality, aim to block further advances, and try to penalize and stigmatize women human rights defenders promoting such critical efforts. As noted in a June 2017 joint statement by UN human rights experts, including myself and the Working Group on Discrimination against Women:

Women’s rights are facing an alarming backlash in many parts of the world… We need more than ever to protect the fundamental principle that all rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated… Despite this unbreakable principle, upheld in the 1993 Vienna Declaration on human rights, we are witnessing efforts by fundamentalist groups to undermine the foundation on which the whole human rights system is based. Some of these efforts are based on a misuse of culture, including religion and tradition…

Such anti-rights trends, whether on the part of States or non-State actors, must be met with a vigorous international human rights-based challenge. This must center women’s human rights, including cultural rights. However difficult or controversial, the need for tackling these issues is urgent. There is no way to achieve gender equality by 2030, as committed to in the Sustainable Development Goals, without addressing the human rights, including cultural rights, impacts of fundamentalism and extremism.

At the heart of fundamentalist and extremist paradigms are rejections of equality and universality of human rights, both of which are critical to ensuring women’s cultural rights, making unwavering defence of those principles the touchstone of a gender inclusive human rights response. The fact that the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women is the most reserved of all human rights conventions, and suffers from many reservations based on unacceptable cultural relativist excuses -advocated by fundamentalists - for not implementing women’s equality, is a win for extremist and fundamentalist ideologies which must be reversed.  Cultural rights are not tantamount to cultural relativism. They are not an excuse for violations of women’s human rights or for discrimination or violence against women.

They are firmly embedded in the universal human rights framework.

There are common themes across fundamentalist and extremist abuses of cultural rights. Such abuses often involve attempts at cultural engineering aimed at redesigning culture based on monolithic world views, focused on “purity” and enmity toward “the other”, policing “honour” and “modesty”, claiming cultural and moral superiority, imposing a claimed “true religion” or “authentic” or singular culture, all of which have particular consequences for women.

Diverse religious fundamentalists have sought to punish cultural expression antithetical to their interpretations of religion through blasphemy laws, gender discriminatory family laws, campaigns of harassment, human rights abuses and outright violence. Extremists often harass and target women who are members of minority groups, or who are immigrants or are lesbian, bisexual or transgender persons, as they seek to enjoy their equal cultural rights.  They are now seeking to prohibit the freedom of movement of entire national groups based on what my fellow human rights experts have deemed discriminatory approaches.  Such efforts by the United States of America have already impacted access by women human rights defenders from countries deeply affected by extremism to the 61st session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in March 2017.

The report frames fundamentalisms, to quote Algerian sociologist and women’s human rights defender Marieme Helie-Lucas, as “political movements of the extreme right, which in a context of globalization … manipulate religion, culture or ethnicity, in order to achieve their political aims.”  Fundamentalisms have emerged out of all of the world’s major religious traditions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, and others.  Fundamentalists across all these categories abuse the cultural rights of women. Given the religious claims of their proponents, religious fundamentalisms are especially difficult and dangerous to contest. In each case, they represent a minority phenomenon distinct from the broader religious tradition itself, though drawing selectively from it. No religion is inherently fundamentalist nor should fundamentalist views be imputed to all adherents of any religion.

In fact, opposition to fundamentalism is not akin to an anti-religion stance. Both women religious believers who do not conform to fundamentalist dogma, and non-religious women, have often been targets of fundamentalist movements. Both have played important roles in the human rights struggle against fundamentalism.

The report I have the honor of presenting to you today employs the term “fundamentalism” for actors using a putatively religious discourse and “extremism” for movements with other bases. I employ the term “extremism” alongside “fundamentalism” in part because it plays a significant role in United Nations debates. However, the question of definition should always be carefully considered and applied in accordance with relevant international human rights norms. Like some of my fellow Special Rapporteurs, I am gravely concerned about the misuse of vague and broad definitions of the concept of extremism to repress activities undertaken in accordance with international human rights standards.

Some forms of contemporary extremism that have a particular impact on women’s cultural rights focus on myths of a homogenous nation, claims of ethnic or racial superiority or purity, and populist ultranationalism directed against liberal and pluralistic democracy, and indeed against human rights. Much of the contemporary assault on women’s cultural rights from extremism emanates from the far right of the political spectrum, which is ascendant or in power in many places.

The links between fundamentalism and extremism on the one hand and violent extremism and terrorism on the other must be recognized, as must the inherently dangerous nature of the underlying ideologies themselves for human rights. It is not only the violence which undermines the enjoyment of cultural rights, but also the underlying fundamentalist and extremist ideologies. Governments must not make the mistake of thinking they can use so-called “non-violent extremism.” The highest price for such blunders is paid by women, including in regard to their right to take part in cultural life without discrimination. Extremist actors will not be truly disarmed unless their ideology is comprehensively challenged and repudiated, in accordance with international standards, and in particular through culture, expression and education.

Secularism – the separation of religion and state - is also a critical piece of the struggle against fundamentalist and extremist ideologies that target women, especially those that claim a religious basis. It creates or preserves space for women and minorities to challenge those ideologies, and to enjoy their cultural rights without discrimination. Secularism finds its home in diverse forms in all regions of the world. It does “not mean the absence of religion but rather a state structure that defends both freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief, where there is no state religion, where law is not derived from God and where religious actors cannot impose their will on public policy.”

Different manifestations of fundamentalism and extremism often reinforce each other through what has been called “reciprocal radicalization”. One form of fundamentalism or extremism is not a justification for another. Each is a reinforcing reminder of the global humanist crisis that lies before us as we seek to advance toward the goal of women’s equality by 2030 in line with commitments your governments have made.

B.        A human rights approach to fundamentalism and extremism

Fundamentalism and extremism are human rights issues. It is critical to take a human rights approach to addressing them. Cultural rights are a key component of the human rights approach, and the defence of these rights today requires tackling fundamentalism and extremism.

It is unclear how Governments that espouse policies, such as systematic discrimination against women, reminiscent of those advocated by violent extremist armed groups can successfully defeat those groups without undertaking significant reform, as they create fertile ground for the implantation of similar policies. Even some world leaders, allied with extremist or fundamentalist political forces, deem it acceptable to openly demean the physical appearance of women in public life or to expressly deny women’s equality. This sets a tone for their societies, with grave implications for women, and empowers extremists.

The full implementation of the range of economic, social and cultural rights constitutes an important part of the response to fundamentalist and extremist agendas that target women. Arts, education, science and culture are among the best ways to fight fundamentalism and extremism and support women’s rights. They are not luxuries, but critical to creating alternatives and protecting youth from radicalization. Policies that combat discrimination against women in the right to take part in cultural life or promote their freedom of artistic expression, scientific freedom and right to education in accordance with international human rights norms are core aspects of combating fundamentalism and extremism.

Governments must ensure there is a counterweight to fundamentalist and extremist discourses by publicly challenging them and defending women’s equality.  Both the basic obligation of States to respect human rights, and their obligation to exercise due diligence in ensuring rights from harm by non-State actors are relevant, as is finding creative ways to hold non-State actors directly accountable. 

Supporting women’s rights is an essential component of the fight against all forms of extremism and fundamentalism. The gender component is not optional.  As a woman from Niger said, “Every step forward in the fight for women’s rights is a piece of the struggle against fundamentalism.”

Everywhere women human rights defenders have been in the forefront of recognizing, documenting and opposing fundamentalist and extremist abuses. They have urged that attention be paid to “warning signs of fundamentalism”, including rising violence against women, obvious developments “often ignored for the sake of national and religious unity”.   One of the best ways the international community can combat these problems is by listening to and empowering women human rights defenders – when all too often precisely the opposite transpires. In their absence, women’s rights are most likely to be a bargaining chip negotiated away or set aside in pursuit of peace with extremist and fundamentalist groups. Giving in to the social demands of fundamentalists and extremists, especially about women, only exacerbates the human rights situation and leads to escalating claims.

Working against fundamentalism and extremism is a particularly dangerous and daunting task, causing WHRDs to be labelled as opponents of their religious group or nation, to face criminal sanctions, defamation and ostracism, and can lead to death threats and attacks. I concur with the statement issued by other UN experts alerting the international community that a “global trend of fundamentalism and populism” poses increasing risks to women human rights defenders. In a recent global survey, 54% of 694 respondents among members of “young feminist organizations” noted that they were threatened in their work by “extremist or fundamentalist religious groups.” I was saddened to note that several reputable civil society organizations that made submissions for this report were concerned about retaliation.

Specific Areas of Concern Regarding the Impact of Fundamentalism and Extremism on the Cultural Rights of Women

Across most areas of my mandate, fundamentalism and extremism give rise to widespread abuses of women’s cultural rights. The following examples should be seen as part of a broader systematic assault on human rights.

The history and practice of women’s artistic expression is regularly erased by diverse fundamentalists. Women are sometimes prohibited from performing altogether… or from performing with men. This is especially the case in theocratic contexts. Such bans have devastating effects on the diversity of cultural expression. Submissions provide examples of concerts featuring women cancelled, female actors attacked, women artists threatened and insulted, and women singers and writers arrested in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. Such discriminatory practices must end immediately. Restrictions to, and violations of, artistic freedom create an unsafe environment for all engaged in the arts and undermine efforts to counter extremism and fundamentalism.

It is impossible to list all the women artists killed by diverse fundamentalists and extremists. Cultural events associated with women and girls have been the target of extremist terrorism, such as in the May 2017 attack on an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, United Kingdom when 7 of 22 victims were women and girls.   The courage to defy extremists is displayed by women artists and their mixed audiences around the world and needs recognition and support. A notable example is Afghanistan’s first all-female orchestra Zohra.

Women artists often play a significant role in calling out fundamentalism and extremism. For example, in response to what they perceived as “rising intolerance and growing assault on free speech”, coupled with violence against intellectuals, approximately 40 leading Indian writers, including women writers, returned their literary awards in protest. This effort came to prominence after well-known writer Nayantara Sahgal returned a prize. She explained: “India’s culture of diversity and debate is now under vicious assault.”

In many places, women are prohibited from being religious leaders due to stereotypical gender norms promulgated by patriarchal narratives of religion, and purveyed by State and non-State actors. Women’s equal right to take part in cultural life includes their right to be religious and spiritual leaders, and to access religious sites. Some women assert these rights by leading prayer services or issuing religious edicts and interpretations in favor of women’s rights. Many women’s groups respond to fundamentalisms by leading public discussions of oppressive interpretations of religious texts and laws. They need support in this work. I also underscore the similarly important roles played in defending cultural rights by women in associations of non-religious persons and humanists.

Women must be equal participants in cultural affairs and wider “general” society. This requires states to ensure women’s freedom to participate in social, economic and political life. The Committees on the elimination of discrimination against women and on Economic, social and cultural rights have found that denying women and girls contraception or abortion services, or forcing girls into early marriage, denies them the right to control their fertility and sexuality, which impacts the full enjoyment of their economic, social and cultural rights, including access to education, on an equal basis with men. The Special Rapporteur on freedom of assembly and of association has noted the particular pressures placed on women’s organizations working for women’s reproductive rights and health by Christian fundamentalists in Latin America.  Across regions, fundamentalists and extremists promote cultural stigmatizing of women for exercising and advocating for sexual and reproductive rights, creating a culture of shame rather than equality. This too must end if we are to achieve gender equality in the field of cultural rights by 2030.   

Through imposition of “modest” dress codes fundamentalist groups promote the idea that women are limited to a stereotypical, subordinated position in society and limited in their bodily autonomy, cultural choices, and ability to do such things as ride bicycles or play sports. They further promote a culture of shame about women’s bodies. Women who violate these dress codes are subject to threats and punishment by state and non-state actors in violation of international law in many contexts.  Such punishments must be abrogated.

Fundamentalists and extremists everywhere target education in different ways in an effort to impose their worldviews. In some places, they carry out acid attacks on girl pupils. Elsewhere they attempt to impose gender segregation in schools or to exclude women and girls. In other locations, they seek to change the content of education, such as by removing or blocking sex education from the curriculum.  The promotion and defense of non-sexist education in accordance with international standards, and of non-discrimination and full equality for women and girls in education, are among the most important measures governments can take to defeat fundamentalism and extremism and defend women’s cultural rights. I am deeply concerned about the rise in many contexts of fundamentalist run schools, often with foreign funding, schools that promote gender stereotypes, in some cases normalize violence against women, and practice a gender segregation that subverts equality.


This brings me to my conclusion and I wish to end with a story.  After an attack on 16 February at Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine in Pakistan, claimed by Daesh, an atrocity that killed 85 people taking part in a Sufi ritual, the dancer Sheema Kermani went to the site to perform for local people, despite the risks.  She explained: "The purpose of the performing arts is to 'uplift humanity' - to make us better human beings, to create an atmosphere of harmony and togetherness… [A]long with the sorrow for those who were killed one has the hope that life will go on with beauty and love. This was my message and my dance!" The international community must show as much courage as women like her do.

This is a wake-up call for our times. We face a multidirectional global avalanche of misogyny, motivated by diverse fundamentalist and extremist ideologies, and to which we must have an urgent global feminist riposte. We must heed the warning of Polish WHRD Paulina Wawrzynczy who emphasizes that: “In any country no rights are won for good. We must… continue to raise awareness of… what may be taken away from us.” States, international organizations and civil society must come together to develop comprehensive human rights strategies to defend women’s cultural rights from fundamentalism and extremism, in accordance with international norms, and I have made numerous recommendations in this regard.  Women’s cultural rights, understood as fully integrated within the human rights system, are critical counterweights to fundamentalism and extremism; they call for free self-determination of women, respect for their cultural diversity, universality and equality.   One woman from a country afflicted by extremism, told me that because of it, for the first time in many generations, life would be worse for young girls than it was for their grandmothers instead of the other way around.  For the sake of all your daughters, indeed all the daughters around the world, let us come together and take an unequivocal stand for women’s equal cultural rights so as to reverse this worrying trend.

Thank you.


1/ “U.N. experts call for resistance as battle for women’s rights intensifies”, 28 June 2017.

2/ Ayesha Imam, Jenny Morgan and Nira Yuval-Davis, eds., Warning Signs of Fundamentalisms, Women Living Under Muslim Laws, 2004, p.xiv.

3/ “Fundamentalism and populism pose deepening threat to women defending human rights, UN experts warn”, 25 November 2016.

4/ “Brave, Creative, Resilient: The Global State of Young Feminist Organizing,” report by FRIDA; the Young Feminist Fund and Association for Women’s Rights in Development, 2016, p.51.

5/ A/67/287 para.37.

6/ “Sheema Kermani defies act of terrorism, performs at Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s Shrine”, Dawn News, 21 February 2017.

7/ Paulina Wawrzynczyk, “No Battle is Ever Won for Good”, Feminist Dissent No.2, 2017, pp.189-192.