Trumped at the border

President Donald Trump’s tumultuous early weeks in power provided the backdrop to the conference....
President Donald Trump’s tumultuous early weeks in power provided the backdrop to the conference. Photo: Reuters.
An electronic billboard in Times Square advertising The New York Times, reads: ‘‘Truth. It’s more...
An electronic billboard in Times Square advertising The New York Times, reads: ‘‘Truth. It’s more important now than ever’’. Photos: Helen Speirs.
At many NGO-run parallel events empty chairs were used to represent the absent voices of women...
At many NGO-run parallel events empty chairs were used to represent the absent voices of women denied entry to the US by President Donald Trump’s policies.

While the United Nations buildings stand on international territory, that did not mean delegates were immune from the machinations of United States politics.

Donald Trump’s travel ban on Muslim-majority countries, and his planned budget cuts to social services and the United Nations, provided the political backdrop for the 61st Commission on the Status of Women.

There was an  undercurrent of unease, given the new US president’s policies of populism, prejudice and marginalisation, and rhetoric around terrorism and "building the wall".

Security was tight everywhere. Getting through airport customs and border protection was time-consuming and anxiety-provoking. Even though I wasn’t working as a journalist at the commission, but was attending as a delegate, I was nonetheless anxious, feeling I could be subject to scrutiny as one of the loathsome "fake news" brigade. (It turned out I wasn’t the only one.) I considered myself fortunate, however. In a long long line of many hundreds at immigration, I was one of the few blonde, blue-eyed, white-skinned females in a sea of Asian, Middle Eastern and African faces. Others were clearly far more nervous than I was about their prospects of a smooth entry.

It turned out long queues, removal of coats, hats, bags (and sometimes shoes) and full body scanning was the norm once entry was finally granted, too. This was the case at the United Nations and any city tourist attraction. The lines and herding felt dehumanising, but I was surprised by how polite and respectful security staff were and how co-operative and understanding the public was. Stripping off your outer layers as you entered a building became routine.

Trump’s bans had been deemed illegal, but they were having an effect. The United Nations is on international territory, but  some commission delegates had been denied visas to enter the US, and some organisations declined to participate in solidarity. At many NGO-run parallel events, symbolic empty chairs were used to denote absent voices; at others, women were told to let the official photographers know if they did not wish their photos to be taken for safety reasons.

At an NGO parallel event titled "No borders on gender justice", which looked at how to counter the policies of xenophobia, the message was clear: "This is not like any other CSW: it is not business as usual."

Delegates were told they had a responsibility to hold the Trump administration to account for its "anti-migrant, anti-Muslim, anti-refugee" policies.

In the most powerful part of the session, statements were read by audience members from women who could not attend because of the travel ban.

We heard on behalf of a Guatemalan woman how the  policies had "created a climate of fear and exclusion". An Iraqi woman’s message was about the "worsening conditions for groups in Iraq as a result of Western military intervention". She also made a plea: "Do not let the racist cries from Donald Trump affect you. Do not forget us. We are victims, we are not terrorists."

A message from a Sudanese human rights defender was read by a woman from Iran, who said her  countrywomen had also been affected by the ban. That message? That "women are the main victims of conflict and terrorism".

An open letter from Mena (Middle East and North Africa) women acted as a reminder of the fundamental rights being breached.

It read: "The ban is an offence against the United Nations imposed by an administration that doesn’t recognise its obligations for civil society".

At one event, a  Somali woman got a round of applause when she said she was from one of the countries banned from entry "but I made it".

At other sessions, Mexican immigrants and now long-term US residents told of their fears. One speaker explained how her family was still marginalised despite the fact her Mexican immigrant parents had raised five children on the minimum wage who were deemed successful citizens by any standard: a Stanford business school graduate, two entrepreneurs, a police officer and a war veteran. She then explained how undocumented migrants are allowed to serve in the US armed forces, but are then deported.

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