Trump’s Muslim Ban & the Propaganda Value of Violence Against Women

There has been much well-deserved criticism of President Trump’s Executive Order imposing a Muslim Ban on entry into the United States and the chaotic and non-deliberative process by which it was promulgated. One line, however, has escaped sufficient attention (in italics below):

In addition, the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including “honor” killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation.

Honor crimes” are acts of murder and other forms of retaliatory violence against women (and sometimes men).  Such crimes are almost always perpetrated by a male family member against his sister, daughter, or wife on the ground that she has, in the perpetrator’s eyes, brought “dishonor” on the family. Her offense: “refusing to bend to the will of her family” when it comes to marriage, her comportment, or her life choices. Perversely, women—who may be considered the repository of the entire family’s honor—can also be the victim of honor crimes if they are raped, are the victim of incest, or try to escape abusive relationships.

Honor crimes take many forms, including acid attacks, mutilation, stoning, and murder.  Such acts of violence manifest a communal element and are often ignored, condoned, defended, and or even praised, by family members (including other women), the wider community, and local officials charged with law enforcement. Human rights organizations and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary and Arbitrary Executions have documented the commission of honor crimes around the world, including in diaspora communities. The United Nations recorded 5,000 honor killings in 2010; the actual number is likely much higher due to cover-ups and the systemic lack of reporting or investigation.  (Recorded deaths are particularly high in India and Pakistan). Although these crimes are usually perpetrated by private actors, states bear international obligations under a range of human rights treaties to protect women from intimate violence, investigate and punish the perpetrators of crimes committed against women, and provide access to justice and rehabilitative services.

The E.O. language about honor killings raises the question:

For those of us dedicated to augmenting the law’s ability to protect women, should we welcome Trump’s apparent concern about blocking the entry into the United States of those who would commit acts of violence against women?

The propaganda value of violence against women has long been recognized. Claiming concern about harm to women has often served as a convenient makeweight argument to support actions initiated for other rationales. For example, many feminists fought for a robust U.S. response when the Taliban began imposing a form of gender apartheid in Afghanistan. Following the attacks of September 11th, the rhetoric surrounding the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom appropriated feminist concerns about the quality of women’s lives under Taliban rule to garner the support of domestic and international constituencies, even though the plight of women under the Taliban was not a motivator for the intervention. The same rhetoric was employed to justify keeping troops in Afghanistan. Time Magazine, for example, was criticized for cynically using a horrific example of violence against women on its cover in support of continuing the military engagement in Afghanistan and presenting a falsely dichotomous dilemma—women remain safe if the foreign troops stay on or women are left to be mutilated if the troops leave (“What Happens if we Leave Afghanistan”). In any case, women in Afghanistan remain deeply oppressed, notwithstanding the partial ouster of the Taliban.

Despite this nod to violence against women, the reality is that Trump’s EO

has particularly grave consequences for women refugees

as argued by Catherine Powell elsewhere in the blogosphere.  Many refugee women are fleeing multiple forms of sexual and gender-based violence, including the very “honor crimes” cynically mentioned in the E.O.  Indeed, according to the UN High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR), women and children make up a disproportionate number of refugees.  In the United States, about 78% of Syrian refugees admitted here by August 2016 were women or children.

Furthermore, it is hard to take this apparent concern about the well-being of women seriously when it comes right on the heels of Trump’s re-imposition of the so-called global gag rule, which Trump actually dramatically expanded so that it prohibits any global health assistance (including PEPFAR funds to fight HIV/AIDS) from going to any organization that makes any mention of abortion in any of its programs.  It is estimated that this will lead to women dying across the developing world and may actually increase the number of unsafe abortions worldwide. (See this Stanford University study of increased abortion rates in Sub-Sahara Africa the last time the global gag rule was in place). The issuance of this Executive Order not coincidentally followed immediately on the heels of Women’s Marches that drew millions around the world. (The New York Times now estimates that upwards of 4.9 million people took to the streets). The signing of the Order was documented in a photograph depicting Trump flanked by smiling white men looking on approvingly. Indeed, Trump’s Cabinet choices (almost all white men, a far cry from the diversity that characterized President Obama’s picks) reveal that the Trump Administration will be excluding women from decision-making around policies that most affect them.

Finally, while this reference to honor crimes is somewhat gratuitous by any measure, it is all the more so coming from a man who has a long history of denigrating women (The Telegraph has helpfully compiled many sexist comments in one place), engaging in sexual harassment, and committing sexual assault.

So no, those of us who care about ending violence against women won’t be won over so easily.

Image: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty

 

About the Author(s)

Beth Van Schaack

Leah Kaplan Visiting Professor of Human Rights, Stanford Law School; Former Deputy to the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues in the U.S. State Department. All views are her own. Follow her on Twitter (@BethVanSchaack).