Women and Open Borders

TRIGGER WARNING: Some of the links contain graphic descriptions of rape, assault, and other forms of abuse.

In May, Christine Pelosi, chair of the California Democratic Party Women’s Caucus, urged feminists to support “immigrants’ rights as women’s rights” and “push for the most women-friendly immigration bill possible.”  She also observed that “many women’s rights advocates don’t see immigrants’ rights as a ‘women’s issue’ either out of privilege or unfamiliarity.”  Ms. Pelosi is correct about the overlap between immigration policy and the welfare of many women, although she doesn’t identify the best way to help women around the world: open borders policies in Western countries.

Before addressing how open borders could help women, I would like to observe that, just as many feminists may not concern themselves with “immigrants’ rights,” there is a dearth of women writing in support of open borders.  None of the contributors to this site are women.  Among those authors supporting open borders who don’t appear on this site, Vipul identifies only three women: Teresa Hayter, Jacqueline Stevens, and Aviva Chomsky.  (Harriet Grimsditch, a founding member of No One Is Illegal UK, can also be added.) (Ms. Chomsky’s support of open borders has to be inferred.  In her book  “They Take Our Jobs” and 20 Other Myths About Immigration (2007), she writes that “the decriminalization of border crossing would encourage almost all would-be immigrants to pass through established inspection stations…” (p. 190))  It is unclear why women are significantly underrepresented in authoring arguments in favor of open borders.  (It is interesting that a survey of global public opinion showed no gender differences in views on immigration policy.)

Open borders potentially could benefit women even more than men.  Like men, women would benefit from the economic opportunities made available by open borders and, conversely, be released from the various hardships imposed by restrictionism such as deportation, detention, separation from family, fear, exploitation, and being forced to remain in their home countries.

In addition, given the special plight of many women in many developing countries (and some wealthier countries, like Saudi Arabia) open borders would provide a crucial means of escaping their societies for the safety and freedom of the Western world.  In their book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity For Women Worldwide (2009), Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn write that “in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world.” (p. xvii)  They ask, “Why is acid thrown in women’s faces, but not in men’s?  Why are women so much more likely to be stripped naked and sexually humiliated than men?  Why is it that in many cultures, old men are respected as patriarchs, while old women are taken outside the village to die of thirst or to be eaten by wild animals?  Granted, in the societies where these abuses take place, men also suffer more violence than males do in America–but the brutality inflicted on women is particularly widespread, cruel, and lethal.” (p. 67)

As Mr. Kristof and Ms. WuDunn suggest, many women around the world face widespread violence.  Some of the perpetrators are family members.  While domestic violence certainly exists in the U.S. and other Western countries, it is more pronounced and more tolerated in certain societies.  A Guatemalan lawyer claims that over a decade in her country, more than 4,000 women were killed in domestic violence, and only 2 percent of these cases had been solved.  Mr. Kristof and Ms. WuDunn describe the case of Zoya Najabi, an Afghan who was married at age twelve to a sixteen year old boy and who reported that “‘Not only my husband, but his brother, his mother, and her sister–they all beat me…’”  Mr. Kristof and Ms. WuDunn note that “the worst moment came when Zoya’s mother-in-law was beating her and Zoya unthinkingly kicked back.  Resisting a mother-in-law is an outrageous sin.  First, Zoya’s husband dug out an electric cable and flogged his wife until she fell unconscious.  Then, the next day, her father-in-law strapped Zoya’s feet together, tied her down, and gave a stick to the mother-in-law, who whipped the soles of Zoya’s feet.  ‘My feet were beaten until they were like yogurt,’ Zoya said.” (pp. 68-69)  Two other Afghan women were beaten each day for a week by their uncle and cousins, under their father’s supervision, for refusing to marry cousins. (pp. 156-157) Another form of domestic violence in parts of the world involves “honor” killings.  Sometimes, write Mr. Kristof and Ms. WuDunn,  “… a family kills one of its own girls because she has behaved immodestly or has fallen in love with a man…” (p. 82)  They estimate that there are at least 6,000 honor killings each year.

Women are threatened by strangers as well, with little protection from law enforcement.  In the Ethiopian countryside, according to the Mr. Kristof and Ms. WuDunn, “…if a young man has an eye on a girl but doesn’t have a bride price (the equivalent of a dowry, but paid by the man), or if he doubts that the girl’s family will accept him, then he and several friends kidnap the girl, and he rapes her.  That immediately improves his bargaining position, because she is ruined and will have difficulty marrying anyone else.  The risks to the boy are minimal, since the girl’s parents never prosecute the rapist–that would aggravate the harm to their daughter’s reputation and would be resented in the community as a breach of tradition.”  Until 2005, the authors note that “Ethiopian law explicitly provided that a man could not be prosecuted for violating a woman or girl he later married.” (62)   Similarly, a Mexican woman related how a man “… made her live with him, and forced her to have sex with him by putting a gun or a machete to her head, by breaking her nose and by threatening to kill the small children of her sister.  Once when she became pregnant, she said, she barely escaped alive after he had poured kerosene on the bed where she was sleeping and ignited it…  Local police dismissed her reports of violence as a ‘private matter,’ the court documents said, and a judge she turned to for help tried to seduce her.  ‘In Mexico, men believe they have a right to abuse their women because they are like a possession,’ she said.”   Mr. Kristof and Ms. DuWunn report that in Pakistan authorities are indifferent  “to injustices suffered by the poor and uneducated.”  They quote a gynecologist in Karachi who treats poor young girls who have been raped, usually by wealthy perpetrators: “‘When I treat rape victims, I tell the girls not to go to the police… Because if a girl goes to the police, the police will rape her.’” (pp. 83-84)

Mr. Kristof and Ms. DuWunn note that some recent conflicts, including those in Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Congo, have involved mass rapes. (p. 83) Even after the conflict ended in Liberia, the predation against women persisted.  According to Mr. Kristof, the war there “seems to have shattered norms and trained some men to think that when they want sex, they need simply to overpower a girl.  Or at school, girls sometimes find that to get good grades, they must have sex with their teachers.”  During the war it was estimated that 75 percent of the country’s women had been raped.  “The incidence of rape has dropped since then but is still numbingly high.  An International Rescue Committee survey in 2007 found that about 12 percent of girls aged 17 and under acknowledged having been sexually abused in some way in the previous 18 months.”

Another harm women face in some societies is genital mutilation.  According to a U.S. court ruling, “The practice of genital cutting, a tradition throughout sub-Saharan Africa, has long been criticized by human rights groups and the United Nations and frequently takes place under unsanitary conditions, with tools like knives, scissors, razor blades and shards of glass…”  Alima Traore, who is from Mali, had endured this mutilation as a child  and applied for asylum in the U.S.  She said this about the U.S.:  “’It is a better place for women than Mali, because in Mali women don’t have any voice… Because it is the men who control.’”  Other African women who were victims of genital mutilation have also sought asylum in the U.S.

Governments severely restrict women’s freedoms in some countries.  In the Sudan, women are prohibited from wearing pants and are flogged for doing so.  In Saudi Arabia, women “need permission from their husbands or fathers to work, travel, study or even receive health care.  They cannot drive.  While more than half of the university students are women, their job prospects are severely limited.”    A woman can be whipped for being alone with a man to whom she is not married.  In Iran, the government in 2007 cracked down on “un-Islamic dress” and detained 150,000 women for violating the dress code.

Ending oppressive laws and the violence inflicted upon women in many countries is a formidable undertaking and a goal that could take a long time to realize, if ever.  A way Western countries could relatively quickly help women in these harsh situations is to open up their borders.  This probably would not mean a mass exodus of mistreated women to Western countries, since, as Mr. Kristof and Ms. DuWunn suggest, some of these women may be comfortable with the status quo: “… women themselves absorb and transmit misogynistic values, just as men do.  This is not a tidy world of tyrannical men and victimized women, but a messier realm of oppressive social customs adhered to by men and women alike.” (p. 69)  And obtaining the resources and arranging the logistics for those who wish to leave would be a challenge.  This is where those in the West concerned about the situation of women in these countries could help by providing shelters and financial help to women seeking to emigrate.  In some situations in which societies and families would be hostile to such interventions, a kind of modern day Underground Railroad system could be established to help women flee.  But first an open borders policy needs to be established to guarantee that those women who want to escape from their societies could find refuge in countries that respect them as women and people.  (Open borders would also allow victimizers to enter Western countries, but Western laws and institutions would better protect immigrant women than those in their home countries.)

Currently, for women seeking refugee in the U.S., the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies notes that U.S. immigration law has often been unfriendly to women seeking asylum based on gender related harm. “Decision-makers often fail to recognize that harms unique to women — such as forced marriage or honor killings — may constitute persecution.”  In 2009, a Mexican woman was killed by a former boyfriend shortly after being forced to return to Mexico by U.S. agents.  In an article in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review, the author relates the case of an asylum seeker from Guinea:  “… a woman was told that she would marry her uncle’s friend, who was fifty years older and already had four wives. When she objected, her uncle beat her. She escaped briefly, but upon her return was again beaten before the imam and then before the tribal elders, all of whom instructed her to proceed with the marriage. In addition, her uncle threatened to kill her should she persist in her refusal. The woman was finally able to escape and apply for asylum in the United States. Despite her credible testimony, the immigration judge denied the woman’s claim… He did not address the various forms of coercion being brought to bear upon her, or whether a marriage entered under such duress would constitute future persecution.” (p. 91)

The realization of open borders would benefit numerous women economically and/or enable them to escape from oppressive situations in their home countries.  To help make open borders a reality, more men and women in the West need to join this effort.

Joel Newman

Joel has a bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College and works as a teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.

See also:

our blog post introducing Joel
all blog posts by Joel

10 thoughts on “Women and Open Borders”

  1. I have represented many immigrant victims of gender-based violence in their legal proceedings, where the harm took place in the U.S. or abroad or both, and agree that the U.S. immigration regime is not friendly to women. The U Visa (for crime victims) and Violence Against Women Act processes have improved over the past few years, but still benefit only a fraction of immigrant women subject to violence or abuse.

    In the open borders debate, I am more familiar with the legal and organizing spheres than the academic sphere. I know that women are disproportionately represented among activists, legal services nonprofits, and undocumented immigrant rights organizers. There are several women writing about immigration who have developed radical perspectives on open borders from their lived experience, including:
    Angy Rivera http://www.nysylc.org/askangy/
    Prerna Lal http://prernalal.com/
    Tania Unzueta http://inamerica.blogs.cnn.com/tag/tania-unzueta-carrasco-cnn/
    Among academics, Jaya Ramji-Nogales and Ayelet Shachar are two women whose writing I admire.

  2. Interesting. In a way, this is just a special niche argument within the general argument that it’s good for people to be able to move from places where they’re badly treated to places where their lives will be better. But focusing on the plight of women in particular gives the post a chivalrous air.

    I can imagine someone countering that while open borders might enable a lot of women to escape cultures where the freedom of women is excessively curtailed, they will at the same time allow a lot of people to come to the West who don’t share Western values vis-a-vis women’s rights, with the result that the achievements of feminism will be rolled back somewhat in the West itself.

    That seems likely to me, but as I think feminism might have gone a little too far in the West in some ways, to the point where women who choose to be housewives are sometimes looked down on, where it seems self-evident to many people that women should be “equally” represented in many professions (though really this desideratum makes little sense), and so on, the possibility that open borders might burst the West’s socially liberal bubble, making the housewife lifestyle more normal and socially approved than it is now, and making it easier for men who want to marry women with traditional family-oriented priorities to find them, while at the same time enabling women to escape from cultures where women really are oppressed, is appealing to me.

    1. [quote]I can imagine someone countering that while open borders might enable a lot of women to escape cultures where the freedom of women is excessively curtailed, they will at the same time allow a lot of people to come to the West who don’t share Western values vis-a-vis women’s rights, with the result that the achievements of feminism will be rolled back somewhat in the West itself.[/quote]

      As was posted here the other day, open borders do not mean open citizenship. It is reasonable to require a substantial period of residency and acculturation before allowing immigrants full citizenship. I think there’s also a strong self-selection bias in who chooses to move to the west versus who doesn’t, so it’s probably a smaller impact than you think.

      [quote] I think feminism might have gone a little too far in the West in some ways, to the point where women who choose to be housewives are sometimes looked down on, where it seems self-evident to many people that women should be “equally” represented in many professions (though really this desideratum makes little sense), and so on, the possibility that open borders might burst the West’s socially liberal bubble, making the housewife lifestyle more normal and socially approved than it is now, and making it easier for men who want to marry women with traditional family-oriented priorities to find them, while at the same time enabling women to escape from cultures where women really are oppressed, is appealing to me.[/quote]

      This comes off really chauvinistic. “Traditional family-oriented priorities” means being a housewife? That is a not-so-subtle dig at women who work with the implication that they give a lower priority to their family. I think that working to support your family is a family oriented priority, whether the work is performed by a man or a woman.

  3. Thanks for writing this post! A post along these lines was on my to-do list, but I think this better presented than whatever I might have eked out.

    Might it be a good idea to update this post with a trigger warning? Some of the descriptions of abuse are fairly graphic.

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