Last year on International Women’s Day, women in more than 50 countries around the world went on strike. In the United States, they were protesting President Donald Trump’s administration as well as longstanding issues affecting women and their families, including police brutality and racial and sexual violence.
At a demonstration in New York City that day, I met Rabyaah Althaibani, one of the organizers of the Yemeni bodega workers strike against Trump’s immigration ban, who had joined forces with Women’s March organizers to coordinate the New York strike.
Since we talked last year, the Supreme Court has allowed the immigration ban to go into full effect, at least until it makes a decision about the ban’s legality later this year. The #MeToo movement has swept the nation, Trump has faced increased scrutiny over allegations of sexual misconduct, and a wave of women have decided to run for office in November. Meanwhile, Althaibani and her family have been struggling as her husband, originally from Yemen and now living in India, fights for the right to come to the United States.
I caught up with Althaibani on this International Women’s Day to talk about what she and other American women have been through in the past year, and what she’s hoping for in 2018.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Tell me a little bit about your activism and what you’ve been up to this year.
It’s been a very difficult year, to be honest with you, for my community, for myself personally, and just for entire the country as a whole.
Since March , it’s just been ban after ban after ban [on immigration from certain majority-Muslim countries]. I get dozens and dozens of messages and emails and calls from people that have had their children and wives or husbands rejected at American embassies around the world.
These are American citizens that have petitioned for kids and wives and spouses, and they’ve set up appointments with the embassy to go pick up their visas. When they get there, they’re told that due to Trump’s executive order, they can’t get their visa.
My husband is still stuck outside of the country. His mother [who is from Yemen] was diagnosed with cancer in December. The health care system in Yemen is totally collapsed, and if she had stayed there, she probably wouldn’t have gotten treatment at all. So she’s in India right now with my husband for treatment.
Tell me a little bit more about your husband’s situation.
I petitioned for him [to get an immigrant visa] in 2016, and he was put on hold for administrative processing. What’s been happening with a lot of these cases is that people going in to get interviewed might not be rejected outright but get put under processing. It’s like a black hole — you don’t know where it is, what’s happening, how long it will take. No one can tell you anything.
In the last two and a half years since we’ve been married, I’ve only seen him, like, three times. It’s been horrific, although I feel like this ordeal has gotten us closer to each other. There’s no way I’ll abandon him.
How much of your husband’s situation do you attribute to the Trump administration, and how much is due to issues that were going on before?
This is nothing new to us. Yemeni Americans have been suffering with these long waits for a very long time. For Basheer [Althaibani’s husband], administrative processing is not due to the Trump administration. But since the ban, everything has really slowed down, if it hasn’t stopped completely.
You can imagine these officials at the State Department and the USCIS [United States Citizenship and Immigration Services] and the embassies — they don’t know what to do. If for almost an entire year you’re just waiting to hear whether you can do your job or not, it creates a lot of delays. Even if the Supreme Court rules in our favor, you can imagine the kind of backlog they’ll have. It’s crazy.
The Supreme Court should be hearing arguments on the third ban in April, and I’m hoping, and at the same time terrified, what the decision will be.
You know what’s the saddest part? Many of these family members that are stranded outside of Yemen and waiting to join their spouses are women. Women are the ones that are really suffering. It’s a big, big strain on them, physically and emotionally.
You mentioned the upcoming Supreme Court decision on Trump’s third travel ban. What else are you hopeful for this year?
We’ve got to take the House back. I’m going to work very hard in terms of organizing when it comes to the 2018 elections. There’s no other way for us to stop this madness. I think our only hope, if the Supreme Court does not rule in our favor, is we get to control the House and they introduce a bill that can address this disaster that we’re facing. The ban is not a travel ban; it’s a Muslim ban. It’s racist.
Thank God we’re getting close — November will be here before we know it. At this point, there’s a lot of hope out there. You see all these seats being flipped in really deep-red states and communities and districts throughout the country. I think we have a very good chance of a blue wave, as they say.
And then a hope is, too, that maybe my husband will be here this year.
What are the most important issues to watch when it comes to women’s rights and gender equality this year?
How bad could it be for us? The president of the United States is misogynist, sexist. If there’s any proof of our power and our strength, it’s going to show in November 2018. I believe women are the ones that are going lead this movement to take back the districts. I know that there’s a lot of female candidates running, which is so exciting for me. That’s kind of a response to what’s happening.
And it’s not just national. I’m talking about local, everything. I know so many women right now that
How do you see the intersections between women’s rights, gender equality, immigrants’ rights, rights for refugees, and rights for Muslim Americans?
One thing that I think may be a positive thing coming out of the Trump presidency is that we’ve all begun to see how interconnected we are and how all these issues really impact us. What I’ve seen in the past year since Trump came into power is that people are so willing to listen and to work together — people from all walks of life.
We are not going to agree on everything, but there are common themes. All of these issues bring us together, and I’ve never seen that before. I’m just hoping that we continue to work together because I’ve made connections that I would’ve never thought that I could prior to the craziness of this administration, and that’s a good sign.
We’re all in this together. If they’re coming for me today, they’re coming for you tomorrow. I think everybody knows that by now.