Do Women as a Group Suffer Systematic Abuse?

Women seeking asylum in the US due to horrible and socially condoned gender-based violence in their country of origin are usually denied. The US Homeland Security Department defines a person eligible for asylum as “a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

I have always wondered why sex/gender isn’t a category here. Doesn’t gender-based violence occur around the world? Doesn’t it occur at times in certain locations, such as systematic rape in the Sudan, or systematic female genital mutilation in Guinea, or systematic kidnapping of little girls for the sex trade in northern India, or systematic selling of women as though they were possessions? Are these human rights abuses not predicated on the person’s membership to the female sex? Why is it acceptable grounds for asylum to have been enslaved because you were an ethnic minority, but not because you were female? Why is it acceptable grounds for asylum when your genitals were mutilated because you were a political dissident, but not if yours where mutilated because you were born female?

Well I’ll tell you right now, it certainly mustn’t be because American society deprioritizes and silences violence against women, and has a general history of ignoring or exacerbating women’s problems on the global stage. Definitely Not Misogyny. Oh No. The Horror.

So it must be for some legitimate reason, right? Like when the US denied asylum to Guinean women who had been genitally mutilated in their country of origin, and who had daughters whom they wished to save from that special form of gender-based torture. Those women were definitely terrorists.

Well, President Obama is slightly rethinking this approach.

The Obama administration has opened the way for foreign women who are victims of severe domestic beatings and sexual abuse to receive asylum in the United States. The action reverses a Bush administration stance in a protracted and passionate legal battle over the possibilities for battered women to become refugees.

This was sparked by the case of one Mexican woman, identified only as L.R., whose case is rather extreme: “According to court documents filed in San Francisco, the man repeatedly raped her at gunpoint, held her captive, stole from her and at one point tried to burn her alive when he learned she was pregnant.”

And the Mexican authorities demonstrated their complete lack of interest in protecting her human rights:

Local police dismissed her reports of violence as “a private matter,” the court documents said, and a judge she turned to for help tried to seduce her.

“In Mexico, men believe they have a right to abuse their women because they are like a possession,” she said. With three children born from her involuntary sex with the man, who never married her, she fled to California in 2004.

So yay, that’s good we’re reconsidering our harsh stance right? But women who suffer for their gender outside of domestic relationships, or who have or are threatened with FGM are still not protected. If I understand all this correctly. And I may not, what with me doing my thinking with my irrational Woman-Brain ™. And besides, it’s not even certain that we will accept L.R.’s petition.

I still can’t figure out why admitting that women suffer persecution based on their identity as women (a suspect gender), just as Bantu in Somalia suffer for their identity as Bantu (a suspect ethnic minority) – to name a random example among thousands – is so hard for the US government. What’s the controversy here? Is it because they are afraid of a deluge of abused women applying for asylum? Is it because our government is somehow dimly aware we haven’t cleaned our own house yet?

I’m glad the Obama Admin is opening the door a crack. But I could use some more time ruminating on the deeper implications of American refusal to acknowledge gender as a suspect class, i.e. “any classification of groups meeting a series of criteria suggesting they are likely the subject of discrimination.” More on that here.

Your thoughts?

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2 thoughts on “Do Women as a Group Suffer Systematic Abuse?

  1. Word. That is a good @#$%ing question that I need to chew on for a while. Quick rant:
    The NYT article about L.R., though it covered a very positive step in her case, made me rage and rage and rage. This sentence alone had me raging at 11:
    “With three children born from her involuntary sex with the man, who never married her, she fled to California in 2004.”
    “Involuntary sex”… Kind of like “rape”, but without the appropriate horror.
    And he didn’t even MARRY her???? What an ASSHOLE!

  2. Whoa, I totally had a major problem with that phrasing too. But since I decided I wasn’t going to critique the journalism in this post, but instead the broader issue of why we don’t consider female gender a “suspect class”, I didn’t address it.

    I’m glad you brought it up though. Why come up with a longer phrase when ‘rape’ would be more concise and accurate? Oh, to avoid mentioning rape too much. Because if we call rape ‘rape’… then… THE WORLD WILL EXPLODE!!!

    Or something.

    Also the part that states “who never married her” is weird. Who wants to marry their torturer? Why is that even pertinent? Would the abuse have been somehow more excusable if he had done her the huge favor of marrying her?

    Don’t get it.

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