Research & Action Report, Fall/Winter 2008

Sally Engle Merry, a senior scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW), is a professor of anthropology and the director of the Law and Society Program at New York University. Previously, at Wellesley College, she was Marion Butler McLean Professor in the History of Ideas and professor of anthropology. Her primary areas of research include the rule of law in various contexts of community life and the adaptation of international standards of human rights to life in local communities. She has written five books and more than 100 articles and reviews on law, anthropology, race and class, conflict resolution, and gender violence. Awards she has received include the Kalven Prize for scholarly contributions and the J. Willard Hurst Prize, both from the Law and Society Association; the Pinanski Prize for Excellence in Teaching from Wellesley College; and the Presidential Award from the American Anthropological Association. She is a member of the executive boards of the Law and Society Association and the American Anthropological Association. Her book Gender Violence: A Cultural Introduction will be published this winter.

You’re now at work here at WCW, while continuing to teach at New York University. You’re a busy person!

(Laughing) Tell me about it. Actually, the biggest challenge in dividing my time has been remembering where my clothes are!

You’re a Wellesley College graduate, and you taught there for 30 years. What’s it like to come back to the campus, and what kind of direction will you take as a senior scholar at WCW?

Coming back has been very nice for me, and gives me a way to stay connected to the College, which I loved. I’m delighted to be here at WCW, and Susan [Executive Director Susan McGee Bailey] and I are hoping I can contribute to the Centers’ growing international collaborations and initiatives through my continuing projects, and some new ones.

What are you working on now?

As a senior scholar at WCW, I’m doing a comparative, transnational study of human rights and gender. I’ve finished the research, and we’re in the writing process. I’m working on this with Peggy Levitt, who’s in the Sociology Department at Wellesley College and a past member of the WCW Board of Overseers. She and I are working on several articles and a possible book about this research.

In your transnational studies, you sometimes refer to “localizing human rights.” Would you explain that term?

The global human rights framework is produced in discussions among representatives of countries around the world. They produce a consensual vision of what human rights are, presented in a human rights document that is then ratified by any country that wants to participate in the human rights system. But these ideas are not necessarily the same as the ideas of justice and fairness that are held by local communities; so the question becomes, How do these global ideas become meaningful in the lives of people in urban neighborhoods, in villages, in remote locations around the world? That kind of relevance occurs through the process of localization.

How does that localization happen?

The process Peggy and I have been looking at is the work of NGOs that have missions to work on women’s human rights. We looked at how some of these organizations take the concept of women’s rights that are grounded in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, or CEDAW, and use it to help solve the problems that their clients have every day.

Of course, it turns out that these NGOs don’t use exactly the same words or the same framework as the human rights convention. In fact, they often don’t refer to the human rights convention at all. They’re working in communities that are already rich with other ideas of social justice and reform. So they basically add on the human rights ideas to create a new configuration—a mix of these new ideas and other ideas that are already in place, which may themselves be transnational.

Can you give an example?

Let’s take an organization we looked at in India. The organization and local communities already had Gandhian ideas and Trotskyite ideas; and socialism was important, as were ideas about women’s empowerment from the Indian women’s movement. The organization put all these approaches together with human rights to produce something new. That’s the process—the reinterpretation of a global vision of human rights to make it locally relevant, and also to link it to other relevant justice discourses.

It’s the story of India’s women’s courts, called Nari Adalat. They’re a type of panchayat, which is an old Indian institution like a court, used to judge problems. In the past, panchayats were part of castes. Just as people within each caste would marry each other and eat together and have the same occupation, so each would have its own panchayat.

The idea of having a panchayat composed solely of women was proposed by the Indian women’s movement in the 1970s, but it wasn’t pursued for a while. About 1989 the Dutch government gave a big grant to India’s Education Department to set up a grassroots women’s empowerment program. Women were encouraged to create local collectives, where they could discuss which changes might help their lives. These women decided that two of their big problems were domestic violence and, in case of divorce, not getting back that portion of their dowry to which they were customarily entitled. So they said, let’s form ourselves into a panchayat to deal with these problems.

We visited one of the most successful ones, which has been going on for fifteen years. It really was extraordinary. You see this group of women sitting around in the village square, under a tree, hearing cases, with perhaps 40 men standing around watching. When the man who’s been called to explain himself says, “Well, I hit her because she wasn’t cooking the dishes right,” they all say, “No, no, no! That’s not right! There’s no excuse to hit her, no matter what she does!” And here are all these men standing around outside the panchayat, watching this! That itself is a new message.

The Dutch contribution was the idea of the grassroots collectives; the panchayat was the localization. Dutch money provided the NGO staff, who then hired local women to organize the collectives. The Dutch are particularly good at coming up with these grassroots development ideas.

Was government support important in providing legitimacy for these panchayats?

It’s interesting to watch this kind of organization, which is halfway between the government and an NGO. A Harvard undergraduate, Mekhla Krishnamurthy, who spent a summer traveling around with these women and observing the program, pointed out something interesting: Sometimes they’d claim to be part of the government of India—so that if they were trying to get a man whose wife had accused him of something to come to the panchayat, they’d drive their government-of-India jeep to go talk to the village headman and tell him, “We need this guy to come,” and the village headman would make sure he showed up. At other times, they’d say, “We’re not part of the government, we’re an NGO. We can be much more flexible, much more responsive to you.” So they played both sides.

The U.S. hasn’t signed CEDAW, the convention on the rights of women. Why is that?

That’s a very complicated issue. Of the six major human right treaties, we’ve ratified three—the conventions on civil and political rights, on race, and on torture. We haven’t ratified the conventions on social, economic, and cultural rights, on women, and on children. One reason is that the American public doesn’t have the drive to ratify because Americans feel they already have rights, they don’t necessarily need these conventions. But I assert that this is not true; these conventions offer better rights than we have domestically, particularly the convention on women’s rights. Second, in our country, these conventions have to be passed by Congress, where there’s a lot of resistance to tying the U.S. to international agreements and nervousness about being investigated by other countries.

But it makes us look bad. There are only two countries in the world that haven’t ratified the Convention on the Rights of a Child—the U.S. and Somalia, and Somalia hasn’t had a functioning government since 1991. In this country, there was always a lot of resistance to international governance of this kind. Remember, we didn’t sign-on to the League of Nations after World War I.

Another of your central interests has been the role of law in various contexts. What kinds of studies have you conducted?

When I was doing research for a book about the American colonization of Hawaii in the nineteenth century, I came across a lot of big, old, hand-written law books that were records of cases heard from the 1850s up to the 1890s in a Hawaiian town called Hilo. The notes were long stories about everyday lives, about who had done what to whom 150 years earlier, and it was really fascinating. I had done a previous book on contemporary cases in a New England court in the 1980s, and these were very similar kinds of cases—everyday personal cases about violence and neighbors and debts. It was really exciting to have that same kind of window on such a different place and time.

This was the time of the Hawaiian sugar plantations. One of the things I noticed about these cases was that sometimes a defendant, a plantation worker, would be fined by being assigned extra hours or extra days of plantation work—when the plantation owner and the defense attorney and the judge all had the same last name. That happened fairly often, because there was a little cohort of descendents of New England missionaries who ended up owning the plantations, being the judges, and being the lawyers.

I’m not a lawyer. For the legal profession, law is a way of getting things done. I’m interested in it as a social phenomenon that allocates power. The puzzle about law that has always interested me is that, on the one hand, law is clearly constructed by the powerful, so it’s a resource that the powerful use—for example, law protects things like property rights and labor obligations. On the other hand, law implies the possibility of resistance by the powerless because it also includes ideas of justice and fairness and equality. Even though these ideals aren’t always successful, there’s always a possibility that they can be used. And they sometimes are.

I’m also interested in the ways that the legal form can lend authority to non-legal decision-making. An interesting thing about those women’s panchayats in India is that they used legal formalities. They wrote down their cases in a big book. When a decision was made about what the accused man was supposed to do, they wrote it down on “stamp paper,” which is the English legal form used in Indian courts. So they used the formality of the court system, even though it’s not clear that their decisions had any legally binding qualities.

I saw the same thing happening in the mediation program that I studied a few years ago in Salem, Massachusetts. Someone would take a problem to the court; the court would send the parties to the mediators, who had an office in the courthouse; and a citizen would mediate the case. Then the mediator would pull out a document with the logos of the court and the mediation program, write out all the conditions of the agreement, have all the parties sign it, and tell the participants that this was going to be kept on file. No one ever explained what this meant; this was not a legally binding document, it was just “on file.” That’s a very similar pulling-in of the symbolic power of law.

During your 30 years of teaching at Wellesley College, you touched many lives. What stands out?

Shortly before I left—around 2003, 2004—I partnered with a sociologist in developing a human rights concentration. He and I together taught a course called “An Introduction to Human Rights.” We had very large classes, around 50 students, which is unusual for Wellesley. At the beginning of the semester we asked students to imagine that they were 80 years old, and to look back at their lives and tell us what they’d done—to see how they imagined themselves. It was really interesting reading these essays, because the students clearly envisioned themselves as citizens of the world, really global people. They had all imagined themselves living in different countries, traveling around, being engaged in international activities. And this had not been the case in the late ‘70s when I first started teaching at Wellesley. So these students are really very interested in positioning themselves as global actors.

The other thing I did that I hope made an impact was working on the Peace and Justice Program, which I co-chaired for many years with a colleague. We taught a course called “An Introduction to Peace Studies” that covered theorizing peace and conflict resolution, and we took students to India. I think that was actually a very transformative experience for a lot of these students.

Looking back, I see a generational shift. In the ‘70s, everybody wanted to do social change work, domestically. In the ‘80s, they were all going into economics. In the ‘90s, there was a turn. There was more interest in activism than I’d seen in the ‘80s; and the Peace and Justice Program that had been existence throughout the ‘80s, but rather small, began to boom. And now some sort of activism in international forms is a powerful interest, I think, for a lot of students. They want to work in NGOs, they want to make a difference. It’s very heartening to see that.

I’ve had lots of good experiences with my students who’ve gotten new perspectives on things. They don’t always tell you that at the time; sometimes they come back years later and say they’ve learned things. And now, as a senior scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women, I’m able to continue studying practical applications of issues that I’ve been teaching and discussing with students for years.

What’s next in the pipeline?

As an anthropologist, I want to look at statistics, and specifically at statistics used as indicators, as techniques for global governance and as new forms of power. Indicators are increasingly being used to assess compliance with human rights regimes, to monitor the activities of non-governmental organizations, and to evaluate the performance of states. I’m interested in the way indicators appear to be a technical approach to governance yet have significant effects on power relations.

Specifically, I want to look at the construction of human rights indicators—the numerical measures intended to let us compare the status of various nations in protecting human rights, and then to produce reforms. What does it mean when you take qualitative, contextualized information and convert it into a number intended to let you easily compare and rank very different countries or populations? It seems to me that the use of indicators changes knowledge from something explicit and particularized to something more general, comparable, and economically applicable, which significantly changes what this knowledge means. Statistics have been used for reform and for governance at the national level since the nineteenth century, but we are now see them expanding into the international domain. This is a fundamental technology for global capitalism, and it’s increasingly being used by human rights organizations for such diverse goals as measuring rates of violence against women globally or assessing the wellbeing of indigenous peoples. Will this mean greater compliance with human rights? Will it promote intervention into weaker countries by stronger ones? Will it promote the development of practices of self-governance by countries? These are important but open questions that I’ll explore in my next research project. This project will ideally contribute to the work of WCW with gender and the international system.