A brave young woman in search of asylum

April 09, 1996|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- If all goes well this will just be a tale for Fauziya Kasinga to tell her future children. A harrowing tale of desperation and courage to match that of anyone who ever sought freedom in America. The bare outlines are the stuff of melodrama. Fauziya grew up under the protective wing of a progressive father who flaunted the conventions of his tribe in Togo. He didn't believe in polygamy or forced marriage. He was appalled by female circumcision. He educated his five daughters.

Tribal nightmare

But when Fauziya was just 17, her father died and everything changed. Under tribal rules, her father's sister inherited her home, banished her mother, ended her schooling and betrothed her to be the fourth wife of a 45-year-old man she'd never met.

Fauziya was also scheduled for ritual mutilation, to have her genitals cut off by scissors or razor blade, without anesthetic, to be sewn together and to lie, legs bound, for 40 days. She would re-emerge a "bride."

But before the circumciser arrived, she escaped. A sister drove Fauziya to an airport in Ghana and handed her $3,000 -- all the money her mother had inherited.

Then 17, the girl took the first plane out of Ghana to Germany. Two months later, she got to America where she had an aunt, an uncle and a belief in a country that would, surely, grant her refuge. At Newark Airport, she simply asked for asylum on the grounds that she would be subject to female genital mutilation (FGM) if they sent her home.

If Fauziya's life were a movie this would be a star-spangled happy ending. But she wasn't greeted like a heroine. She was greeted like a criminal. The terrified African teen-ager was detained, shackled, sent to prison to await a hearing, subjected to the routine and not-so-routine indignities of a maximum security prison.

"Unbelievable"

And then an immigration judge pronounced her story "unbelievable."

The judge, who knew little about Togo and wanted to hear less about FGM, said "this alien is not credible." He said that she didn't have "a well-founded fear of persecution" if returned to Togo. After all, he said, the girl hadn't sought help from the police -- those police who were assigned to return the errant "wife" to her "husband" in a country where FGM is legal.

But soon, with new lawyers and the backing of the New York-based international human rights group Equality Now, the case of this young woman, now 19, will go before the Board of Immigration Appeals. If she wins, it will be the first time the U.S. granted asylum to a refugee on the grounds that she would be subject to FGM in her homeland.

Just a few years ago, female circumcision was considered a cultural tradition. Refugees seeking asylum could claim they were being persecuted for their race or their religion or their political beliefs, but not for their gender. Torture counted. Persecution counted. Female genital mutilation was discounted.

Now, the United Nations has labeled FGM a violation of human rights. Now, Canada has declared that women fleeing circumcision have grounds for seeking asylum. And last May, our own immigration service said, in cautiously worded guidelines, that FGM could be considered a type of harm, even persecution, that could qualify someone for protection under the Refugee Act.

All along there has been an odd reluctance to add FGM to the asylum list. It's as if the immigration service feared a wave of women bearing false claims of FGM danger.

Indeed, about 100 million women in the world have been mutilated. Another 6,000 are added every day. But most of them are far too young to protest; let alone flee. In three years since the change in Canadian law, only two women have been granted asylum for this reason.

Victims of gender

As Fauziya's lawyer, Karen Musalo of American University, says, "Our laws allow people asylum for specific reasons having to do with religion, politics, race, but when it gets to gender they say, 'Oh my god, that's so many people.' Well, everyone has a religion and we're not afraid of opening the floodgates."

This time, the government brief seems ready to break new ground. The government has acknowledged that "certain potential victims of FGM may indeed establish eligibility for asylum ..." This court will surely find the story of Fauziya Kasinga "incredible" and true.

This brave and traumatized young woman broke out of the prison of one culture and landed in the jails of another. It's time she got what she came for: freedom.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/09/96

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