- Gendered Asylum: Race and Violence in U.S. Law and Politics by Sara L. McKinnon
In Gendered Asylum: Race and Violence in U.S. Law and Politics, Sara L. McKinnon makes an important contribution to migration and refugee scholarship in tracking the development of gender in U.S. asylum cases. She does so by explaining and interrogating how sexual and gender politics fall in line with U.S. national and international state interests. McKinnon’s book contributes to the body of work in transnational feminist studies in two ways: first, she reveals underlying logics in gender’s development as a political category with the power to create transnational imaginaries; second, she demonstrates how the racialization of bodies weakens neoliberal opportunities for asylum protection due to gender and gender violence. Providing a crucial window into how the U.S. asylum system views gender, McKinnon explains that despite recommendations from international bodies, calls from legal scholars, and other nation-states’ formal adoption of gender as a protected category, gender has only been a contingent and segregated political category in U.S. legal jurisprudence. This means gender is contingent because each gender-based claimant must define their social group and prove persecution of that specific gendered social group. In addition, claimants must segregate other aspects of their identity and experiences such as religion, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, or age. Therefore, legal precedence in U.S. asylum jurisprudence fails to recognize gender as an established identity category for which an asylum-seeking refugee can experience persecution. At this interjection, McKinnon posits the question: “What has enabled gender’s emergence as a contingent and segregated category?” (4).
To answer this question, McKinnon conducts a rhetorical analysis of a substantial body of asylum case law starting in the 1980s, when U.S. courtrooms first assessed gender-based asylum cases, until 2012. Using analysis of more than 150 appellate-level decisions, looked over by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) or a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and collecting extrajudicial material such as news media accounts, human rights reports, speeches, congressional [End Page 197] debates, governmental reports, and historical accounts, McKinnon contextualizes asylum law in the broader sociopolitical and geopolitical landscape from which it emerges. She does this in order to argue that this context denaturalizes asylum decisions as a matter of fact, rather than basing these decisions as a matter of judgment suggestive of and encased in dominant U.S. culture and meaning making. Not a legal scholar or a lawyer, McKinnon approaches her legal analysis of these asylum case decisions as a rhetorical critic. Falling in line with John Lucaites’s approach to addressing the law as rhetoric and Wendy Hesford’s “intercontextual” mode of analysis, McKinnon’s approach investigates “how state officials, in the form of U.S. attorneys and judges, make sense of, evaluate, and ultimately make judgment on who is worthy of refuge and who is not” (15). Drawing on legal rhetorical studies, international political economy studies, and transnational feminist theories, McKinnon’s book aims to uncover how power operates through gender’s intelligibility in asylum cases that affect thousands of people’s lives.
Divided into seven parts—an introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion—McKinnon cites multiple asylum cases throughout the book to stress the real people affected by the courts’ developing position on gender and gender violence. The first chapter introduces the readers to initial asylum cases by women from Central America claiming intimate and sexual violence as a form of persecution in the late 1980s to the present. In this chapter, McKinnon demonstrates how the United States masked its violent affairs in Central America by projecting itself as a protector and defender of women parallel to the transnational publicity of “women’s rights as human rights” activism. The second chapter builds on this analysis of early case law by examining the first explicit “gender-based asylum cases” with the “women’s rights as human rights” emerging discourse relating...