- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 7, 2003

Women fleeing bondage to fathers, husbands, or male relatives are denied eligibility for asylum in the United States despite the moral abomination that their plights present. This stain on the nation’s escutcheon should be removed. Holding females in servitude is every bit as morally repugnant as are the outrages that qualify for asylum: Persecutions based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group or political opinion.

The existing asylum categories were enacted in 1952. At that time, women were the stepchildren of constitutional and statutory law. Stereotypes of female meekness and fragility and the patronizing belief that women were unfit for any but domestic tasks were cultural commonplaces. But time, experience, and protest have taught the moral and constitutional injustice of denying women the same dignity and opportunity as men to chart their destinies.

As the United States Supreme Court sermonized in United States vs. Virginia in 1996, “Neither federal nor state government acts compatibly with the equal protection principle when a law or official policy denies to women, simply because they are women, full citizenship stature — equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on their individual talents and capacities.”

Telling a woman she is neither the moral nor legal equal of a man is reminiscent of Jim Crow law and culture. It stings as sharply. It anguishes as deeply. It demeans as greatly. The omission of gender persecution as a justification for asylum in the United States is thus morally anachronistic. And it is twice-cursed: males evade stigmatization for demanding female servitude; and, females seeking emancipation from male domination are denied sanctuary in a country whose creed inscribed in the Statue of Liberty is open arms to all yearning to breathe free.

A lively sense of these moral truths is more effectually impressed on the mind by the tragedy of Dalia as chronicled by Norma Khouri in “Honor Lost” than by all the dry volumes of philosophy ever written.

Dalia was a Jordanian woman in her mid-20s, filled with arrested hopes. She lived in de facto bondage to the males of her family. They issued orders that governed her wakening hours. She obeyed in resentful acquiescence. Male relatives monitored her movements and glances. Either conspiracy or duplicity was required to sneak a cigarette, peruse uncensored magazines,or otherwise thrill in rebellion against a humiliating vegetative existence. Other assertions of independent life or individuality were denied her).

Romantic infatuation occasioned secret but chaste trysts between Dalia and a Christian Arab. The innocent relationship was discovered. In Arab culture, the slightest female boldness is a capital crime. Dalia’s last grim chapter was thus unsuspenseful. She was slain without remorse by her father. Her tearless brother summoned an ambulance only after her corpse was cold. She was thrown in an unmarked grave. Her budding life was sacrificed to propitiate male fixations with hierarchy and dominance.

As elaborated by Ms. Khouri and corroborated by a wealth of companion literature, Dalia’s fate is re-enacted daily in Jordan, in neighboring Arab states, and elsewhere in the non-Western world. And for every persecution of a woman that finds expression in an honor killing, millions find expression in a lifetime of indoctrinated submissiveness and subjugation to male lusts for power and control. Few are sufficiently brave to risk anonymous martyrdom to protest their debasements. And even fewer ever contemplate cultural rebellion either because of the futility of the enterprise or because they are stripped of the self-will indispensable to confronting their persecutors.

Arab female counterparts of Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, or W.E.B. DuBois are thus unimaginable.

Gender persecution claimants would not overwhelm the United States. Scholars, books, human-rights reports, and self-evident earmarks of exclusion, such as a minuscule representation of women in public life or occupations, would establish a persuasive probability that any woman fleeing designated countries would encounter oppression if she returned.

However, most of the eligible women would lack the courage or means to escape their persecutors. They characteristically are without the money or travel documents essential to leave their home countries. In any event, the Refugee Act of 1980 empowers the attorney general to establish rules of evidence to deter and to detect asylum fraud; and, to deny asylum to an eligible claimant to avoid a flood of immigrants.

Imprecision in defining gender persecution for purposes of asylum would be untroublesome. The amended law should expressly classify as persecution de facto or de jure enslavement of a woman to her father, husband, or male relatives; female genital mutilation; or rape.

Immigration law judges would decide case-by-case whether other claims of female subjugation constituted persecution, just as persecutions based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group or political opinion are decided case-by-case under existing law.

Some foreign nations might complain of the addition of gender persecution as a foundation for asylum in the United States because their laws and cultures have celebrated that pronounced obliquity for centuries. The addition thus might estrange our relations with nations whose oil or cooperation in fighting global terrorism we covet, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Jordan.

But isn’t our national honor too sacred and the urgency of a sanctuary for women fleeing persecution too compelling to surrender to a mess of foreign policy pottage?

Jennifer Watson is a paralegal and Bruce Fein is a founding partner of Fein & Fein.

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