The Travel Ban and Violence Against Women
On January 27, America’s 45th signed an executive order that bans all visas from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days. Many people have expressed outrage against this order and have protested at the airports where people affected by this order were detained. Some have also criticized it as unconstitutional and unlawful. Although it was the previous administration that first listed the seven Muslim-majority countries from which travelers were imposed with stricter U.S. entry requirements, this recent executive order seeks to suspend all visas to nationals from those countries under the banner of “protecting Americans.” This order is a manifestation of what 45th called for, namely a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” on his campaign trail.
Below is an excerpt from Section 1 in “Protecting the Nation from Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nationals.”
In order to protect Americans, we must ensure that those admitted to this country do not bear hostile attitudes toward our country and its founding principles. We cannot, and should not, admit into our country those who do not support the U.S. Constitution, or those who would place violent religious edicts over American law. In addition, the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry and hatred (including “honor” killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice other religions) or those who would oppress members of one race, one gender, or sexual orientation.
Aside from debating whether this executive order is unlawful or who qualifies as American, what I want to call attention to are some of the problematic ways in which the executive order justifies the travel ban, particularly in relation to the notion of “violence against women.”
First, in its deployment of the idea of “violence against women” to justify the entry banning from seven Muslim-majority countries, the executive order calls out a “culture” specific form of violence called “honor killings” as distinct from other forms of intimate/domestic violence. As Lila Abu-Lughod argues, the category of “honor crime” stigmatizes the Muslim world and does not rightly serve women either. Abu-Lughod continues that the problem with the category is that it stigmatizes “not particular acts of violence but entire culture or communities.” She lists four problems with using the category of “honor killings”:
First, it simplifies morality and distorts the kinds of relations between men and women that exist in societies where honor is a central value. Second, defining honor crimes as a unique cultural form too neatly divides civilized from uncivilized societies, the West and the rest. Third, the obsession with honor crimes erases completely the modern state institutions and techniques of governance that are integral to both the incidents of violence and the category by which they are understood. Finally, thinking about honor crimes to be a sort of “antipolitics machine” that blinds us to the existence of social transformations and political conflicts.
In relation to these problems regarding the use of the term “honor killings,” the way in which the category of “honor killings” is singled out in the executive order implies that (unidentified) Muslim men are dangerous because of their allegedly violent acts, first against Muslim women and then “American” women, if they are admitted to the U.S. Such a depiction of Muslim men in relation to “violence against women” only intensifies Islamophobia as anti-Muslim racism. What is also implied is that the U.S. will be safe as long as Muslim men are not admitted, whose violent acts are sanctioned by their “culture”: without Muslim men there will be no violence against women and no oppression of sexual and gender minorities in the U.S. The rhetoric of “protection” –e.g., protection of “our” women, and sexual and gender minorities from “violent, uncivilized” Muslim men– has been used to legitimize imperial violence in turn. In so doing, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, sexual violence against women, intimate partner violence, and gender inequality prevailing in the U.S. society is erased.
This is deeply troubling when the various forms of violence against women are impeding women’s lives across racial, ethnic, religious, and class lines in the U.S. It makes violence against women appear invisible and non-existent, which can jeopardize various efforts to address violence against women in the U.S. It trivializes violence against women. While deploying the rhetoric of “violence against women” as a reason to ban travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, 45th and his administration are preparing to cut domestic funding for programs that seek to support women who are victim-survivors of violence. The current administration’s “global gag rule” will further devastate women’s lives globally as women will not receive services needed for their health and survival. Connecting the travel ban from seven Muslim-majority countries to violence against women is self-contradictory, insidious, and disingenuous. It also reveals this administration’s little-to-no understanding of the gravity of violence against women in the U.S., engaged by “American” people, the majority of whom are “American” men with no particular profile.
Second, the use of “violence against women” in the executive order is limited to the point that it completely overlooks the vulnerabilities of women who belong to “refugee and migrant communities.” I will elaborate on this point by looking at the notion of violence against women defined by the United Nations. It should be mentioned, however, that while the UN’s definition of violence against women has been expanded, it is not without its limits and western biases, especially with regard to the “honor killings.” Since 2010, the UN has included “honor killings” as one of the forms of violence against women alongside commonly named “domestic violence,” which is, again, problematic, as Lila Abu-Lughod has argued.
According to the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (DEVAW), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993, violence against women is defined as “any act of gender based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.”
violations of the rights of women in situations of armed conflict, including systematic rape, sexual slavery and forced pregnancy; forced sterilization, forced abortion, coerced or forced use of contraceptives; prenatal sex selection; and, female infanticide… the particular vulnerabilities of women belonging to minorities; the elderly and the displaced; indigenous, refugee and migrant communities; women living in impoverished rural or remote areas, or in detention.
As such, the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action explicitly includes the vulnerabilities of women who belong to “refugee and migrant communities.” In light of this expanded definition of violence against women, first of all, it is evident that the executive order does not acknowledge “the particular vulnerabilities of women – refugees and migrants.” While the executive order plainly uses “violence against women” as a reason to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., it only reveals its hypocrisy as it does not admit refugees, of which the majority are women and children. For instance, three quarters of Syrian refugees fleeing from war and genocide are women and children, yet their admission was indefinitely suspended by the executive order. It is, then, the current administration that is in fact engaging in the “acts of bigotry and hatred” against women and children in general, particularly those who belong to refugee and migrant communities.
How should we talk about violence against women other than pointing out hypocrisies in the executive order that was signed by a man who was facing rape charges and bragged about assaulting women if he wanted? How should we talk about violence against women other than saying that violence against women in the U.S. is as horrific as in other places? What are your strategies and pedagogies when “violence against women” has become another device that is deployed to justify the U.S. imperialist agenda by dividing the world into “civilized us” versus “uncivilized them”?
 Lila Abu-Lughod, “Ch 4 Seductions of the Honor Crime” in Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (Cambridge, Harvard University, 2015), 113.
 Ibid., 114.
 Ibid., 115-116.