Lydia Oluloro won't have to make the choice she dreaded: Returning to Nigeria alone, or returning with her young daughters, which would put them at great risk of genital mutilation.
A judge in Seattle dropped deportation proceedings against her last week, ruling that it was more important to spare her daughters from mutilation than to respect ancient rituals.
Oluloro, 32, is in the country illegally; her children are American citizens.
U.S. Immigration Judge Kendall Warren called the widespread African practice "cruel, painful and dangerous." He said Oluloro had proven, as required by U.S. law, that her deportation would result in "extreme hardship" to her or her family. U.S. immigration officials said they would not appeal.
"I really appreciate your help in finding the truth," Oluloro told the judge immediately after the ruling.
A few minutes later, she held Shade, 6, and Lara, 5, on her lap and hugged them. "I'm happy and grateful," she said.
Her victory provides a ray of hope for women in similar situations--those who plead for asylum because of the way women are treated in their homelands.
Women are victimized in ways men are not. They are subjected to bride-burning in India and genital mutilation in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. They are forced to have abortions or be sterilized or get married. They are victims of politically motivated rape in places like Bosnia.
But only recently has the world begun to recognize that such sex-based persecution may be a violation of human rights and legitimate grounds for asylum.
"In the past, the types of harms that women faced were not viewed as serious enough to amount to persecution," said attorney Deborah Anker, head of the immigrant and refugee program at Harvard. "They were trivialized, looked at as personal choices and cultural things."
Spurred by the United Nations and a handful of activists, notably in Canada, sensitivity toward violence against women is increasing. Still, there is palpable anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and the United States.
Just this month, Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) introduced a bill to admit 175,000 fewer immigrants a year and limit asylum to 80,000 refugees--down from the current annual rate of 100,000 to 150,000.
Given the climate, U.S. immigration officials are moving slowly to study sex-based persecution and how this country should approach it.
Gregg Beyer, director of asylum for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, said his agency's "consciousness is being raised" as interest groups press the issue. But he added: "A whole new legal category of people eligible to apply (for asylum) obviously makes people very nervous."
The United Nations defines a refugee as someone with a well-founded fear of persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
Most countries aren't ready to add "sex" to that list. But feminists and human rights activists are managing with some success to fit oppressed women into the "social group" category.
Canada has pioneered this concept with year-old guidelines on how to elicit relevant information from women and on which experiences may qualify them for refugee status.
In a widely publicized case last year, a Saudi Arabian woman known as "Nada" was granted permanent residence in Canada after arguing that because of her sex, she was unable to work, study, travel or dress as she pleased in her Islamic homeland. She said she had been stoned and beaten for refusing to wear a veil.
In the United States, "traditionally, asylum law has disregarded harm that's inflicted on women because they're women," said Harvard law professor Nancy Kelly.
She and Anker, hoping to change that, are drafting Canadian-style guidelines and fielding 20 to 30 calls a week from American lawyers trying to develop gender-based persecution cases.
The most prominent current case involved Oluloro, 32, a Portland, Ore., janitor and former restaurant manager. She joined her Nigerian husband in this country in 1986 but he never filed papers to legalize her residency--even though, she says, he told her that he had. When they divorced, she was threatened with deportation.
Oluloro contended her daughters would be forced to undergo genital mutilation in Nigeria--just as she did. "That is what we do to all the females in my family," she said. "They say if you come back home we will do it."
The procedure involves cutting away the external sexual organs and sewing a girl shut except for a pencil-sized hole for urination. The tradition is often compared to amputating a penis. It is intended to remove a woman's ability to enjoy sexual relations on the theory that she will remain a virgin until she marries, and will remain faithful to her husband afterward.
The consequences include painful sex, infections, complicated childbirth and sometimes death. Oluloro has witnessed or experienced them all.
"I don't like sex. I don't even believe in sex apart from having babies," she said. She couldn't walk for a month after her children were born. She bleeds and itches and aches from infections.
Her older daughter glimpsed part of a videotape of the procedure and said, according to Oluloro: "Why do they do that? They are crazy. I would never go to Nigeria."
After her court victory, Oluloro decried the ritual practice, but said she doubted the decision would have much effect on the Nigerian custom.
"Why shed the blood of a human being for no reason?" she said. "It is a such a terrible thing to do to children."
The judge rejected the U.S. government's argument that customs are changing in Nigeria. Instead, he relied on a U.N. study indicating that nearly all women in some parts of Nigeria were subjected to genital mutilation.
"This court attempts to respect traditional cultures," Warren said, "but this is cruel and serves no known medical purpose. It's obviously a deeply ingrained cultural tradition going back 1,000 years at least."
In another closely followed genital- mutilation case, Aminata Diop of Mali is seeking asylum in France. The procedure killed her best friend. Diop resisted it on the eve of her own marriage, and contends she was consequently mistreated by her family and forced to flee.
She has appealed a rejection by French officials, who said she is an adult not bound by her parents' wishes and had failed to properly document her claim.
Documentation problems are at the core of several cases that women have lost, even though their failed bids created important precedents.
A case last December concerned a woman who left Iran in 1978, saying she would be persecuted for expressing feminist views or refusing to wear a veil if she were forced to return.
The U.S. appeals court in Philadelphia said she did not build a strong enough case. But the opinion was a landmark anyway: It was the first time a U.S. court said feminism qualified as a political opinion and recognized a potential social group of "Iranian women who refuse to conform" to their government's sex-specific laws and social norms.
Advocates say cases are often weak because interviewers don't know what to ask and women are too intimidated or embarrassed to explain what they've been through.
Even under ideal circumstances, "these are difficult cases to win," said Tilman Hasche, Oluloro's lawyer. "Are we going to grant asylum to all of sub-Saharan Africa if we let Lydia stay here? I don't think so."
Yael Caspi-Yavin, a spokeswoman for the refugee trauma program at the Harvard School of Public Health, praised Judge Warren's ruling, saying he had a right to impose U.S. cultural values in deciding the case because the ritual practice is dangerous.
"This is an issue when cultural sensitivity goes out the door," Caspi-Yavin said.