For most, our self-concept is a complex creation, mingling together different aspects of our life experiences and personal traits. Too often, however, in academia and in the law, this inherent complexity is glossed over in favor of essentialism—the idea that the human “self” can be reduced to a singular essential characteristic such as race or gender. Professor Johanna Bond has spent her career fighting this notion, particularly on behalf of African women and others in the Global South who both reject discrimination based on their gender and yet hold tightly to the positive aspects of their culture.
Professor Bond’s engagement with these issues began early in her legal life. As a law student at the University of Minnesota, she worked with the International Women’s Rights Action Watch, (IWRAW) which gathered information about the violation of women’s human rights to assist U.N. committees. Through these efforts she met a number of pioneering African feminists, such as Sarah Longwe from Zambia, who brought suit against the Intercontinental Hotel for gender discrimination after it prohibited her from attending a children’s party because she lacked a male escort. Unity Dow from Botswana, the first female justice on the High Court of Botswana, similarly brought suit for gender discrimination and won her case against steep odds. Reflecting back, Professor Bond describes these associations as being, “truly inspirational.”
Through these personal contacts and her own evaluations of critical race and feminist theories, she began to focus on the plight of those who face discrimination from their culture yet do not wish to completely reject their culture. In a seminal 2003 piece, International Intersectionality: A Theoretical and Pragmatic Exploration of Women’s International Human Rights Violations (52 Emory L.J. 71), Bond criticizes the prevailing framework of women’s human rights for not adequately reflecting the experience…”[of] women who may experience discrimination or human rights violations as a result of both gender and another ground.” She further argues that the U.N. and other international legal organizations such as NGO’s have compounded this theoretical shortcoming by structuring responsibility for human rights along rigid lines of race, gender, and sexual orientation.
In a series of subsequent articles, Bond has applied these insights and explored attempts in particular situations to accommodate both culture and gender rights.
Gender, Discourse, and Customary Law in Africa (83 S. Cal. L. Rev. 509 (2010)), Pluralism in Ghana: The Perils and Promise of Parallel Law, (10 Or. Rev. Int’l L. 391, 418 (2008)), and Culture, Dissent, and the State: The Example of Commonwealth African Marriage Law, (14 Yale Hum. Rts. & Dev. L.J. 1 (2011)) all discuss the effects on women’s rights when the state cedes legal jurisdiction over particular matters, mainly family law, to minority groups. In some cases that has resulted in discrimination against women because it removes them from the protective influence of equality laws; even if those laws are too often ignored by the regular judiciary.
Professor Bond recently broke new ground with a 2012 article, Honor As Property, (23 Colum. J. Gender & L. 202). It surveys the topic of honor-related violence, where women or girls who commit or are alleged to commit sexual improprieties are beaten or killed by their own family members to “cleanse” or repair the family honor. She argues that this stated justification for violence parallels in many ways justifications for violence in protection of real or personal property in jurisdictions, worldwide. This understanding of family honor as a form of non-tangible property owned collectively by the family and controlled primarily by males opens up new possibilities for innovative, grass roots driven reform. She suggests that while stiffer criminal penalties would help at the margin, the biggest advances will require cultural change where women gain the ability to share control of the honor property and the family’s honor is not tied so closely to the behavior of the female members.
Looking ahead, Bond envisions her work continuing to tackle the hard questions of gender intersecting with other identities. In her view, real change will not come from either government enforced laws and edicts, or imperialist pronouncements from Western human rights advocates. Real change, she believes, can only come as discursive space is carved out for dissenting voices within each culture and tradition.