Gender, Islamophobia, and refugee vulnerability

The narratives against males from Muslim-majority countries and the ways in which countries have applied vulnerability assessments have resulted in the exclusion of this segment of refugees from resettlement. In this section, I argue that gender interfaces with xenophobic and Islamophobic bias and results in the discriminatory application of vulnerability to assess eligibility for refugee resettlement to the exclusion of Muslim males. This section relies on intersec-tionality128 and hegemonic masculinity theories129 to understand the underlying ideologies that lead to exclusion of this demographic from protection. Individuals who are conceptualized as compatible with the “currently accepted” masculinity or femininity norms (i.e., those who are perceived as being marginalized or persecuted) arc provided Convention protection. This narrative creates two problems that result in the exclusion of young single refugee males from Muslim-majority countries: (1) the narrative of the Muslim male who is a threat to Muslim women in need protection; and, (2) the narrative of the victimless male refugee who is the perpetrating criminalized Other and a national security risk.

Victimless male refugees from Muslim-majority countries

When assessing vulnerability and refugee resettlement, women are often portrayed as victims from the Global South and are summarily grouped together with children.130 As Megan Denise Smith, a U.N. International Office of Migration officer and researcher, has noted, “[Fitting women into the 2002 Guidelines on Gender-Related Persecution has only been achieved by painting a monolithic picture of women as passive, dependent, vulnerable victims and thus peripheral to international politics and without agency.”131 At the other end of the spectrum is the Muslim male refugee Other, who is portrayed as the violator of social norms, and whose conformance to “immigrant stereotypes” enables his invisible status and fosters marginalization and lessened protections under the law.132 The young single Muslim male is portrayed as being of combat age, violent, and ready to act against Western countries at any cost.

This narrative creates a monolithic picture that deprives refugee women of agency and reinforces their marginalization.133 It cultivates a “paternalistic narrative of the state, as saviour [sic] to protect ‘women and children.’”134 This frame is based on “Orientalism’s binary juxtaposition of a ‘traditional’ East with a ‘modern’ West-thc theoretical engine of colonialism was premised in part on perceptions of non-Western women as oppressed subjects.”135 A clear example is President Trump’s first iteration of the travel ban, which halted immigration from the Muslim-majority countries of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, as well as the U.S. refugee resettlement program.1'16 The first iteration of the travel ban promulgated the protection-of-women-from-the-persecution-of-Muslim-mcn narrative. The order stated that

In addition, the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including ‘honor’ killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation.137

The protection of women from Muslim males who inflict honor killings or other forms of violence against women reinforces the flattened narrative that women are in need of protection, while Muslim men are the perpetrators of violence from which the women need protection. Legal Scholar Leti Volpp states, “[h]istorically, the status of women in need of uplift was a source of justification for Western colonization of regions of the world—‘white men saving brown women from brown men.’”138 The aftermath of September 11 witnessed the redeployment of the idea of protection of Muslim women from Muslim males.139 “One of the stated justifications for American intervention in Afghanistan— made by both President George Bush and First Lady Laura Bush—was that Afghan women needed to be saved from the Taliban and Islamic barbarism.”140 After September 11, “At home and abroad, it seems that everyone from Laura Bush on down has taken up the plight of Muslim women.”141 The idea that Muslim women need to be “liberated into the ‘progressive’ social customs of the West”142 justifies the marginalization of Muslim men and provides a justification for the invasion of Arab nations.

This creates a dichotomy between the vulnerability and victimhood of refugee women and the refugee male, who becomes the perpetrating, criminalized Other. Muslim women become victims who suffer from their minority cultures.143 This dichotomy was fully present post-September 11 in the Bush administration’s framing of the narrative of Middle Eastern men:144

[...] The Bush administration’s post-September 11 rhetoric was focused on the abuses of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein regimes and expressed support for women’s human rights, it actually served to justify American intervention in the name of masculine protection by framing the United States as a liberator of Afghani and Iraqi women and children.145

Within this monolithic narrative, individuals are positioned in relation to masculine norms which dictate their ability to obtain benefits for inclusion as refugees. For men, fitting within the monolithic narrative constitutes

largely unattainable or unachievable realities. Therefore, even at a prima facie level the assumption that emerges immediately is that, rather than practicing the hegemonic form of masculinity, men alternatively ‘position themselves in relation to it’ to gain whatever advantages may flow from it.146

As such, vulnerability-based resettlement policies can reinforce masculinity norms in admitting immigrant populations that conform to dominant conceptions of

Gender, Islamophobia, & refugee exceptionalism 139 western masculinities while excluding marginalized ones.147 These dualistic narratives

[ijnstead of treating asylum seekers as complex, multifaceted fellow humans, their subjectivity is flattened, reduced to a singular dimension. The consequence of this reduction is that receiving states recognize no moral obligation, but conceive of asylum as a form of charity. It is offered unilaterally and at the discretion of the stated

There is also another nuanced level to the applicability of hegemonic masculinity in relation to the exclusion of males from Muslim-majority countries. The gendered conceptualization of the male who is empowered to find a job and provide for himself is not regarded as a victim in need of protection. At the same time, however, in a cultural context, masculinity is upheld, and men are constrained from showing their vulnerability, which makes it even harder to fit into this “weak” narrative as individuals deserving of protection.

This flattened portrayal of vulnerability causes forms of gender-based violence in which refugee males from Muslim-majority countries may be overlooked, resulting in their marginalization, and similarly narrowly constructs Muslim women as victims without any agency. Gender-based violence includes violence targeted at women or men because of their genders and/or their socially constructed gender roles.149 Both men and women can be, and often are, victims and perpetrators of gender-based violence.150 During conflicts, even though the international community has struggled to document forms of gender-based violence against men, both men and boys experience sex-selective massacre, forced recruitment, and sexual violence.151 All of these factors make them eligible for protection under the Convention. In addition, more often than women, young children, or the elderly, military-age men, and adolescent boys arc forcibly recruited to join armed conflicts and militias against their will.152 This is the impetus that often motivates men to flee. As human security analyst R. Charli Carpenter states, “There is a general understanding that women are more likely than men to be displaced or sexually assaulted, and that men are more likely than women to be massacred, detained, or recruited.”153

Viewing vulnerability from a dichotomous frame also fails to account for the intersecting levels of identity in the framing of women refugees from Muslim-majority countries.154 The colonialism trope that stereotypes women as victims in need of saving masks the role that Muslim women can and have played in terrorist activities. As immigration scholar Muneer Ahmad states, “[t]hc veil in the American context is reduced to a symbol of foreignness and clandestine terror.”155 “[T]he hijab does not just signify foreignness; it represents an ambiguously defined geographic part of the world that is antagonistic to democracy and American values: the Muslim world.”156 Again, the prevailing narrative around Muslim females who engage in terrorism also portrays women through the same frame of manipulation by the Muslim male.157 “The process of brainwashing seems to require male influence, particularly that of a husband, boyfriend orlover, as if convert Muslim women married only strangers with secret agendas for their new-to-Islam wives.”158 The image of Muslim female fighters is often justified and reinforced through the image of the Muslim woman in need of saving.

In the application of the refugee resettlement vulnerability provisions, particular attention must be given to the ways in which gender norms result in a one-dimensional, flattened characterization of both women and men from Muslim-majority countries. This characterization results in the exclusion of male populations through the dualistic view that women are victims and men are perpetrators unworthy of protection. According to Carpenter, “Much of the ‘human security’ discourse in international institutions is based upon a highly gendered understanding of who is to be secured, characterized by the exclusion of civilian males as subjects of‘protection’ or as victims of‘gender-based violence’.”159

Islamophobia, terrorism, and vulnerability

The construction of the single, young refugee man from Muslim-majority countries as the terrorist Other escalated after the events of September 11, 2001:160 “Stereotypes of the dark-skinned, bearded, Muslim male as representative of the primary threat to national security consume[d] the (predominantly male) government’s anxious attempts to prevent the next terrorist attack.”161 This stereotype has led to the exclusion of males from Muslim-majority countries regardless of their actual religion or if they are even from an Arab country from refugee resettlement.162 Post September 11, individuals from Muslim-majority nations have been excluded as refugees without considering if they are vulnerable to persecution.16’’ In 2002, public policy analyst Monette Zard predicted that “the broad application of the Exclusion Clauses [in the Convention] could come dangerously close to attributing guilt purely on the basis of association and are clearly at odds with the necessarily individual character of the exclusion procedure.”164 She warned of the ability of the broad application of these provisions to undermine the humanitarian refugee regime.16’ In addition, European Scholar Brad Blitz stated that “[Fallowing 9/11, there has been a reconfiguration of refugee policy and a reconnecting of humanitarian and security interests which has enabled a discourse antithetical to the universal right to asylum.”166 Scholar Leti Volpp posited that post 9/11 “the American public [was] being instructed that looking ‘Middle Eastern, Arab, or Muslim’ equals ‘potential terrorist.’”167

This reconfiguration became more firmly entrenched after the incidents involving immigrants in Paris, Brussels, Cologne, and Nice, and are used to justify blanketed exclusion of refugees from the Middle East as potential terror threats.168 For example, Former United States Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey stated, “So, there’s going to be a diaspora out of Syria at some point and we are determined not to let lines be drawn from Syria today to a future 9/11.”169

In theorizing the Muslim male Other, there is systematic failure to conceptualize individual deviant actors; instead, one person’s actions become representations for an entire group.170 Various scholars have conducted statistical analyses, to combat the group versus deviant actor frame, the results of which rebut the presumption of the terrorist Muslim male perpetrator. For example, a CATO institute study focused on whether foreign-born people from the Muslim-major-ity countries excluded from Trump’s travel ban (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, and Somalia) had committed or were convicted of attempting to commit a terrorist attack on the United States’ soil from 1975 through 2015.171 The study found that

17 foreign-born folks from those nations [Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, and Somalia] were convicted of carrying out or attempting to carry out a terrorist attack on U.S. soil and they killed zero people. Zero Libyans or Syrians intended to carry out an attack on U.S. soil during this time.172

The study also found that the majority of terrorist attacks in the West were by homegrown groups or individuals with no significant ties to any foreign terrorist 171


In another study by Scholar Marc Sageman, in surveying the 25 million Muslims who reside in Western countries, less than one in one million Muslims a year could be considered a terrorist.174 Furthermore, “the number of people moving to join Syria’s civil war would appear as a barely visible black thread in the wide, wide arrow pointing out from the country: 20,000 people going in against 4 million headed out.”17’’’ Military-aged males are actually the majority of individuals fleeing the conflict.176 “It makes good sense that so many young men are leaving countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria: their demographic is often at greater risk of being conscripted into fighting groups or being killed rather than captured by such groups.”177

We must also take into consideration how the narratives of the terrorist male from Muslim-majority countries mask the exception that has been carved out for the resettlement of gay males and sexual minorities. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s November 24, 2015, comments evince the carving out gay exception to Islamophobia where gay Muslim males are acceptable candidates for refugee resettlement.178 Placed in context, “Canada has the highest acceptance rates for sexual minorities of any receiving country in the world.”179 Accordingly, “Canada’s cultivated international image as a protector of those persecuted by their home states because of their sexual orientation.” 180 In addition, the Trump travel ban included a clause to protect sexual minorities from persecution in Muslim-majority countries.181

To place the gay male and sexual minority exception to the ban on refugee resettlement of males from Muslim-majority countries in context, it is important to consider scholar Jasbir K. Puar’s homonationalism theory.182 Puar posits that homonationalism (i.e., homonormative nationalism) occurs when a nation engages in sexual exceptionalism to justify its xenophobia policies against Islamic nations based on its image as an egalitarian Western nation accepting of sexual minorities.18’’ In this context, “[s]exual minority refugees are therefore encouraged to seek protection in Canada while simultaneously being framed as a potential threat to the health of the Canadian public.”184 Similar to the frame discussed above where the exclusion of male refugees is justified by Western countries utilizing colonial narratives on saving victimized Muslim women, sexual minority refugees, in this case sexual minorities from Muslim-majority countries, are also framed as a “universal victimized group in need of freedom— both from an oppressor and freedom to express their sexuality—that can only be provided by the Canadian state.”185 “(R]efugees represent the transition and supposed evolution between the barbaric sexualities of their country of origin, and the liberated sexualities of their desired (Western) destination.”186

According to Puar, homonationalism facilitates Western states’ attempts to frame themselves as “exceptional, progressive and modern in comparison with barbaric, traditional, and backwards non-Western states, Western states are able to adorn themselves with yet another justification for a foreign policy program based on invasion and Westernization.”187 In relation to refugee resettlement, this dynamic is exacerbated at the intersection of sexuality and race, class, religion, gender, and ethnicity188 where narratives of the progressive protective Western state result in the resettlement of sexual minorities to the exclusion of single, young males from Muslim-majority countries regardless of their level of vulnerability. The narratives that are propagated have resulted in stereotyped, Islamophobic images of Muslim Arab males as the perpetrators of violence, instead of viewing them as individual victims and survivors of the Syrian conflict.189

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