A landmark U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals decision in 1996 made it much easier for women to seek asylum in the United States on grounds of gender-based persecution. But asylum attorneys say a new case – that of a Guatemalan woman seeking asylum on grounds of spousal abuse – pending before the Supreme Court could reverse advances made in gender-based asylum claims. Among those the case could affect are Isatou Diallo* and her three daughters, who fled the West African country of Guinea.
As the bus wound through the rain-slick streets of a Washington suburb, Isatou Diallo* held her four-year-old daughter Binta* on her lap and chatted with her eldest, 20-year-old Kadijha*.
The family was waiting to find out at their asylum hearing whether they would be accepted, rejected, or forced to continue waiting for a decision. Isatou fled Guinea with her three daughters two years ago, saying she wanted to protect them from forced marriage and female genital excision and allow them to continue their educations.
She had been relying on the Tahirih Justice Center near Washington to help her family. At Tahirih, attorneys help women seeking asylum from gender-based persecution. The center was started by a lawyer who defended a Togolese woman, Fauziya Kassindja, in a landmark case in 1996 that helped ease the way for gender-based asylum claims by other women. As a teenager, Ms. Kassindja had fled forced marriage and genital excision in Togo.
Isatou’s attorney, Colleen Renk-Zengotitabengoa, explained to the family what they might expect at their asylum hearing. If they were denied asylum, they had one more chance to appeal. Isatou took notes on a yellow legal pad.
Ms. Renk-Zengotitabengoa said Isatou had little chance of finding help through Guinea’s justice system, which human rights groups say is corrupt and inefficient. The attorney also said women have far fewer rights than men in many African countries.
“The system is just stacked against women in traditional societies where there can be issues where her testimony might not be worth as much as a man’s, perhaps evidence of abuse might not be allowed in that society or justice system,” explained the attorney. “There are questions of inheritance or custody. She might not have the same rights of a man.”
When the day of the hearing arrived, Isatou and her two older daughters sat on a bench in a room at the courthouse, waiting to be called. A nervous, excited smile occasionally crossed Kadijha’s face. The day could change everything. If they won asylum, she could pursue her plans for college that had been on hold for two years.
If Isatou lost her quest for asylum, options for her and her daughters back in Guinea would be more limited than when they fled. Unlike in western cultures, Ms. Renk-Zengotitabengoa said it would virtually be impossible for Isatou to simply start life anew in a small country like Guinea.
“For a woman to move into a city or village - it’s unheard of,” said the attorney. “Everyone would want to know who is this person, why is she here, why is she not with her husband? It would be assumed she would be married. Also it would at some point become evident to the people in her community who she is, and to whom she’s related and to whom she’s married. Word would get back to her husband and she would suffer the consequences for having left, disobeyed her husband and taken some of his children.”
In the waiting room at immigration court, Isatou maintained her cool composure, providing a shoulder for her middle daughter Aminata* to rest her head. Their lawyer disappeared into the hearing room. Minutes passed.
Finally, she emerged. The family looked to her in anticipation. There would be no hearing today.
As the attorney explained, the previous hearing ran over its time limit. The judge set a new date - nine months away. Lengthy postponements are common within the region’s overwhelmed court system. Kadijha stared ahead in stunned silence. Then they left.
Outside the courthouse, Ms. Renk-Zengotitabengoa explained further. For Kadijha, the news was sinking in. She wiped tears from her face.
Isatou felt a sense of having failed her children, knowing how Kadijha wanted to attend Howard University in Washington. “I want to work for my little family,” she said. “I want to be free. I don’t know what to do for the moment. I made them flee to protect them and to educate them. I want them to continue their education.”
With the hearing rescheduled for nine months away, another deadline for university applications will pass. Without legal residency status, there will be no job for either Kadijha or her mother to save money if she ever is able to go to school.
“I planned a lot of stuff to do,” said Kadijha, as her head fell to her sister’s shoulder and she began to cry.
With the postponement of the hearing, there is now a greater risk that the case of Isatou’s family could be affected by a potential negative ruling in the Supreme Court gender-based asylum case of a Guatemalan woman, who said she fled spousal abuse.
Outside the courthouse, Kadijha and her sister walked away slowly. Their mother stayed behind to talk with her attorney. Then she rushed to catch up with her daughters, her dress billowing in the chilly wind of a bright, cloudless day that has revealed a future no more clear than yesterday or even two years ago, when the family arrived.
(That was the last part of a four-part series on African gender issues.)
* At the request of those interviewed for this story, the names have been changed.