III: The Arab diaspora: gender, human rights, and migration

The Arab diaspora gender, human rights, and migration

Theorizing sexual violence against men in the Middle East and North african region as gender-related persecution under refugee and asylum law

Valorie K. Vojdik


While international law has recognized that sexual violence against women during war may constitute gender-related persecution, sexual violence against men has been virtually invisible, both in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region and around the globe. During the Syrian conflict, for example, media reports primarily focused on the rape of women and girls, mostly ignoring the widespread rape of Syrian men and boys in detention by Syrian forces.1 Recently, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has begun to recognize that men and boys are also victims of sexual violence and gender-based persecution.2 Drawing on examples from Syria and the MENA region, this chapter argues that feminists and human rights advocates should similarly broaden the theoretical framework of refugee and asylum law3 to recognize and conceptualize claims of male refugees as gender-related persecution.

Both the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Refugee Convention or Refugee Convention) and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA) provide protection to refugees, defining refugee as a person with well-founded fear of persecution on several enumerated grounds that do not include sex or gender. Following the mass rape of women during armed conflicts in the 1990s, feminist scholars and human rights activists mobilized to persuade courts to recognize gender-related violence against women as a form of persecution that may qualify for asylum protection.4 In so doing, feminist advocates have tended to theorize gender-related persecution in sex-specific terms, conceptualized as harm to women perpetrated by men.

While the international community has begun to recognize gender-related claims of women as grounds for human rights protection, it has largely ignored gender-related claims of men and boys.5 Like women, men and boys arc subjected to conflict-related sexual violence and torture by the government and military forces that is gender-related and may constitute grounds for asylum protection. The erasure of men and boy refugees from accounts of gender-based persecution not only denies them the ability to be protected as refugees but also undermines feminist efforts to eradicate the subordination of women.

Treating gender-based persecution as a sex-specific phenomenon tends to es-sentialize the categories of male and female, reinforcing gender stereotypes that assume that women are victims and men are perpetrators.6 This in turn obscures the role of gender as a social process or institution of distinction and domination that regulates both men and women.

Focusing on international standards and asylum jurisprudence in the United States, this chapter critiques the failure to recognize gender persecution against men and boys. United Nations Security Council Resolution 2106 recognized in 2016 that men and boys are also victims of sexual violence during conflict, which can constitute a war crime, crime against humanity, and constitutive act of genocide.7 Concentrating on the MENA region, this chapter argues that sexual violence against men during conflict similarly may constitute gender-related persecution and grounds for refugee protection. Specifically, it argues that feminists should expand the theoretical framework of asylum law to incorporate and theorize men’s experiences of gender violence and persecution.

This chapter begins with a discussion of the movement to recognize gender-related persecution of women as grounds for protection and asylum. The next section examines relevant guidance from the UNCHR and the United States examining asylum claims by women, arguing that the documents recognize that men may also suffer gender-related forms of persecution but miss the opportunity to adequately theorize such harms. The final section then examines reports of sexual violence against Syrian men in detention to illustrate the need to broaden the feminist framework to recognize and consider gender-related persecution of men under the Refugee Convention in the United States and internationally.

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