Growing up in Egypt, Sahar lived in a city near the sunny Mediterranean Sea. In the center of her hometown is a shrine to her great-grandfather, considered a saint in the Muslim faith. But her parents did not require her to wear a hijab, and her mother didn't wear the head covering until she was in her 40s.
After high school, Sahar, who is identified here by a pseudonym because she fears for her safety, attended an arts school, studied archaeology and became an English teacher. When she wanted to study more, she completed a pre-masters program, but her professors rejected her proposal to study Byzantine churches, saying it was inappropriate. So she dropped out, married and gave birth to a daughter.
Sahar, who now lives in the DFW area, applied for asylum in the United States, because if she returns to her home country, her brother says he will kill her and her daughters for dishonoring the family name.
Although many women in Egypt experience violence and harassment, Sahar found that after the Arab Spring uprising in 2011, during which the Muslim Brotherhood took power in Egypt, the harassment became more blatant and frequent, partially because she chose not to cover her head. She started to fear for her safety in public and tried only to leave the house with her husband or father.
Sahar is represented by the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, a Dallas-based immigrant support agency that last year launched a two-year initiative to establish case law that paves the way for women fleeing violence to be considered a protected category under the U.S. Asylum Statute.
One day, before she left Egypt, a man approached Sahar outside her house, where he described her body in detail and pulled her hair. Bystanders shrugged the incident off. The harassment and mistreatment of women are systematically ignored and overlooked and often outright condoned, Sahar said.
“[The] Middle East is just a big grave for women and their dreams and their thoughts and their brains and their freedom,” she said. “We apply for asylum here because it’s life, it’s a ticket to life.”
After coming to the U.S. on an immigration visa for better job prospects for her husband, Sahar converted to Christianity. She felt fulfilled, like she belonged. She found friends and a church, but she was afraid to tell her family or even her husband about her new faith.
Eventually, she told her husband and father. Both men accepted her choice. But her father told her brother, who took a conservative line. He’s repeatedly threatened to kill her and her daughters to avenge the family’s honor if they return. Her brother believes not only that Sahar has dishonored the family name by converting, but also that in order to avenge his faith and family legacy, he must get rid of his sister.
If Sahar returned to Egypt and her brother killed her, he would get away with it, she said. Most courts sympathize with the perpetrator of the honor killing. If she were a man, Sahar thinks her brother might just try and talk it out with her, but since she is a woman, he would not.
“If women don’t stand a chance, I do not stand at all,” Sahar said.
Emily Heger, a lawyer for Human Rights Initiative, is working on a two-year fellowship to take Sahar's case and others and help create the case law precedent to expand U.S. asylum categories to include gender-based violence.
“Currently, the U.S. Asylum Statute does not reflect the reality that, in many countries, women and girls are persecuted on the basis of their gender." — Emily Heger, Human Rights Initiative
“Currently, the U.S. Asylum Statute does not reflect the reality that, in many countries, women and girls are persecuted on the basis of their gender,” Heger said.
The U.S. Asylum Statute allows foreign citizens to seek asylum in the country if they are persecuted on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or for being part of a particular social group. While immigrant advocates have long sought to establish gender as a “social group,” given the amount of gender-based violence women experience, violence based on gender is not protected specifically under the asylum statute, Heger said.
In 2014, the asylum case Matter of A-R-C-G established a narrowly protected gender category: married Guatemalan women who cannot leave their relationships. It was the first case to establish precedent that valid asylum claims might include domestic violence within a particular social group.
But in 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a decision that overruled the previous case and has since caused confusion and made it harder to argue that victims of gender-based violence constitute a protected social group.
Although his opinion does not preclude gender as an asylum category, it did erase the previous precedent and dial case law back to square one, Heger said. In response to Sessions’ ruling, she applied for a two-year fellowship with the initiative in which she will attempt to establish case law for future asylum cases.
So far, she has represented and worked with 14 women in the DFW area who are in the United States seeking asylum from gender-based violence. Each woman’s case has something to offer toward establishing precedent for gender to constitute a “particular social group” under the asylum statute.
The Trump administration has systematically sought to curtail immigration and asylum to the country by limiting who can come to the country, raising requirements for green card applicants and asylum work permits and cutting down the number of refugees accepted annually.
Last week, the Supreme Court allowed President Donald Trump’s proposed “remain in Mexico” rule to go into temporary effect. Under the new rule, proposed last year, all asylum seekers coming to the U.S. through Mexico must stay at the southern border until their cases are ready to be heard.
Asylum cases typically take years to work their way through the American court system. But the court ruled that until the lawsuit against the proposed rule has been decided or dismissed, asylum seekers can be held at the border even if their cases take years.
One of Heger’s clients, who asked to be identified by the pseudonym “Maria” out of fear for her safety, fled to the U.S. after systematic, repeated abuse by her boyfriend in El Salvador. If she fled today and came to the Mexican border, she would be held at the border, unable to enter the U.S.
“As an asylum seeker, had Maria arrived at the U.S. border after January 2019, she would be held in Mexico under MPP [the remain in Mexico policy] and subject to the violent and atrocious conditions that tens of thousands of asylum seekers are currently enduring while they wait to present their case to an immigration judge,” Heger said.
Maria, who met her abuser in college, was a lawyer and a notary in El Salvador. She owned a home and a car and had an established, lucrative career. But after she had her daughter, her boyfriend no longer wanted her to work and became possessive. He hit and slapped her. Once when he found her at work, in front of witnesses, he slapped her, knocked her to the ground and dragged her down the sidewalk by her hair.
“It was like a vicious circle. He used to yell at me, he used to hit me, tell me I was a whore … then he would get on his knees,” Maria said, speaking through an interpreter.
She asked the local police for help several times, but they said it was a family matter and told her to go home and work it out.
“They didn’t apply law to my case … my country is a macho country. For them it’s normal for women to have domestic violence against them,” Maria said.
When her abuser hit her in front of family, she finally had their support to leave him. But he continued to abuse her when he came to visit their daughter. Maria filed a protective court order, but the court went on strike for six months before acting on her case. She knew she had to leave to protect herself and her daughter.
“If I waited those six months, I might just be one more of those dead women in my country,” Maria said.
She left and flew to join her mother in the U.S., where she is waiting for a ruling on her asylum case. In countries where domestic violence is not taken seriously or ignored, seeking safety in the U.S. is one of the few options for escaping it.
But as immigration lawyers and advocates have sought to carve out protection for women on the basis of gender, critics of the move have suggested that it might just allow all women to come to the U.S. Logically, that’s unlikely to happen, Heger said, because there’s other parts of the asylum statute that still need to be met. What she wants to do is make sure that women who need it can be protected.
Asylum seekers do not leave their home countries lightly, she said.
“My clients are strong and smart and established in their own countries. … They didn’t want to leave,” Heger said. “They’re not here just for a job. They’re here because they literally can’t find safety in their home countries."