COLUMN

The female refugee: a fraudulent concept

BARBARA AMIEL March 29 1993
COLUMN

The female refugee: a fraudulent concept

BARBARA AMIEL March 29 1993

The female refugee: a fraudulent concept

COLUMN

BARBARA AMIEL

On a slow day, I read news releases. So it was that I came upon the March 9, 1993, missive from Nurjehan Mawani, chairperson of the Immigration and Refugee Board. Mrs. Chairperson, as it turned out, was celebrating International Women’s Day by banging on about Canada’s newly issued “guidelines on women refugee claimants fearing genderrelated persecution.” Alarm bells started to go off when I got to her statement explaining that Canada’s new policies in this field “represent an international first.”

The guidelines were duly sent to me. What the Canadian government has done is to extend the UN definition, which says that a refugee is someone who has a “well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion,” to include gender. The result is that, as of now, a woman from another country who claims that she is persecuted because she is a female has grounds for refugee status in this country.

In case it needs to be stated, I don’t think much of societies that put women in veils, arrange marriages or force abortions. I haven’t stoned anyone in an eternity. My opposition to these guidelines is not because I like Saudi Arabian society. The problem is that these guidelines are hypocritical, arrogant and full of anomalies that render them bogus.

The anomalies begin with the guideline that lists as a ground for refugee status “gender-discriminating religious or customary laws and practices in their country of origin.” It goes on to explain, “The religious precepts, social traditions or cultural norms, which women may be accused of violating, can range from choosing their own spouses instead of accepting an arranged marriage to such matters as the wearing of makeup, the visibility or length of hair, or type of clothing a woman chooses to wear.”

To say that these would be grounds for

The new guidelines are so hypocritical, arrogant and full of anomalies that they are rendered bogus

refugee status when “the penalty for noncompliance with the policy or law is disproportionately severe” is a total fraud because if it is applied as written, immense numbers of people from all over the world will make that claim, come here and be accepted. Those who do will then turn around and sponsor the husbands or family members whose approach to gender relations gave them refugee status in the first place. I met dozens of Muslim women in the Middle East a few weeks ago, and many of them (and their husbands) were asking how they could get out of their countries. At the time, I did not know of Chairperson Mawani’s invitation, but I am sure word will get around.

In practice, there is little doubt that these guidelines would have to be selectively administered and like any selective interpretation they will be influenced hugely by the day-to-day political climate. For example, during the Gulf War, Muslim women from Iraq might have been accepted while their Saudi counterparts would not. What intrigued me as I read the 20 pages of instructions from Mawani was that, while many countries were singled out by name, there was no mention of China, where a one-child

family policy leads to the murder of female babies. I would not have been appeased by a mention of China (or North Korea for that matter), but I found the absence revealing.

Turn on the news, and you will see the second anomaly. A lot of people would like to escape ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia. Are we now to find a situation in which a male claimant’s plea for refugee status is to be turned down because he is not trying to escape political persecution (but only the consequences of war and hardship), while a Bosnian woman who wants to escape exactly the same conditions will state that in a Muslim society she has certain disadvantages?

Thirdly, under the guidelines, women who fear “persecution of kin” have grounds for refugee status. “Such cases,” according to the guidelines, “typically involve violence or other forms of harassment against women ... in order to pressure them into revealing information about the whereabouts or political activities of their family members.” It is a habit of unfree societies to try and force mothers to betray their sons or husbands, even though they themselves are not guilty of anything. But will Canada make a mother who suffers persecution for protecting her son eligible for refugee status, but not the father protecting his daughter or wife? Has Mawani not noticed that women are often actively involved in fighting repressive societies and they may well have male kin who are vulnerable? If “kin persecution” is an eligible ground for refugee status, why specify gender?

Canada has become a bit of a joke country abroad, but this is an arrogant joke. I am not a great supporter of Islam—all the same, it is not an artificial construct that makes no sense. Nor is it a society without rules for men, many of which are every bit as physically and psychologically oppressive for them. Mawani wants to assure us “that this is not a matter of imposing Western standards on other countries.” Oh really? She documents this by listing a number of UN conventions about the rights of women, but she doesn’t specify in her guidelines that refugee status will only be allowed if a country is signatory to those guidelines. If the term “cultural imperialism” can be applied to the export of Coca-Cola, what is this?

One is not against all this because it is cultural imperialism, but it sticks in the craw coming from the sort of people who screamed cultural imperialism for the past decades whenever one talked about the advantages of liberal democracy. One thinks also of Canada’s support of the UN’s contemptible distinction between political and so-called economic refugees, who we denied refugee status when they were coming from countries where merely trying to leave was in itself a crime punishable by imprisonment. But, finally, Chairperson Mawani, these are guidelines so written that, if they were administered with any degree of consistency or honesty, they would apply to virtually every woman who does not have the assumptions of Canada’s post-feminist culture. Yup, here it is. Pure 100per-cent Canadian-Fem cultural imperialism.