Are Some of Us More ‘Human’ than Others?

By Meenakshi Malhotra

Self-portrait by Amrita Shergil. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Post-humanism and the Anthropocene epoch have undermined the notion of human exceptionalism, the feeling that as a group or a species, human beings are superior to other species. It is time to interrogate the hierarchy of human/animal where we understand the category of the human as undoubtedly superior. One view is to see the human as a posthumous category, not just post-human. Most civilisations and philosophies across the world have privileged one set of values/qualities at the cost of another-thus categories like human-animal, man-woman, reason-passion, good-bad have become binaries where one term is considered better than the other. 

It is in this context that I turn to Catherine MacKinnon’s work, Are Women Human? (2006). In her book, she poses the question of women’s relationship to the category of the human. 

After almost a century from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which defined what a human being is and is entitled to, Catharine A MacKinnon asks: ‘Are women human yet?’ If women were regarded as human, would they be subjected to the privations and oppressive practices perpetrated in cultures? Would they, for instance, be sold into slavery and sexual slavery worldwide; would they be “veiled, silenced, and imprisoned in homes; bred, and worked as menials for little or no pay; stoned for sex outside marriage or burned within it; mutilated genitally, impoverished economically, and mired in illiteracy–all as a matter of course and without effective recourse?”

In the wake of recent events which have once again highlighted the scant regard in which women are held across nations and in societies, it is instructive to revisit the fundamental questions posed by Mc Kinnon. The Nirbhaya, Asifa, Unnao, Priyanka Reddy, Hathras  cases in India, events that unfolded recently in Afghanistan and innumerable instances the world over, are traumatic and traumatising as they are instances where violence has been unleashed, consciously and deliberately, on women, children and whole communities. These significant  events can be called ‘critical’ since they raise some crucial questions on the category and definition of the notion of the ‘human’ itself.

The category of the ‘human’, as Yuval Noah Harari and many before him discussed, became associated, in terms of evolutionary biology, with a large brain, an upright gait and other specific characteristics. Whatever its genealogies in scientific or anthropological parlance, the word acquired a specific set or cluster of meanings. The notion of ‘human’ gets associated with a set of inalienable rights(as in human rights), a set or cluster of affect/s such as kindness, compassion and sympathy/empathy. And yet, this is a term we revisit time and again, at important historical conjunctures. Sadly it is a term which emerges more in the breach than the observance. Further, it is one that seems to be taxonomically problematic and perplexing and  shores up the category in a peculiarly  exclusionary way. To substantiate and cite an instance, inter alia, were the Jews admitted in the category of the human by the Germans, the Dalits by upper castes and women by men? The problem here is not just of ‘othering’ but the fact that the persistence of asymmetric power relationships robs one group of a sense of agency and the power to name themselves and their experience. The other group, which calls the shots on how humanity is to be defined, becomes blind to its own oppressive behaviour, perpetuates atrocities and is condemned by posterity. It becomes a case where, in a manner of speaking, all of us are human but some are obviously more human than others. Thus the  suspicion that peppers our mind when we come across liberal terms like ‘equality’ and ‘freedom’ also extends to the ‘human.’   

Working with issues that are sited on the cusp of law and culture and that are a vital aspect of transnational feminism affecting the  status of women, McKinnon in her essays  takes her gendered critique of the state to the international plane. Her book/essays is/are a trenchant critique of the inequalities of international politics, which turns a blind eye to the consequences and significance of the systematic maltreatment of women and its condoning by a skewed system. Her sharp critique points toward fresh ways—social, legal, and political—of  “targeting its toxic orthodoxies”.

McKinnon takes us inside the workings of nation-states, where the oppression of women is the common factor that defines community life and distributes power in society and government. She takes us to Bosnia-Herzogovina for a harrowing look at how the wholesale rape and murder of women and girls there was an act of genocide, not a side effect of war. She takes us into the heart of the international law of conflict to ask—and reveal—why the international community can rally against terrorists’ violence, but not against violence done to women. A critique of the transnational status quo that also envisions the transforming possibilities of human rights, this  book makes us look as never before at an ongoing war too long undeclared, unspoken and relegated to silence..  

It is important to recover voices like that of McKinnon since the self-appointed  custodians of the ‘human’ are more often than not dyed-in-the-wool liberals, paternalists, self-appointed purveyors of law and morality. Most of them are so entitled that they are entirely blind to their own privilege as they declare themselves to be the champions of human rights, having practised and perpetuated the wrongs that need to be set right.

As we ‘celebrate’ the month of the Woman in March, we need to revisit these questions which have gained a new urgency in our time. Only then can we perhaps understand the full implications of the human and work towards making it a truly inclusive category.


  Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.       



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