University of Virginia, College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences


Denise Walsh

Associate Professor, Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics

S454 Gibson Hall, 1540 Jefferson
Park Ave


"When Rights Go Wrong: Multiculturalism and Women's Rights"

Project Summary:  Why and how do multiculturalism and women's rights go wrong, and how can they be made right again? When Rights Go Wrong answers these questions by comparing three very different cases: polygyny in South Africa, indigenous women's right to return to the reservation in Canada, and the face veil ban in France. Despite their many differences, these three cases share important similarities. In all three, politicians seeking votes declared that a policy conflict between multiculturalism and women's rights existed, and that they must solve it. In all three, politicians favored the set of rights most likely to win them votes. To justify their choice, politicians argued that their preferred set of rights served national interests. In contrast, minority women's organizations argued that multiculturalism and women's rights were indivisible. They demanded both the right to reinterpret their cultural traditions and the right to shape public policies that targeted them. This suggests that policy conflicts between multiculturalism and women's rights are not inevitable, that when these conflicts erupt they contribute to nationalist fervor, and that empowering minority women's organizations to speak and be heard when liberal democracies debate issues like polygyny could redeem both multiculturalism and women's rights.

Project Update/Status:  As an IHGC Mellon Fellow, I have had the opportunity to complete my on-site field research for this project and I am currently preparing a book proposal and drafts of the first two chapters for university press review. During the spring semester of 2017 I will teach a new course that builds on some of the findings of this project titled, “Power, Violence and Inequality in the Global South."