Supporting Torture and Deportation Isn’t Feminist

Last week, in response to a growing argument by the left that ICE should be defunded and abolished, in the wake of its persistent and systemic human rights abuse, Democrat senator Kamala Harris stepped up to the plate to defend the agency’s existence. Meanwhile, her counterpart, Dianne Feinstein, was busy defending another institution responsible for flagrant human rights abuse: the C.I.A., and specifically, its new director, Gina Haspel, who she described as “a good deputy director.”

Harris and Feinstein are both popular women Democrat senators, seen as feminist heroes both for their embrace of feminist politics and their positions as women in power. Feinstein is supported by Emily’s List and the Feminist Majority PAC, and has been labeled a “lioness” for her strong endorsements of liberal and feminist causes. Harris is a darling of Democrat feminists, and seen as a popular option as Presidential candidate for the Democrats in 2020. Indeed, criticism of either of these two women is often attributed to misogyny, and their place in the feminist movement, at least according to some commentators, seems unquestionable.

But the positions these two lionized California Senators have held over the past two weeks should give proponents of the idea that they are feminist heroes some pause.

Harris’s firm statement – that “ICE has a purpose, ICE has a role, ICE should exist,” – ignores that the agency, born in post 9/11 xenophobic hysteria, has the sole role of upholding white supremacy through “cruelly and wantonly breaking up families,” with “abuse of power baked into its very core.” The agency from the start was intended to augment the government’s increased surveillance of communities of color and immigrant communities. It has specifically targeted familiessick childrenpregnant womendomestic violence victims, and young students. It has even been responsible for the murders of young undocumented immigrants. To say that such an agency has a purpose and a role can hardly be a principled position for a politician to hold, much less one who claims to appeal to those with intersectional feminist politics.

Similarly, Feinstein’s lukewarm and noncommittal statements on Haspel are shocking when one considers Haspel’s history with the C.I.A. Haspel ran C.I.A. black sites for torture, while also ordering for the destruction of evidence of said torture. During her regime, Haspel oversaw the torture of a Saudi Arabian man that was so brutal it reduced several members of her team to tears. The man, Abu Zubaydah, was stripped, sleep deprieved, slammed into a prison wall, water-boarded eighty three times, driven into fits of hysteria, physically abused to the point of insanity, and potentially had his eye gouged out, having entered the interrogation with two good eyes, and left with an eye-patch. And all of this was orchestrated by Haspel despite no evidence that torture assisted in obtaining intelligence from Zubaydah.While Feinstein expressed “concern” on the issue of torture, she appeared undecided on how she would vote on Haspel’s nomination, and praised her as a “good deputy director.” A person who isn’t willing to outright condemn the architect of such callous torture does not deserve a place in our intersectional feminist movements for a more just world.

Neither Feinstein nor Harris are compelled to hold such positions. As commentator Sean McElwee has documented, defunding ICE is politically feasible, and an increasingly popular position among the left. Similarly, given the strong condemnation that Republican John McCain issued on Haspel and her record of torture, it seems hardly a stretch for Feinstein to have unequivocally done the same. But these statements have revealed the core politics of these two senators — that despite their cries of “girl power,” they lack regard for brown lives and brown bodies, whether they be those of Latinx immigrants or Muslim foreigners. And if these are the candidates that feminists in the United States choose to embrace and endorse, then their feminism, like Harris and Feinstein’s, will be a narrow one, serving only American, privileged, white interests — and coming at the expense of brown lives.

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