Standing behind his podium, White House press secretary Sean Spicer attempted to convince a room full of reporters that U.S. President Donald Trump was committed to women, so committed that he had “made women’s empowerment a priority” throughout his presidential campaign. The problem was, as the journalists well knew, the president hadn’t. In fact, Spicer’s last-ditch attempt last week to highlight his boss’ dedication to women in the final days of a month that was supposed to be dedicated to them was not only laughable, but harmful as well. Now, Trump has declared this month “National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month,” while simultaneously cutting all U.S. grants to an organization that provides reproductive health care and works to end child marriage and female genital cutting internationally.
In fact, Trump’s claims about being a champion for women’s rights have often been met with skepticism by large sections of the American public ― with good reason. Prior to his election, misogynistic comments that he has since described as “locker room banter,” went viral. But aside from his own personal remarks degrading women, the president has demonstrated hostility to policies and funding that benefit them.
“Trump is not only not a champion of women’s rights, he’s using women as a scapegoat to push forward policies that’ll hurt them the most.”
Donald Trump is not only not a champion of women’s rights, he’s using women as a scapegoat to push forward policies that’ll hurt them the most. And in less than 100 days in office, the president has cut finances, begun to heavily audit government offices focused on women’s issues and utilized women’s safety as a tool to justify deeply problematic executive orders.
Such co-optation of women’s issues only serves to further undermine women, especially those who are the most vulnerable, such as refugees, and taints efforts to combat harmful practices like gender-based violence. If the Trump administration wants to truly convince the American public ― and indeed the world ― that it’s committed to women’s rights, it needs to start acting on its claims, rather than using politically correct language to cover up other forms of discrimination.
Americans have spent months debating the merits of President Trump’s “Muslim ban” and the implied racism many people feel is behind its wording. But in our analysis as Middle East researchers focused on gender issues, we’ve found that in highlighting implications of religious discrimination against Muslims, many critics of the travel ban often miss the gender-based discrimination implicit in the order as well. Not only is the use of language in these orders blatantly hypocritical towards women given other policies implemented by the administration, but also ― even if they are never put into action ― their existence shows the administration’s willingness to use women as pawns in covering up discriminatory policies against other minority groups, particularly Muslims and Muslim women. And this tactic will likely show up in other policies regardless of the fate of the travel ban.
The first executive order, issued in late January, stipulated that, “the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including ‘honor’ killings [a form of gender-based violence often colloquially and derogatorily associated with Islam], other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own).” And while the second executive order, issued in early March, eliminated such a requirement, it retained language mandating that the Department of Homeland Security periodically release “information regarding the number and types of acts of gender-based violence against women, including so-called ‘honor killings,’ in the United States by foreign nationals” as part of a larger report on terrorism-related offenses committed by foreign nationals that will be released every 180 days.
While such wording may at first seem intended to protect women, this is in fact not the case. Just as Trump has set a Muslim-focused precedent for his travel ban by previously calling for a total shutdown of Muslims, here, too, his comments indicate his words are not genuine and are yet another way to put forth an agenda that brands Islam as violent ― think “radical Islamic terrorism” ― and backwards, rather than advocate for women’s rights. For Trump, the term “honor killing,” at least based on these executive orders, appears to go hand in hand with Muslims and even terrorism. In grouping these terms, he is reinforcing a dangerous stereotype about an issue that is much more complex and showing that his ostensible reason for including gender-based violence here is little more than political posturing and a hit at Muslims.
“Trump's ostensible reason for including gender-based violence in his travel ban is little more than political posturing and a hit at Muslims.”
Furthermore, Trump has thus far not made an attempt to correct this religious and regional discrimination ― not all honor killings are committed by Muslims, and it’s not part of the religion to carry them out ― nor does he seem at odds with some key players in his administration who have suggested that the term “honor killings” holds predominately Muslim connotations. Such little initiative to clarify his stance or refute crucial discrepancies seems to confirm his already clear biases about Muslims and make it harder still to believe that he has the interests of women at heart here over yet another instance of Islamophobic policymaking.
Jeff Sessions, the current attorney general, and a prominent figure in President Trump’s administration, has previously and publicly expressed his views that honor killings are a problem specific to the Muslim “cultural background” of many refugees. Sensationalized discussions of honor killings are also common among anti-Islam activists and in right-wing news outlets like Breitbart, the organization formerly run by Trump’s senior adviser Steve Bannon, which reported them recently as “a brutal practice wherein Muslim males will murder or mutilate female family members accused of bringing shame and dishonor to their families and Islam … it is a practice that would not exist in the U.S. without mass immigration bringing its practitioners into U.S. communities.” Bannon has often publicly indicated that even in a private capacity he holds similarly strong negative views of Islam.
In this context, the inclusion of language denouncing honor killings indicates no concern for women at all, but is rather paired with concerns over terrorism to construct rationales for keeping primarily Muslim refugees and immigrants out of the United States. If helping these women is the goal, the administration should instead be supporting organizations that protect these women abroad, rather than barring them from entering the U.S. and escaping situations the administration has deemed dangerous.
Admittedly, irregardless of its clearly disingenuous focus on women’s rights here, the Trump administration is not unique in its insincere use of women’s issues to make policy. But this unfortunate reality is amplified by Trump’s history of negativity towards women and the unusualness of his presidency.
Gender-based violence is indeed a problem in immigrant communities, including Muslim communities, but it is not a problem solely in these communities. And to single them out exclusively is both discriminatory and counterproductive. On top of the fact that honor killings are often rooted in tribal patterns, rather than religion, they are also relatively rare in the United States; a 2015 report commissioned by the Department of Justice roughly estimates that there could be 23 to 27 a year. Comparatively, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, roughly three women a day are murdered in domestic violence incidents in the United States.
Cuts From The Administration
Trump’s inauthentic advocacy of women extends beyond executive orders to more explicit actions as well, further diminishing the likelihood that he has women in his best interests. At the end of last year, a month before assuming office, the Trump transition team requested that the State Department hand over all information related to “gender-related staffing, programming, and funding,” essentially amounting to an audit of programs related to women’s issues.
More directly, the Trump administration is reportedly considering cuts to 25 violence against women grant programs established by the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. Trump’s budget proposal cut an overall 4 percent of the Justice Department’s funding and, as seems to be the case with many of his proposals, the budget proposal gives few clearcut details on where those cuts would come from. But given Trump’s support for increasing other Department of Justice programs, violence against women grants, which come from the DOJ, may very well be on the chopping block, a move that would signal a disregard for programming that benefits women, including those that provide them with legal and emotional support in cases of sexual assault and abuse.
Proposed budget cuts also display a desire within the Trump administration to slash funding from programs that support women’s health and safety beyond the homeland. One of Trump’s first executive orders was to reinstate the “global gag rule,” also known as the “Mexico City Policy.” The order requires that organizations that receive U.S. global health funding cannot have any association with abortion.
Changing course on the “Mexico City Policy” is detrimental to women’s health globally, and blatantly exposes Trump’s disregard for the safety of women worldwide. A Stanford University study found that when the order was reinstated in 2001, abortions actually increased in sub-Saharan African countries that had received substantial U.S. aid for family planning programs, while countries with organizations less dependent on U.S. funding did not see a measurable increase in abortions after the passing of the rule. In fact, Marie Stopes International, a charity focused on women’s health, estimated that between 2017 and 2020 the reinstated global gag rule, without additional funding for their programs, could result in: 6.5 million unintended pregnancies, 2.2 million abortions, 2.1 million unsafe abortions and 21,700 maternal deaths.
Ever a man of stats and polls, the alarming numbers, if not the outrage from women’s rights advocates, don’t seem to have convinced Trump to change his policies just yet. Instead, we see a doubling down on many of them ― while Spicer and Ivanka Trump say all the right things to convince us otherwise. If Trump wants proclamations like sexual assault awareness month to serve as more than just an empty token gesture, he will need to start rethinking the way his administration approaches women’s issues.