Free Rasmea Odeh… and All Political Prisoners
“We need to organize for our rights. Social work and political work are connected”
— Rasmea Odeh
On October 22, 2013, Rasmea Odeh was arrested from her home in Chicago on charges of committing immigration fraud in her 2004 US citizenship application. The 67-year-old Palestinian-American community leader, feminist activist, and former political prisoner is a survivor of brutal sexual torture by Israeli military forces. Her trial begins tomorrow, Tuesday, November 4, in Detroit; she faces up to ten years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and possible deportation. As Brown feminists and social justice activists, we recognize this attack on Rasmea to be part of a wave of repression against Palestinian-American and immigrant women organizers. We stand in solidarity with her in her upcoming trial.
Since immigrating to the United States in 1994, Rasmea has been a prominent organizer in feminist Arab American community work in the Chicago area. Shortly after immigrating, she joined and later became the associate director of the Arab American Action Network, a direct service and community organization committed to coalition-building with communities of color and working-class people. There, she founded the Arab Women’s Committee, where she supported community building among Arab immigrant women. Through grassroots efforts, she created a space that empowered women to grapple with the sexism and racism they faced as recent immigrants. For years, she went door to door to bring working-class Arab women into organizing roles. She facilitated creative ways for women to analyze their own realities, such as playwriting. In 2013, the Chicago Cultural Alliance awarded Rasmea the Outstanding Community Leader Award for her dedication of “over forty years of her life to the empowerment of Arab women.”
Rasmea’s feminism has its roots in her experiences as a Palestinian refugee woman living under Israeli military occupation. In 1948, one-month-old Rasmea and her family were displaced from their town of Lifta by Zionist forces in the mass ethnic cleansing of Palestine known as the Nakba, or “the Catastrophe.” The family fled to Ramallah, in what is now the West Bank, where young Rasmea first became active in political organizing:
In Palestine, we helped women face a difficult political situation. We taught them how to deal [with challenges], how to live. When the schools were closed, we taught their kids. When there was a curfew, we brought them food. When they were giving birth and the Israeli soldiers refused to let them through checkpoints, we tried to take them [to the hospital ourselves] … We need to organize for our rights. Social work and political work are connected.
At the age of 20, Rasmea was violently taken from her home by Israeli military forces who claimed that she had participated in two bombings in Jerusalem in 1969. After several weeks of brutal beatings and sexual torture, Rasmea was forced to confess to a crime she did not commit. Later, when she testified before a UN committee in Geneva as a survivor of sexual torture, she described how interrogators extracted her confession: through 45 days of humiliation, torture, and sexual violence involving and in front of her family members and fiancé. Describing the coercion that forced her to confess, she said:
I could hear screams and groans in the background, and he said, “Do you hear? Confess so that the same won’t happen to you.” I said I didn’t know what to confess and he said, “I’ll write it for you,” and wrote in Hebrew. […] I signed the Hebrew text in Arabic; at that time I knew no Hebrew.
Rasmea confessed and was convicted.
Rasmea’s story is not unusual for Palestinian activists. At the time of her conviction, Palestinians were arrested for “crimes” ranging from wearing the colors of the Palestinian flag to distributing pamphlets calling for an end to the occupation. Over 20% of the Palestinian population has been imprisoned by Israel since the start of its military occupation. In 2010, 99.74% of trials of Palestinians in Israeli military courts resulted in convictions. With these rates, to be brought to trial is to be convicted.
After spending ten years in an Israeli prison, Rasmea was pardoned, released, and deported in 1979. She immigrated to the United States in 1994 and has been active in community work ever since. She has no criminal record in this country. She became a citizen in 2005, but did not disclose that she had been imprisoned on her naturalization application. Today, Rasmea is being punished for not revealing the imprisonment and torture she survived more than four decades ago. Yet the judge has ruled out any mention of her sexual assault and torture in the trial. These experiences are crucial to understanding both the illegality of her treatment under international law and the trauma that she lives with, both of which are important possible reasons for her alleged nondisclosure.
Rasmea’s arrest is part of a larger trend of criminalizing Palestinian-American organizers, immigrant women, and social justice activists more broadly.
Since 9/11, the US government has stepped up its surveillance, incarceration, and deportation of Arab, Muslim, and anti-war activists across the country. In 2010, for instance, government agents raided the homes of 23 anti-war and international solidarity activists in the Midwest and interrogated them on their support for progressive Palestinian women’s organizing. This event is one of many illegal federal investigations which violate First Amendment rights. It is no coincidence that after twenty years in the U.S. and nine as a citizen, the federal government is only now pursuing Rasmea’s case.
As progressive students invested in social justice and feminist liberation at Brown and abroad, we must support Rasmea Odeh. The US government’s threat to imprison and deport a survivor of sexual torture at the hands of a military occupation is inexcusable. Rasmea is an invaluable member of a feminist, anti-racist social justice movement, and we must unite in solidarity with her.
Brown Students for Justice in Palestine and our allies will be gathering in support of Rasmea this Tuesday, November 4, the day of her trial. Please join us at noon in front of Faunce to read poems and send our support.
“I will remain part of the cause and the cause is part of us and I will play my part in it.”
— Rasmea Odeh
“and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive”
— Audre Lorde