A well-founded fear of persecution

March 08, 1995|By Geraldine Brooks

SHE MAKES women's clothes.

In today's Algeria, that is a political act, and potentially a fatal one.

Until last year, when she abandoned her market stall in Algiers, 38-year-old Naima Belahi imported fabric from France and Italy and sewed it into beaded evening gowns or stylish short dresses.

Then, last March 10, Algeria's Islamic insurgents ordered all women to veil themselves within a week or risk becoming legitimate targets of murder. The day after the deadline, militants killed a 16-year-old high school student who was walking to class without a head scarf.

Ms. Belahi, visiting the United States at the time, was afraid to return home. She neither makes nor wears the shroud-like Islamic dress that must cover the female body. To do so, she feels, would be to signal agreement with the extremists.

She has taken refuge with a Connecticut family and applied for political asylum.

Unfortunately for Ms. Belahi, her case has fallen into a chaotic system that almost never considers persecution of women a basis for asylum.

Despite growing worldwide abuse of women by religious extremists -- not just in Algeria but also in Afghanistan, Sudan, the Gaza Strip and Saudi Arabia -- the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service works from a sketchy manual that advises against accepting most sex-based claims.

Asylum seekers must show a "well-founded fear of persecution."

This can be based on race, religion, nationality or political views. Less commonly, it can be based on membership in a "particular social group" that is subject to abuse.

In Algeria, more than 50 women have been killed since the Islamic insurgency began in 1992. Many more have been knifed or raped for working alongside men or wearing Western dress.

The murdered women have included the principal of a co-ed school, a secretary who worked at a police station to support her unemployed siblings and a 22-year-old woman wearing jeans and buying cigarettes -- enough to identify her to the militants as a "prostitute."

Yet when an Algerian doctor applied for asylum here this year, saying she had been threatened with death because she supervised male physicians, the INS case officer said that violence in Algeria was "too random" to support her claim to belong to a "particular social group" at risk of persecution.

If Algeria's violence is considered too random to warrant asylum, awkward questions arise about countries -- including a close U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia -- where abuse of women is systemic.

In 1993, after almost two years of deliberation, Canada granted asylum to a Saudi student known as Nada who had argued that she risked flogging and imprisonment for walking in the street with her hair and face uncovered.

In the United States, asylum experts say that Nada's predicament would most likely have been viewed by the INS as a matter of cultural mores, not persecution.

But substitute race for sex and the American position seems untenable.

Imagine a country half black and half white, where the blacks may not legally leave the house without a white's permission, or where they may be caned in the street for refusing to wear the official segregating dress. That is the situation for Saudi women.

Last spring, some experts in immigration law at Harvard Law School submitted guidelines on asylum for women to the INS with the hope that they might become the basis for a fairer assessment of claims of persecution.

With anti-immigrant sentiment rampant in the Republican Congress, however, any attempt to liberalize INS standards is sure to meet resistance.

Yet asylum seekers constitute a tiny fraction of the people seeking admission to the United States each year. Opening the gate wider to persecuted women is hardly likely to result in a flood of new applicants.

By granting asylum to women such as Ms. Belahi, the Algerian seamstress, the United States could send a powerful message to those who distort religion to justify terror.

The message would be that Americans too hold certain things sacred -- and among them are liberty, equality, the pursuit of happiness.

Geraldine Brooks is author of "Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women."

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