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Last modified: Monday, April 15, 2013

IU law professor's lecture considers women's role in shaping democracy

April 15, 2013

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- When Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf -- the first woman to be elected president in modern Africa -- shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel committee's citation for the prize noted, "We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society."

Susan Williams

Susan Williams

The difficult relationship between gender equality, the development of democracies and constitutional design is the subject of the 2013 Distinguished Faculty Research Lecture, "Solomon's Daughters: Women as Law-Makers in Customary Systems," presented by Susan Williams, the Walter W. Foskett Professor in the Maurer School of Law at Indiana University Bloomington and director of the Center for Constitutional Democracy. The lecture takes place from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday, April 25, in the Moot Courtroom of the Maurer School of Law, 211 S. Indiana Ave.

As Sirleaf leads her country toward democracy following civil war, IU's Center for Constitutional Democracy is providing guidance. As director of the center, Williams has been extensively involved in advising and helping to draft documents not only for Liberia, but also for Burma, South Sudan, Vietnam and Libya. In her role as constitutional advisor, Williams focuses on highlighting women's rights as reformers consider new constitutional designs.

Williams said her Distinguished Faculty Research Lecture is concerned with women, not only as legislators but as "people who make law in a variety of contexts." Such a focus on women as powerful makers of rules, rather than as vulnerable and in need of rights, represents a major paradigm shift, she said.

"In many countries, systems of customary or religious law are recognized and authorized by the constitution, but many of these systems discriminate against women in ways that violate the equality guarantees in those same constitutions," Williams said. "Political theorists and constitutional lawyers have struggled for decades with the tensions between legal recognition for systems of customary law and the commitment to gender equality."

The most promising path to reconciling this tension, she said, is not to force change from the outside but to empower the women within customary systems to change them from the inside.

The Distinguished Faculty Research Lecture series is co-sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Research and the Office of the Provost at IU Bloomington. Begun in 1980, the lecture event recognizes the research achievements of an IU Bloomington faculty member and is accompanied by a $3,000 award to support the distinguished lecturer's continuing research. Past awardees include Elinor Ostrom, David Weaver, Ellen Ketterson and Richard DiMarchi.