A new policy by the Obama Administration has provided an opportunity for abused women, including those under threat of death from karo kari, to claim asylum in the United States. Concerns about notions of Western patriarchy should be seen in the context of the lack of options that hundreds of thousands of women, from Mexico to Pakistan, currently have.
In the sweltering heat of Sukkur in July, a man opened fire on his wife and a guest. Aamnat, the wife of Inayatullah Khoso, and a guest were killed as karo kari because someone had made an allegation of adultery against her. Like hundreds of women killed in karo kari cases around Pakistan, Aamnat died in her home and was buried in an unmarked grave. No case was lodged against her assailant and no investigation conducted about her death. The news report said nothing about her other than her name and the lurid circumstances of her death. Like hundreds of abused women in Pakistan, Aamnat was unmourned, unmissed and her death generally ignored.
Far away from Sukkur, an immigration court in San Francisco may have provided some glimmer of hope to women like Aamnat who may wish to flee abuse but have no recourse in a society that considers the abuse of women unworthy of attention. In April of this year, a filing by the Obama Administration added a new legal dimension to asylum claims made by abused women around the world. The new policy has been put in place by the Obama Administration after nearly thirteen years of legal wrangling during which all such asylum claims filed by women facing the threat of death or torture were refused. Under current statutory guidelines, claims for asylum are granted if the petitioner is able to demonstrate a “well founded fear of persecution” based on “religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group”. The legal controversy in American asylum law over the past decade has been on the issue of whether a “social group” can be interpreted to include battered or abused women and their children.
In the San Francisco case mentioned above, the woman requesting asylum argued that being “a Mexican woman suffering from abuse and unable to leave” constituted a “social group”. Her claim was denied, but, in a notable move, the U.S Government’s attorneys came up with an alternative definition of “social group” that would permit her application for asylum. In its brief, the U.S Government states: “in some cases a victim of domestic violence may be a member of a cognizable particular social group and may be able to show that her abuse was or would be persecution on account of such membership” The decision does not mean that any victim of domestic abuse can file for asylum in the United States at any time; the petitioner must still demonstrate that the persecution cannot be avoided by relocating within her home country, that the harm feared really constitutes persecution, and that there is a well-founded threat of future harm. Both of these latter elements must be proven in any asylum claim.
The woman whose case prompted the new ruling was a Mexican woman who fled Mexico with her children after being repeatedly raped at gunpoint by her abuser. Two of the children were undocumented and two were United States citizens. Her husband had abused her since she was fourteen, then forced her to marry him after sexually abusing her. Being a poor migrant worker with little money or family, she stayed with him for several years before her sister, a U.S citizen, asked her to cross the border and seek safety in the United States. In allowing her case to be heard, the Obama Administration has provided a concrete basis for providing succor to women around the world. Her story, while different in geography, is markedly similar to the cases of hundreds of Pakistani women who have no recourse and nowhere to go when faced with horribly abusive conditions. According to statistics provided by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, over a thousand women have already lost their lives in honor killings and karo-kari attacks this year. This does not include the hundreds of stove burnings, gang rapes and other forms of abuse against women that have also been reported this year.
Yet not everyone is applauding the new policy. Critics have focused on how this new basis for asylum claims paints an affluent nation like the United States as a global savior for women from poorer cultures like Pakistan and Mexico. Women from the global South are then constructed within international human rights discourse as perpetually oppressed and worthy of saving by rich countries like the United States that can save them from the torture and abuse permitted by patriarchal cultures. In a world where non-Western cultures are already demonized as lacking in civility and intrinsically oppressive to women, the arrival of female asylum seekers presenting legal petitions would further provide an opportunity for substantiating imperialist notions of Western culture as being supremely liberating and non-white cultures in the global South as inherently oppressive. Finally, detractors argue that removing women from their local contexts such as Mexico and Pakistan would further subvert the process of getting local cultures to recognize the problem of domestic violence and simply allow them to export victims abroad.
While worthy of consideration, these critiques are pivoted on a crucial and heartbreaking omission. Instead of prioritizing the case of the individual woman like Aamnat whose life may have been saved through legal intervention and an asylum claim, they focus on abstract principles that pit global cultures against one another. They also forget the universal and damning alienation faced by women being beaten and abused regardless of whether they are in Mexico, Pakistan or the United States. It is this sense of pervasive loneliness, of lack of options faced by the hundreds of thousands of women around the world that are killed or severely injured due to domestic abuse that the new law seeks to address. Immigration laws within the United States already provide avenues for immigrant brides that are brought to the United States to apply for citizenship even if they divorce their husbands due to abuse. This new direction in asylum law in the United States provides a tangible commitment to the empowerment of women around the world who take the courageous step to flee abuse and denigration and seek a new life.
Rafia Zakaria is a Contributing Writer for Altmuslimah