An Interview With Prof. Karen Engle About Her New Book

Prof. Karen Engle

Prof. Karen Engle’s new book, The Grip of Sexual Violence in Conflict, was released last week from Stanford University Press. Subtitled “Feminists Interventions in International Law,” the monograph traces three decades of feminist engagement with international law and institutions with a focus on how and why both feminist activism and international law became “gripped” by the issue of sexual violence in conflict. The book is receiving raves, with one reviewer writing that “Engle reopens fateful choices and closes with an inspiring vision of a different feminism and a different international law.”

Engle, the Minerva House Drysdale Regents Chair in Law and the founder and co-director of the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice, has dedicated much of her scholarly career to the study of human rights movements and the use of law to shape, empower, or restrict them.

Texas Law’s Christopher Roberts talked with Prof. Engle about the new book and some common threads of her body of work.


Christopher Roberts: Thanks for talking with us, Prof. Engle.

Karen Engle: My pleasure! I am excited that book is out now and eager to talk about it.

Glad to hear it. Sometimes, by the time a book is actually released…

The author is ready to be done with it? Yes, that’s an occupational hazard. And I am very busy with new and exciting projects. But I’m proud of this book and want to share it and have people engage with its ideas.

For those who haven’t read The Grip of Sexual Violence in Conflict, could you tell us what it’s about.

Very briefly, the book traces the impact that women’s human rights advocates have had on international law and vice versa, concentrating on their treatment of sexual violence in conflict. It considers a variety of international institutional and legal sites and debates in which sexual violence in conflict has played a central role: those involving military intervention, international criminal law, and human peace and security.

I argue that, while once quite marginal to human rights and international law, women’s rights advocates have over the years had considerable success in achieving mainstream recognition. Many of their successes, however, are related to sexual violence in conflict. That means that other issues of interest to many feminists around the world—such as peace, economic maldistribution, imperialism, and even equality—have largely been sidelined. At the same time, attention to sexual violence propelled a particular feminist perspective, one centered around sexual harm, which I believe has provided a narrowed—even distorted—lens through which to understand, represent, and address issues of gender, sex, ethnicity, and armed conflict. It also, somewhat ironically, has given the issue of sexual violence in conflict mainstream appeal.

That sounds as though it covers a lot of territory. What are the origins of the book?

Well, when I began to work in human rights in the mid- to late-1980s, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out whether and how I could be a human rights advocate and work on women’s rights at the same time. As I said, women’s rights were then quite marginal to human rights. But within a few years, almost overnight (for a number of reasons I discuss in the book, including the end of the Cold War), “women’s rights are human rights” became a broadly accepted slogan.

About ten years ago, I set out to chronicle those changes in a book on the history of the women’s human rights movement. It was only then that I saw not only how much the advocacy centered around sexual violence in conflict, but how that focus was partly responsible for feminist successes in the field. Those observations eventually became the basis for the book.

You say you started thinking about this work as a book about ten years ago. That’s a long time to live with a book. I assume it’s evolved over that time. How is the finished project different from what you imagined?

I began to write the book with a much broader scope than sexual violence in conflict. But given the centrality of sexual violence in conflict to women’s human rights advocacy, it became my lens into feminist engagement with international law.

Of course, the book continued to change with new developments in international law and policy on the issue, including as sexual violence in conflict became more and more mainstreamed as a concern, particularly in the international peace and security context. The penultimate chapter of the book, for example, considers nearly two decades of UN Security Council resolutions and debates on sexual violence in conflict. The trajectory of those debates—with the latest resolution passed as I was making my final round of edits—show an increasingly militarized and criminalized response to sexual violence in conflict. Although the trajectory mirrors some of what I identify in other institutional sites, I could not have predicted it when I began the book.

It must be nerve-wracking when current events threaten to overtake editorial deadlines—or thrilling when they bear out your thesis.

Truthfully, it is a bit of both! I in fact delayed the book’s publication to take account of the Security Council resolution I mentioned because it added a new dimension that I thought I should address and that those who are deep into the field would be aware of. But, of course, many developments took place that I could not address or could only mention in a cursory manner. Fortunately, they did tend to bear out, rather than call into question, my thesis.

This leads naturally to asking, what kind of reaction do you hope for with the book? What are the conversations you hope people start having as a result of reading it and living with the ideas in it?

I expect the book to be controversial because it questions many aspects of the largely feminist-led treatment of sexual violence in conflict. I challenge the dominant focus on sexual violence in conflict, but—as importantly—I argue that women’s human rights advocates, feminist international criminal lawyers, and even women’s peace advocates have facilitated, if not deployed, essentialized images of victims and their communities to support criminal and sometimes militarized responses to sexual violence in conflict. Those responses have had symbolic effects—providing limited representations of women’s and men’s lives during armed conflict and perpetuating stereotypes about those groups involved in “ethnic conflict.” But they have had more direct distributive effects as well. Not only have they unfortunately failed to make a significant dent on incidences of sexual violence in conflict, they have displaced feminist attention at best, and contributed at worst, to economic maldistribution, imperialism, and—relatedly—some of the structural causes of the very armed conflicts in which they intervene.

At the same time, I think that many feminists will in fact agree with at least some of what I argue. Indeed, a number of those engaged in this work have acknowledged a few of the consequences I name, though they tend to see them as resulting more from mainstream co-optation rather than from the women’s human rights movement itself.  So I hope to generate conversation both about how we might better prevent and treat sexual violence in conflict—without projecting our assumptions about the causes, effects, and proper responses onto victims and perpetrators—and about how we might better understand and respond to issues of war, peace, material distribution, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity.

Perhaps I should have asked this question earlier in our conversation: How are you defining “feminist” and “feminism” in the context of your book? Those are terms that, not long ago, I would have regarded as uncontroversial and easily understood. In many circles, however, (including the non-academic segment of our readers) they may warrant some clarification, and even defense.

I appreciate your asking that question. I’m not sure that the terms were ever noncontroversial, but my main aim in the book is to remind us that there are multiple feminist perspectives, which are sometimes even at odds with each other. Saying one is or is not a feminist does not lead to any necessary political or legal strategy.

In the first chapter of the book, where I trace the genealogy of women’s human rights advocacy’s attention to sexual violence in conflict, I spend as much time talking about dissensus as consensus among feminists. I explore early divides among feminists over a variety of issues, including the treatment of culture, economic distribution, nationalism, peace, and sex. Approaches to each of those issues were often determined by whether, and if so how, one saw women’s subordination to men to be universal and to constitute the greatest injustice to be addressed (over and distinct from issues like colonialism, racism, and economic inequality). My inquiry is largely about what happened to the dissensus when a particular form of feminism—one that sees not only women’s subordination to men, but women’s sexual subordination to men, as the greatest structural impediment to women’s freedom—prevailed over others in women’s human rights advocacy. How did attention to and the treatment of sexual violence in conflict both represent and reinforce that position? My aim is to resurrect some of the earlier approaches in leveraging my own critique.

Very helpful, thanks. Since you just mentioned genealogy, you provided a great segue to my next question, which is that I’ve heard you describe your work as being partly a matter of genealogy: tracing the roots of a movement back through the words, deeds, and ideas of the participants of the movement and back as far as you can. How is that helpful in understanding the current state of a major social movement?

I suppose another way of answering your earlier question about how the book changed over time is that it went from being a history of the women’s human rights movement to at least partly a genealogy of the dominance of sexual violence in conflict as an issue of gender in international law. Specifically, I ask what happened in both international law and women’s rights advocacy over the past three decades that made sexual violence in conflict such a focal point and also that made international criminal law and sometimes military intervention seem the obvious ways to address it.

I think genealogies are important because they allow us to see how what might seem obvious today is neither natural nor inevitable, but a product of many legal and political choices. By pointing out this historical contingency, I aim to highlight other feminist approaches and issues that were left on the cutting room floor. I recall, for example, Third-world, or postcolonial, feminist positions that were once commonly articulated in debates among women’s human rights advocates, and then invoke them anew to shed light on what I believe are problematic assumptions about the harm of sexual violence.

You are a devoted human rights scholar who isn’t shy about offering some pretty trenchant critiques of the human rights movement. Fair to say?

My critiques about human rights movements, perhaps ironically, are often about their successes—showing in particular how they have used and shaped law in their efforts. If you believe that human rights do not provide only a single answer but open up a variety of political and legal arrangements or that much human rights law is open to interpretation, then you should see the value of critique.

Through critique, we can not only identify but understand the distributional effects of particular arrangements. If we want to contest those arrangements, we need to see how the structural biases that underlie them often persist notwithstanding good intentions and lofty ideals. And we need to be open to the possibility that what once seemed like success might need to be rethought. We also need to be open to the possibility that other movements or legal rules might be more fruitful avenues of intervention, even as we carry our critical tools to those areas.

You mentioned at the start of our conversation that you are working on some new projects. Can you share a little about them?

Well, there are two immediate ones, which are each in a way a spinoff of the book: one about criminal law and one about economic injustice.

The first involves what I have termed “the turn to criminal law” in human rights. I have critiqued an increasing reliance on criminal law to enforce much of international human rights and humanitarian law. Some of that critique appears in The Grip of Sexual Violence since criminal law plays such an important role in responding to sexual violence in conflict. But I’m working on a manuscript that will explore the history of that turn—and the human rights advocacy that predated it, which was wary of criminal law and punishment. I will resurrect some of these earlier positions, in part by putting them in conversation with new movements for prison abolition today.

The second draws on projects I’ve worked on at the Rapoport Center on economic inequality. Much of my own work, over the years has called attention to the ways that human rights law and advocacy have elided issues of economicinjustice, in some of the ways I described in relationship to my book. These more recent projects attempt to address economic inequality, and its legal and political drivers, head-on. In that vein, I am finishing up a co-edited collection on the use of private regulatory mechanisms to try to curb corporate power and abuse, particularly in global supply chains. These mechanisms have emerged, largely at the urging of human rights scholars, some of whom have given up on the possibility of public regulation at the national or international levels. The book considers some of the promises and pitfalls of these private regimes, as well as the general impulse to bypass state and interstate responses.

Speaking of the Rapoport Center, what’s new there?

Related to my second project above, the Rapoport Center is currently leading an exciting collaboration on the “future of work.” Drawing on the methods of racial capitalism, world-system theory, and distributional analysis, we are questioning the dominant institutional and political discourses on the future of work. We contend that their overwhelming focus on what they see as threats to wage labor, primarily in the context of manufacturing, fails to capture the historical and ongoing racialized, gendered, and (neo)colonial patterns of accumulation and reproduction of power and wealth. Along with a number of colleagues across campus and around the world, we are writing essays and putting together a series of publications as well as artistic and other creative productions.

I must say that this area is one in which changes in the world are dramatically affecting our thought. When we began the project (and even when we had a workshop on the topic as recently as February), we could never have imagined that we would be facing a pandemic that would throw into question almost everything that we or anyone else thought about the future of work. At the same time, it is already clear that the pandemic is continuing to reinforce the same global and local patterns of accumulation, power, and even death that we have long seen.

Interesting stuff to be working on. Professor, thank you for taking the time and congratulations again on the new book.

Thank you.









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