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Opinion So much for the West ‘saving’ Muslim women from terrorism

A Syrian refugee sits with her children in their home in Jordan on Nov. 8. (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)

“We respect our mothers, our sisters and daughters. Fighting brutality against women and children is not the expression of a specific culture; it is the acceptance of our common humanity — a commitment shared by people of goodwill on every continent. … The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”

These words were spoken by first lady Laura Bush, 14 years ago this week at the outset of the invasion in Afghanistan. Her words stand as emblematic of the grand rhetorical tradition of linking America’s war on terror to the liberation of women and children. Western democracies for years used the salvation of Muslim women as a reason to go to war. But today, the Western world looks to be severely lacking in the “humanity” and” goodwill” Bush spoke of. For Western leaders to actively campaign against refugees fleeing terrorism, many of whom are women, reveals stunning hypocrisy on the part of those who in the past invoked those very same women as reasons to launch the war on terror. Resettling women and children seeking refuge is a pretty clear way to “save” women from terrorism in the Middle East, and the United States and Europe have decided to turn their backs on them.

First lady Laura Bush gives the weekly presidential radio address on Nov. 17, 2001. (Video: George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum)

After the Paris attacks on Friday that claimed at least 129 lives, at least 26 governors, mostly Republican, declared their refusal to let refugees into their states (even though they have no power to do so.) Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) announced his plans to introduce a bill preventing Syrian refugees from entering the United States.  Ben Carson falsely claimed that “a majority of [Syrian refugees] are young males.  The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that over three-quarters of the 4 million refugees from Syria are actually women and children. But protecting the most vulnerable is not on the list of priorities for U.S. conservatives. Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie has said that he wouldn’t even accept 5-year-old children. Barack Obama shot back at the anti-refugee candidates, saying, “These are the same folks often times that say they’re so tough that just talking to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin or staring down ISIL (ISIS) or using some additional rhetoric will solve the problem — and they’re scared of widows and three-year-old orphans.”

So far, only about 1,500 Syrians have been accepted into the United States. According to a report from BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski, a State Department spokesman said of Obama’s plans to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees, “Our emphasis is on admitting the most vulnerable Syrians – particularly survivors of violence and torture, those with severe medical conditions, and women and children – in a manner that is consistent with U.S. national security. … Military-aged males unattached to families comprise only approximately two percent of Syrian refugee admissions to date.” The United States has asked UNHCR to prioritize women with children for referral for refugee status. According to a 2014 U.N. report, women were the sole providers for a quarter of Syrian refugee families fleeing violence. None of this is not to say male refugees don’t matter. But studies have shown women and children are particularly vulnerable in conflict, especially to sexual assault in refugee and internally displaced person (IDP) camps, as well as trafficking and unwanted pregnancies.

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Remember when Western leaders and feminists were fawning over Malala Yousafzai, the teen activist for girls’ rights to education who survived being shot by the Taliban in Pakistan? It was just last year that Cruz sent a message of congratulations on her Nobel Peace Prize win, calling her a “brave and powerful voice.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said this month that he would love to have a beer with the young Muslim. But today, if Malala were a Syrian, Rubio wouldn’t be so generous. In the wake of the Paris attacks, the presidential candidate, who once was open to the idea of resettling those fleeing from Syria, has reversed course, saying Sunday “we won’t be able to take in more refugees.” For her part, Malala, who opened a school for Syrian refugee girls in Lebanon in July, blasted the response to the refugee crisis, calling world leaders “stingy.” She likely would be even more furious with the virulent anti-Muslim sentiment and xenophobia being spouted by leaders in the same countries that toasted her accomplishments. It’s ironic that the Nobel Peace Prize winner who became a symbol for the global war against terrorism would likely be refused shelter.

The issue of women and children fleeing war and terrorism is fundamentally a global feminist issue. The use of brutality against women and children that Laura Bush spoke of 14 years ago is well-documented within the Islamic State. Rukmini Callimachi of the New York Times penned a chilling exposé of the Islamic State’s use of kidnapping, systematic rape, and forced enslavement of women and girls from the Yazidi minority in Iraq. The Islamic State has beheaded and stoned women in Syria. Speaking up for resettling women and children fleeing such violence should be a priority for Americans right now. At this juncture, it’s not.

“In America, next week brings Thanksgiving,” Bush said at the end of her radio address in 2001. “After the events of the last few months, we’ll be holding our families even closer. And we will be especially thankful for all the blessings of American life. I hope Americans will join our family in working to insure that dignity and opportunity will be secured for all the women and children of Afghanistan.” As Thanksgiving approaches this year, it’s a shame that American leaders are actively working to ensure that dignity and opportunity are being denied to women and children fleeing Syria and other places affected by war and terrorism.