Back to Symposium

Women, Rights, Human Rights

Feminist Notes on Kaleck’s Concrete Utopia


Failure as a Concept

Reading Wolfgang Kaleck’s “Die konkrete Utopie der Menschenrechte” [The concrete utopia of human rights] is fun. And so should be human rights work! However, Kaleck articulates the complexity and ambivalence of the human rights work in an “everything won’t work out” attitude and performs exactly that in his book: we have to express the ideal, strive for it and fight for it, in the end we can only realize it to a limited extent – that’s okay and doesn’t make the work less valuable.

The book’s greatest strength, also from a contemporary feminist perspective, is its ability to explain why we should still (despite everything) engage in human rights activism: Kaleck creates a picture of human rights work that expands thinking spaces and could be seen as an advanced concept of failure. We need to know that we “cannot measure our actions against an end point of the ideal that cannot be represented anyway” and that is why we “should not be frustrated about it in the case of temporary failure” (p. 143). We need to work on realizing the supposedly impossible while knowing that we will probably not achieve it… at least during our lifetime.

In retrospect, the concept was also the basis of the Frauen*Volksbegehren, an Austrian, non-partisan referendum movement demanding equality for women in Austria, in which both authors played a leading role. It developed a complex list of demands that can and should serve as a “basic program for dismantling patriarchal ideas and conditions”. It was clear from the beginning that not all demands would be realized, but the aim was to draft an ideal state that would enable “a good life for all,” in some way a utopia.

In the end, 481.959 people signed the Frauen*Volksbegehren. Despite this success, none of the demands became law, which means that these votes could not be immediately translated into political success for feminist causes. Yet, in keeping with Kaleck’s sentiment that “the legal outcome versus the social impact is not always the decisive facture” (p. 95), Frauen*Volksbegehren was an immense success. Thus, the politicization of living conditions is important in the process of implementing changes: for a period of about three years, it took on the role of a feminist hub in Austria, significantly influencing public discourse and challenging unquestioned standards about gender relations. It was a breakout from old thinking patterns and the beginning of work on a concrete utopia ‒ as envisioned by Kaleck.

Women’s Rights Remain Human Rights on the Threshold

Fundamental and global gender-specific issues, such as sexual slavery, trafficking in women, domestic violence and imprisonment, reproductive control over woman’s bodies and economic deprivation of women’s lives, are sometimes referred to as the everyday ‘war on woman’. Catherine A. MacKinnon characterized this situation with the rhetorical question whether women are human; and this question is still relevant today. The mainstream human rights discourse remains highly ignorant of women as a particularly vulnerable group. The historically fundamental division between (legal) subject (man; associated with intellect, reason, culture) and object (woman; associated with the body, feeling and nature) is expressed in state responsibility for human rights violations: who and whose rights count in which sphere as relevant, violated or terrorized and what is perceived as private, domestic or international affairs, including the law of war. The fact that “much of what happens to women every day all over the world would be crisply prohibited by the clear language of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

For this to happen, the gendered relationship between private and public, citizen and state must be radically questioned; it is not only states and state organs that commit human rights violations. As Kaleck notes, the focus and activities of the human rights movement is to be extended beyond the state-centeredness in the direction of transnational corporations and capital power (p. 147). The State‘s acquiescence to oppression by male-dominated private entities is one of the main causes of human rights violations. Solidarity and resistance against the human rights violations emanating from them must therefore be just as transnational: “Our minds must be as ready to move as capital, to trace its paths and to imagine alternative destinations,“ as Mohanty puts it.

Kaleck’s writing and work is also animated by the desire to develop human rights transformative and effective for the subalterns. However, he does not overcome the basic arrangement that human rights should protect against states, state actors and authoritarian rulers and tendencies. This would be necessary in order to address the multiple, intertwined situations of violation and oppression, which often produce the authoritarian conditions and mentalities, the rightly worrying institutional-political developments and crises. The human rights of girls and women are traditionally endangered beyond the sphere of the state. The prohibition of torture, which is regarded as absolute, is not applicable to constellations of domestic violence, which is often a cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. There is no involvement of a state actor. The recognition of rape and sexual violence (in armed conflicts) as genocide and crimes against humanity by International Tribunals, although the history of wars is marked by it, first took place in the late 1990s. The vulnerability of women and their human rights has only been the subject of analysis for a few years, and adequate measures against it are also only gradually being developed and implemented. The CEDAW contains a comprehensive program for gender equality in the areas of politics, education, economy, civil law, social affairs and family. However, through its focus on these public spheres, CEDAW also reflects the formal equality approach of international law. The frame of reference for human rights efforts is, of course, the existing international legal order; it is thus an approach immanent to the system that appeals to state power and therefore affirms masculinist mechanisms of domination, albeit critically, as MacKinnon states.

An epistemic as well as activist and/or substantial legal human rights focus on women would be very worthwhile: they are the majority of the world’s “poor households”, up to 80% of the stateless, they do 2/3 of the world’s work and are politico-economically marginalized (and therefore particularly exposed to health and climate risks), they receive few percentages of the world’s income, have little to no capital, their bodies are worth less, are more often violated and abused, and their voices are suppressed and less often heard. Men dominate what is produced and under what conditions. Questions about overcoming destructive economic practices and socially necessary, meaningful work/production processes and distribution of resources as well as the realignment of the economy towards sustainability and care are key gender issues.

Women Are at the Legal and Historiographic Margins

In the end, these issues, women and women’s rights, discrimination on the basis of sex and violence against women (measured by the CEDAW and the Istanbul Convention, these are human rights violations) are also a marginal topic in the book and are only visible in a few places and in references. On the basis of the main topics and the literature cited, one notices once again that world history is a history of men, told for (progressive) men, and the gender asterisk does not change this. Although a basic awareness of inequality based on gender through or despite human rights development is in a rather indicative way addressed. Kaleck’s intention to work on human rights on the basis of real conditions could have paid more attention to the gendered social structure. This would have put more argumentative weight on the actual real conditions, which lead to human rights violations. The integration of MacKinnon’s substantive critique and feminist reconstruction of international relations, conflicts and legal discourses in Kaleck’s book would have been worthwhile and also a challenging, yet rewarding intellectual venture.

It is a continuation of overtold stories versus untold stories: breaking out of old thought structures means the beginning of utopia. According to Kaleck himself, we have to retell history again and again in order to rewrite universal world history (p. 27), otherwise it will always remain a part of the history of the West and a male history. This hint is a very important one, yet even Kaleck can only partly fulfill this claim in his book, although a lot of new or unknown organizations, movements and actors are mentioned, the story is still dominated by old (and undoubtedly meritorious) references like Amnesty International or Walter Benjamin. However, the actual demands such as for decolonization or the flattening of the center-periphery and north-south divide are bright spots created by Kaleck and an important attempt to retell and reshape the world. They are definitely expanding our thinking spaces, despite the general fact that the gender dimension of exclusion stays in the background; this ultimately proves Kaleck’s thesis that we won’t be able to meet all expectations, especially if they have to fit on only 171 pages.

It Takes a Movement

Feminist human rights work is an integral component of the incomplete democratization process, which Kaleck has impressively traced through the history and present of human rights work inside and outside of courts. Discussions on equal rights “open up an incalculable space for debate, for conflict and change” (p. 24). It has been shown that this political process is not one that begins or ends with the signing or declaration of human rights documents; it is an ongoing social negotiation, based on principles and rights that have been won, promised but not yet realized. Powerful actors must be confronted, by all means. However, this confrontation does not (only) have to take place in court. It is precisely in a political conception of human rights, which is about “developing a policy directed towards freedom and equality, which must be free of authoritarian tendencies, instead finding its own forms and content” (p. 31) to give more attention to alternative instruments to influence the legislature or participatory, decentral organized attempts and modes of setting law that are linked to self-efficacy. Because even if such actions do not lead to immediate success, they change something, they leave impressions in the world and on those who act.

The lines of social conflict and current crises provide many points of contact; never before have there been so many mass protests as recently. It would have been interesting to learn more about emancipatory legal politics – communication, rallies, campaigns, petitions, popular legislation and legal actions – which Kaleck admittedly not only observed but also accompanied as a lawyer. It’s all about speaking truth to power to make human rights reality. Creating conditions to remain able to act and speak, forming alliances and acting hand in hand despite all of our differences, intervening legally where it makes historic and strategic sense in order to revisit und reclaim the promise of human rights. Kaleck makes this again very clear, he does not overestimate the potential of law. It takes a movement. And this movement has to be a feminist one.

Magdalena Baran-Szołtys

Magdalena Baran-Szołtys is a Post-Doc Fellow at the Research Center for the History of Transformations (RECET) and the Department of Contemporary History of the University of Vienna.

View profile
Christian Berger

Christian Berger is Economic Policy Advisor at the Vienna Chamber of Labor and lecturer at, among others, the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration and the BFI Vienna Universities of Applied Sciences.

View profile
Print article
1 Comment
  1. I’m glad you talked about women’s rights and how women shouldn’t have to fight for them. In my opinion, we should teach our sons the importance of respecting women and teach our daughters how they shouldn’t let any men disrespect them. I think sharing your article would be a good place to start, so I’ll be sure to do it. Thanks for the insight on freedom and equality and how women are fighting for it.

Leave a Reply

We very much welcome your engagement with posts via the comment function but you do so as a guest on our platform. Please note that comments are not published instantly but are reviewed by the Editorial Team to help keep our blog a safe place of constructive engagement for everybody. We expect comments to engage with the arguments of the corresponding blog post and to be free of ad hominem remarks. We reserve the right to withhold the publication of abusive or defamatory comments or comments that constitute hate speech, as well as spam and comments without connection to the respective post.

Submit your Contribution
We welcome contributions on all topics relating to international law and international legal thought. Please take our Directions for Authors and/or Guidelines for Reviews into account.You can send us your text, or get in touch with a preliminary inquiry at:
Subscribe to the Blog
Subscribe to stay informed via e-mail about new posts published on Völkerrechtsblog and enter your e-mail address below.