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Her family wanted her to marry her cousin, but she wanted to marry the man she loved. And when at age 22 she followed her heart and her lover to Turkey to be wed, in a discreet ceremony far away from her home near Ramallah, she kept moving. Fearing that her family was hunting her down to kill her, the young Palestinian woman fled to Jericho, Jerusalem, Istanbul and finally to the United States, where she applied for asylum. Mrs. M, as she is known in her immigration papers, sought political asylum from “honor killings,” a practice in Middle Eastern and South Asian countries in which male relatives feel duty-bound to kill female family members who they believe have sullied or dishonored the family name. The case marks a shift in how attorneys are arguing cases for women asylum seekers. In many female asylum cases, lawyers typically try to argue that their clients belong to a social group — women — that is victimized by a country’s cultural and social structure. But in recent months the social group argument has been less effective. That’s because in 1999 the Board of Immigration Appeals — in a case about a Guatemalan woman who fled 10 years of brutal domestic abuse — contended that her husband did not abuse her for being a member of a social group. The board said Matter of R.A. instead was a family matter. Lawyers and women’s rights activists have appealed the decision to Attorney General Janet Reno, saying in a Sept. 29 letter to her that the case “severely limits the social group category under which gender-related claims to asylum are often made.” But because one door is shut for now, women asylum seekers like Mrs. M are trying to swing open a different door. Asylum seekers can try to convince immigration officers they are being persecuted because of their political, ethnic, religious, national or social situation. Mrs. M, who was granted asylum by an immigration officer last week, succeeded in arguing that she fears being killed for making a political statement against a male-dominated society. It is generally a more difficult argument to make. “A lot of gender asylum cases depend on a social group argument because it’s not always so easy to make the argument that your client has a political opinion,” says Karen Musalo of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at Hastings College of the Law. In many countries, “women are generally the least mobile of people — there’s very little economic independence,” Musalo says, so women don’t speak up. But Mrs. M did speak up, saying she didn’t want her daughter to face a similar fate and that she was standing up for herself, too. “It is a political opinion — it’s feminism,” says her attorney, Anthony Label, a first-year associate at San Francisco-based Thelen Reid & Priest, who got Mrs. M’s pro bono case through the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. “It’s basically women being feminists without them knowing they are feminists,” he says. “It becomes political because the Palestinian government doesn’t control it, it condones it.” Musalo says immigration lawyers and government officials will take notice of Mrs. M’s case. “I think people will because everybody is looking for a way to get around the bad precedent,” she says.

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