Thursday, September 24, 2009

Gender Based Violence: A Paradigmatic Shift

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a conference on Asylum and Gender Based Violence at UC Hastings. Hastings is home to the Center for Refugee and Gender Studies, which was a co-sponsor of the event. Paradigmatically and thematically, the conference was expansive both in my own legal work in the UC Davis Immigration Clinic and in reference to our class. The theme of the conference was the “duty to protect and heal” and much of the conference dealt with the larger questions of: how do we protect and prevent violence against women when this violence is often done by non-state actors in the dark of their own homes. How also, I would argue, do we then allow women to heal and seek refuge from this violence when gender is not a category of relief for those seeking asylum. Claims on gender based violence can now come into the courts as “members of a particular social group,” but I question how we can actually protect and prevent violence when gender is not even a cognizable form of relief.

Both the personal and institutional power that folks (I use folks because I also include transwomen and gender non conforming people in this group) seeking asylum relief based on gender based violence have to face is enormous. The story of Fauziya Kasinga is one such example. Raised by culturally liberal parents in Togo, West Africa, Kasinga escaped Togo after her father died and her relatives had arranged for her to enter into marriage. Kasinga’s father did not believe in genital cutting, but her relatives did, and so a day or two before her wedding, her mother and sister said they needed to run an errand with her and instead took Kasinga by taxi to the airport where she boarded a plane to Germany with nothing except the clothes she was wearing. The extraordinary legal struggle that ensued (hers was the first case of a woman seeking asylum in the United States to be granted based on gender) illustrates the immense personal struggle that people seeking asylum face, and also highlights the deconstruction of power that must take place if individual women are to succeed on these claims.

Considering that asylum, as a verified form of relief, is relatively uncommon (and does not even apply to gender based violence committed against United States citizens), the serious and almost styming question remains: how can we as feminists and change agents begin the paradigmatic work of protecting each other and dismantling power? How can womens’ bodies become proactive axis of strength instead of a forum in which power is acted upon them? The speakers at the conference suggested that we turn to civil society. The US government and governments in many countries are seemingly unwilling to tackle this issue on both a thematic and a legal sense, and so it is up to us. How do we shift the issue of gender based violence from dark to light, to release ideas of shame and duty and responsibility from the victims of this violence and allow people to actually heal?

1 comment:

Erin S. said...

Australia is also grappling with this issue.

It's depressing that popular anti-immigrant sentiment makes judges unwilling to admit a standard that is so obviously just--it seems to me that gender is not recognized as a category for relief in asylum hearings because it would simply provide too many people with grounds for asylum. This is a prime example of how gender-based oppression is linked to and magnified by other forms of prejudice. The increasing isolationist and nationalist xenophobia in America is inimical to human rights across the board, and women are disproportionately affected. Legal change may not be possible without cultural change...but it's hard to know how to effect such a shift of values and priorities.