The Obama administration has paved the way for a major change in asylum law: battered women can now become refugees via an asylum claim on the basis of the abuse they have suffered. Here’s the skinny on the conditions, from the New York Times:
In addition to meeting other strict conditions for asylum, abused women will need to show that they are treated by their abuser as subordinates and little better than property… and that domestic abuse is widely tolerated in their country. They must show that they could not find protection from institutions at home or by moving to another place within their own country.
This is a big deal. There have been cases of battered women who have successfully sought asylum before the case in question, but in general this has been a very fuzzy claim, essentially because it puts batterers on par with goverment authorities who persecute their citizens. The appeals court filing gives this claim legitimacy.
Some in the torture treatment field have argued that domestic violence is a form of torture. Just to be clear, whether it is or is not torture is a separate issue from whehter or not battered women should be able to claim asylum (one can seek asylum for a number of reasons). There are a number of parallels between domestic violence and torture — the assault, the psychological abuse that accompanies the assault, the actor as an entity (husband or government) with whom you should have a supportive relationship (in some countries man are even recognized as legal authorities in relationships) — but I would argue against this sort of definitional bracket creep. Domesitc violence is terrible and horrible in its own right; we shouldn’t need to make it worse. Of course, domestic violence might include an act of torture (just like kidnapping might), but that does not make it torture definitionally.
I suspect that some in the torture treatment field have been calling domestic violence torture because it made their patients’ asylum claims seem stronger. Now, thanks to the Obama administration, they do not have to. Domestic violence without protection from the local government is legitimate reason for a woman to seek protection from the United States.