On January 20, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Proclamation on Ending Discriminatory Bans on Entry to the United States, striking down Trump’s Muslim Ban with one signature. Though Biden’s Executive Order is an important step forward, it is only the first step in tackling systematic issues that preceded and will follow the Muslim Ban, particularly impacting women and girls. As someone who works with these communities every day, I have witnessed the lasting pain caused by the Muslim Ban first-hand. Now, a recent report from Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security makes it plain for all to see.
Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security and Conflict Transformation (WCAPS) provides a platform for women of color that cultivates a strong voice and network for its members while encouraging dialogue and strategies for engaging in policy discussions. The WCAPS Southwest Asia and North Africa (SWANA) Working Group’s report, “Amplifying SWANA Women & Girl’s Voices: Survey Results and Analysis,” illustrates how respondents perceived the Muslim Ban and its targeted animus against SWANA and Muslim communities, emphasizing the impact on women and girls. I serve as a co-chair of the SWANA Working Group, which aims to promote the voices and advance the professional development of women of color in the SWANA region in the fields of international peace, security, and conflict transformation.
The responses in the SWANA Report represent the stories and experiences of SWANA and Muslim women impacted by the ban in their own words, which we published in the hopes of educating others on the impact of the ban and its long-term effects. Through anecdotes, respondents share that the increased discrimination spurred by the ban weighed especially hard on women and girls, “who already face gender, racial and ethnic barriers to exist in the United States and abroad, and are already subjected to fears of violence.” Respondents also explain what being banned meant to them, largely articulating that “[i]t’s an act of discrimination based on unfounded and racially motivated intentions and it’s hurtful on a personal level to be labeled as a threat to others.”
The Muslim Ban correlated to a spike in hate crimes against Muslim Americans, building on existing fears of violence against women and girls. Reflecting this, the SWANA Report found that 98% of respondents believed that the Muslim Ban heightened discrimination against all SWANA women and girls in the United States. For example, one woman explains that “[f]or women in hijab, the heightened risk of violence is especially terrifying. I think the Muslim Ban has perpetuated a system of fear for SWANA women that holds us back in every aspect of public life.” Additionally, elderly women with children in the United States were faced with the uncertainty of survival without support. One woman in the report explains how her “ grandmother is old and unable to travel, especially under COVID-19, and she may never see her children in one place again.” When we asked another woman about the impact of the ban, she describes “missed birthdays, baptisms, graduations, weddings and other events that make life worth living with those you love….”
When we asked another woman about the impact of the ban, she describes “missed birthdays, baptisms, graduations, weddings and other events that make life worth living with those you love….”
The SWANA Report also found that only 26.5% of participants were familiar with H.R. 2214, the No Ban Act. The No Ban Act would limit executive authority by requiring the Executive Branch to consult with the Secretaries of State and of Homeland Security, and would require that they have “specific and credible facts” that “address specific acts” before restricting noncitizens — shielding us from a future, unilateral ban. It’s unacceptable that a community feeling this discriminated against by the Muslim Ban was so unaware of the most effective legislation to reverse it. In order to prevent this disconnection in the future, there needs to be better engagement with these communities.
Moving forward, one central tool would be revamping the US census. The SWANA Report found that it was impossible to understand the Muslim Ban’s full impact on US citizens, particularly the SWANA diaspora and other Muslim Americans. This is largely due to the lack of demographic information on SWANA (or MENA) communities targeted by the ban, left out by the US Census and conflated as white. Arab Americans come from over twenty-two Arabic speaking countries across the Southwest Asia and North African region. From Morocco to Sudan, to Syria and Oman, these communities are racially, ethnically and religiously diverse. It is important that the US Census Bureau adds a SWANA or “MENA” category that recognizes our existence and allows us to collect a more comprehensive understanding of how policies, like the Muslim Ban, impact us as a whole, especially women and girls who bear the intersectional burdens of gender, race, ethnic and religious identity.
Though Biden’s Executive Order is necessary, we must also recognize that its claim that the Muslim Ban violated the United States’ “long history of welcoming people of all faiths and no faith at all” neglects a long history of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim animus displayed overs years of American jurisprudence, eventually leading to the Supreme Court case upholding the Muslim Ban in 2018. As we move forward, it is important that we not only eliminate Trump’s Muslim Ban, but that we include SWANA (or MENA) communities in the US Census and pass legislation like the No Ban Act which would limit executive authority and prevent similarly discriminatory bans in the future.
Neda M. Shaheen is an attorney and human rights advocate in Washington, DC. At WCAPS, Neda advocates for gender and racial equity in foreign policy, peace and security, and manages all WCAPS projects and programs. Neda also Co-Chairs the Young Ambassadors Program as well as the Southwest Asia and North Africa Working Group.