March 11, 2015

Why I advocate for leniency for Rasmea Odeh

by Louise Cainkar, Ph.D.

On Thursday, March 12, Rasmea Odeh will be sentenced in a federal court for failing to disclose a 24-year-old conviction on her application for US naturalization. That conviction by Israel, of planting bombs that killed two people, was not achieved after a fair trial or from a preponderance of evidence, but through a confession induced by torture. While there is no disputing this fact, as it is well documented, that part of the story is irrelevant according to the US court. So let me then explain why I, along with thousands of others, have appealed to Judge Gershwin Drain for leniency. 

I met Rasmea Odeh in the mid 1980s, when I was introduced to her by prominent Jordanian attorneys and interviewed her for WomenNews, a US women’s activist publication. As a human rights advocate and scholar of Arab women, I sought to tell her story of sexual torture in Israel to draw attention to the unique ways that torturers abuse women’s bodies.  

I met Rasmea again when she moved to Chicago in 2004. Rasmea’s innate leadership skills were apparent whenChicago’s Arab American Action Network [AAAN], an organization of which I am a long-time Board member, hired her to work with low-income immigrant women to help in their positive adjustment to life in the United States. Rasmea spent countless hours working with Arab women to stabilize their footing in a new land, learn English, and gain a sense of control over their lives. Over time, she established a 600-member-strong Arab Women’s Committee, became the Associate Director of AAAN, and received a city-wide award for her community work, while simultaneously completing a master’s degree in criminal justice. 

Let me provide some context for understanding just how important Rasmea’s work has been. I have spent much of my career conducting research on the Arab American experience, for which I have received a Carnegie Corporation Scholar Award, an Arab American National Museum book award, and an Outstanding Contributions to the City of Chicago Award from the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, presented by Mayor Richard M. Daley. The discrimination and prejudice that Arab women and children [and men] endure in the United States make for an American experience that is not easy. Women are heckled on the street and children face bullying, starting in elementary school. Arab American youth learn that they are not welcome in this country and that their dreams will face many impediments. 

Arab American women are the rock; they help these youth sustain and cope, even while they face their own share of racism. These challenges are multiply compounded for low-income families, the very families that Rasmea has spent years of her life fortifying. Rasmea’s work has made these women stronger, which in turn makes their communities healthier and their children more resilient. In other words, Rasmea’s work benefits families and it benefits our society at large. I say without hesitation that the United States is a better place because of the work of Rasmea Odeh; we owe her a debt of gratitude.

Rasmea Odeh is a 67-year-old woman who is a survivor of torture. She should not be punished in any way that may harm her mental health. Rasmea has worked hard to create a more just society, one that would be less likely to inflict the abuses that she has endured as a Palestinian woman. As a dedicated community activist, the most appropriate sentence for Rasmea is community service. While punishment serves no one, community service has the greatest capacity to give back as it heals the wounds of so many.

Louise Cainkar, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Sociology and Social Welfare and Justice
Marquette University
[email protected]