March 11, 2015

Why Rasmea’s Case Matters

by S. Mandisa Moore-O’Neal

On March 12, 2015, Ms. Rasmea Odeh, a 67-year-old Palestinian-American community organizer in Chicago, will be sentenced for the charge of Unlawful Procurement of Naturalization. The charge comes from her having incorrectly answered some questions on her naturalization forms about her past record—questions that the US Immigration Services has since changed on immigration forms, after acknowledging they were badly worded and open to misinterpretation. In Ms. Odeh’s case, these questions re-triggered a documented PTSD case, which has plagued her since her twenties, and she consequently glossed over her past imprisonment as a result of a forced confession, obtained after weeks of relentless physical, psychological, and sexual torture as a young Palestinian woman in an Israeli jail. 

Following that forced confession, Ms. Odeh served 10 years in Israeli jail and, upon her release, she came to the US, to join her family, as her father was a naturalized US citizen.  She soon started playing a major leadership role that transformed the lives of hundreds of immigrant women in Chicago. Rasmea’s strength and courage became evident when she spoke at the United Nations in 1979 about the sexual assault she had endured in jail, pioneering a discussion that had been hitherto hushed, even as everyone knew about the pervasiveness of rape in prisons.

Today, Ms. Odeh is a pillar of the Arab American and immigrant communities in Chicago and, like so many of our most valuable community organizers, she is as unassuming as she is popular, cherished by thousands near and far. Nationally, Ms. Odeh’s case is followed with the utmost concern by anti-violence advocates whose work focuses on ending violence against women of color and immigrant women in the US.  If she is found guilty, she faces further incarceration, loss of citizenship, and deportation. 

Rasmea Odeh’s sentencing has not received the national exposure it deserves, yet it’s an important case, not just for this beloved community member, but for millions who look up to her, millions who share her experiences. Rasmea’s case matters to the Arab-American community, battered by rampant Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism.   It matters to survivors of sexual violence, it matters to immigrants, it matters to women of color, and to all of us who fall at the intersections of sexual violence, military violence, law enforcement violence, and settler-colonialism. 

It matters because if Rasmea is deported, the US justice system will be sending an ominous message to thousands of organizers and advocates across the United States who are working to end sexual assault, and to ensure that survivors receive the care and support they need to live a full and healthy life without fear of further attacks against them. And it matters because no person should be jailed for a confession obtained after weeks of physical, psychological, and sexual torture, nor should any person be punished decades later for the after effects of sexual violence, that is, the PTSD that prevented Rasmea from adequately answering admittedly confusing questions related to her former imprisonment.


S. Mandisa Moore-O’Neal, Esq.
The Women’s Health And Justice Initiative
1824 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd, Apartment 404
New Orleans, Louisiana 70113