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Monday, January 11, 2010

Enhanced Security or Harassment: What’s the Difference? by Dr. Mary Manjikian

What do you call a situation where women who are in subordinate positions are intimately touched all over their bodies by an authority figure without their consent? What do you call a situation where an individual fears going somewhere because of the offensive, intimidating, or oppressive atmosphere generated there? The usual answer to the first question is “sexual harassment”. And the usual answer to the second question is “a hostile workplace environment.” If a subway traveler in New York or even Delhi, India, complained of unwanted intimate touching by a stranger while riding public transportation, the perpetrator would in all likelihood be arrested and with good reason.

But under the current measures taken by the Obama Administration because of the so-called Christmas Day underwear bomber, we now have a new answer to these questions. Beginning January 4, air travelers flying into the United States from Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Yemen and other ‘countries of interest’ are to be subjected to enhanced screening techniques, such as body scans, pat-downs and a thorough search of carry-on luggage. Middle Eastern women who find themselves at an airport in a strange country undergoing a full body search which includes, according to the New York Times, the space between their breasts, are not undergoing harassment, but rather are experiencing “enhanced security measures.” And the threat that one will encounter this sort of full body search does not create a ‘hostile environment,’ but rather, ‘a climate of enhanced security.’

Feminist analysts have long maintained that in wartime, decision makers often make decisions largely by considering only the military ramifications. They seldom consider the effects their actions may have on vulnerable populations within society – including women and children. Thus, discussions about sanctions might neglect to consider issues of food security for children, and discussions about bombings and invasions might neglect to consider the refugee streams created as a result.

However, the situation currently created by the Obama Administration verges on ironic. From the beginning of America’s involvement in Iraq, we have heard from administration officials , including current Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, that women are not merely a footnote to America’s foreign policy. Instead, we have been told that one of the main goals of the operations both in Iraq and Afghanistan has been to increase the human rights and dignity of women throughout the world, including allowing them access to all of the educational and professional opportunities which their male compatriots enjoy. How strange, then, that the current security measures perhaps threaten to set women in these regions back hundreds of years.

While running for election, President Obama proudly proclaimed that “I want my daughters to have all the opportunities that you want for your sons.” And while the sentiment is indeed noble, it is human nature for fathers to worry more about their daughter’s safety and for governmental regimes to think differently about female combat casualties than about male combat casualties. Which brings us to the following problem: Given the likelihood that Islamic women might be intimately touched by male strangers in Western airports, how likely is it that a Nigerian, Yemeni or Saudi boss might simply decide not to send his best female employee and instead pass an opportunity for travel and advancement on to a male employee instead? How likely is it that female academics in the Middle East might find themselves less able to receive travel funds for participation in academic conferences and exchanges abroad? How likely is it that Middle Eastern parents will encourage their daughters to study at a university elsewhere, rather than in the United States? I think the answer is “extremely likely” and perhaps for the long term.

It’s ironic that so many of our U.S. foreign policy efforts in the Middle East have been on the creation of economic and educational opportunities for women, including the provision of US government academic exchange programs, and that all this progress could be undone in one fell swoop. Such a decision is ironic, short-sighted and sad.

Mary Manjikian is Visiting Lecturer at Regent University, Virginia Beach. She is a former U.S. foreign service officer with experience in organizing educational changes at the undergraduate and graduate level.

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