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From Tehran to Atlanta: Social Justice Lawyer Azadeh Shahshahani’s Fight for Human Rights

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Photo by Steve Eberhardt.

 

Azadeh Shahshahani is a practicing human rights lawyer who has worked for over a decade in the US South. She was the first woman of color to lead the National Lawyers Guild and has been deeply involved in the movements for immigrants’ rights including shutting down the Stewart Detention Center and repealing the discriminatory educational bans affecting undocumented students in Georgia, dignity for Muslim-Americans, a just US foreign policy, and Free Palestine.

Growing Up

Azadeh Shahshahani was born in Tehran, Iran, four days after the 1979 Iranian revolution. The Iranian people overthrew the unelected, US-supported, Shah of Iran who had ruled the country since a 1953 CIA coup which eliminated the democratically elected President of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh.

Her parents named her Azadeh, which means free-spirited in Persian, signifying the hopes they had for the revolution. Her family included many doctors. Her father as well as several aunts, uncles and cousins were all in the medical profession.

She grew up with war. The Iran Iraq war started when she was one and it did not end until she was nine years old.   Readers may recall the US supported Saddam Hussein in that war giving Iraq billions of economic aid, plus weapons and intelligence to fight Iran.

“I remember that my family had created this space underneath the stairs with a blanket hanging where the four of us (my parents, sister, and I) would go, sit, and hold hands when there were sirens to warn us that Saddam’s missiles were coming.

“There were shortages and constant fear. Many fled the southern parts of Iran to seek safety in Tehran and became refugees in their own country. Young men went to fight on behalf of Iran and were killed or returned maimed. Things got especially bad during the last year of the war where he was hitting Tehran constantly (after he was done inflicting severe damage on the southern part of Iran).

“The war had a significant impact on our collective psyche. I could feel it even as a young child.”

When she was 15, her family immigrated to the US for greater educational opportunities for her and her sister, settling in Memphis, in the middle of her sophomore year of high school.

“Though I had a privileged immigration experience because I was able to come with my parents and with documents, I still felt deeply traumatized and uprooted.” Because of the role the US played in overthrowing the democratically elected government in Iran and supporting Iraq in the war against Iran, “I developed a keen interest in US foreign policy and the destructive role the US government has played recently and historically in many countries. My background and upbringing made me into a semi-revolutionary, but it was college and law school that finally sealed my fate!

Human rights led her to law school, even though she originally planned to be a doctor and had been selected for a spot in the University of Michigan Medical School.   As an undergraduate she majored in Middle Eastern Studies and history. “I became involved with various social justice and human rights organizations and realized that my true passion was fighting for human rights. I thankfully had the support of a mentor at the time, Professor Kathryn Babayan of the Near Eastern Studies Department, who encouraged me to follow my heart. Much to my parents’ chagrin and disbelief, I postponed medical school for a year and applied to Michigan law school.”

A 2004 graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, Shahshahani also has a Masters in Modern Middle Eastern and North African Studies from Michigan. During law school, she remembers “one day, I was roaming in the basement of the law school where the student organizations had office space and I came upon a poster about the National Lawyers Guild. It described the organization’s work in support of social justice movements, how it had come under attack during the McCarthy era and how it had survived. I found that extremely inspiring. Our NLG chapter also organized a few of us to go to the Yale RebLaw conference that year. NLG had such a large presence at the conference that I thought that the conference was organized by the NLG! That experience got me hooked to the NLG.”

At Michigan she met her future husband, who earned his PhD in Electrical Engineering from Michigan. They have now been married almost 15 years.

After graduation from law school, they moved to Raleigh North Carolina where her husband was hired to teach at North Carolina State.

“I had no connections to North Carolina whatsoever. Honestly, for a while, it was very rough. I was in a state of loss and desperation. I did some volunteer work for some organizations. But I also noticed that there was a large Muslim and Middle Eastern community living in the state. Given that this was 2004, at the height of the post-9/11 repression, I was expecting to find an organization or program to provide legal support to the community. But there was not any. So I thought maybe I could help start something. I approached the ACLU of North Carolina with the idea of a program to provide the community with the legal support tools they needed. We got funding for the project which enabled me to do a series of “Know Your Rights” presentations at various mosques and community centers around the state. I also helped put together a network of attorneys to help represent community members when they were approached by the FBI or faced discrimination.

Three years later, they moved to Georgia when her husband got a teaching job with Georgia Tech.   There he gained national renown when he led a team which invented a device which allowed paraplegic people to live more independently steering a wheelchair or operating a computer.

Shahshahani was asked to serve as the Interim Legal Director for the ACLU of Georgia. “But my heart was still with the work I was doing before. These were also times of terror for immigrant communities in Georgia. ICE launched a number of police collaboration programs and detention centers such as the Stewart Detention Center. The Georgia legislature also notoriously put forth and passed several anti-immigrant bills including an Arizona copycat bill. The ACLU of Georgia allowed me to start a project focused on working with Muslim and immigrant communities. I served as director of the Georgia National Security and Immigrant Rights for 7 years. I took on litigation, human rights documentation, coalition and movement building, advocacy at the legislature, training of attorneys, and public education.” With the ACLU she helped publish a 2012 report on private prisons for immigrants in Georgia, and a 2014 report on hyper-enforcement against immigrants in Georgia.

She recounts one of her human rights victories as one on behalf of Mrs. Valentine who was prevented access to a courthouse in Douglasville, Georgia in 2008 because she was wearing a headscarf. Not only was Shahshahani able to help secure a settlement for Mrs. Valentine from Douglasville, but she was also able to implement a statewide policy change through accompanying Mrs. Valentine and her husband to the then Georgia Supreme Court Commission on Fairness and Equal Access to the Courts, a body composed of current and former judges. “The judges were horrified by the treatment that Mrs. Valentine had suffered at the hands of one of their colleagues.” A new Georgia policy allows people of faith to wear the religious headgear of their choosing at the courthouse.

During her time in Georgia, Shahshahani restarted the Georgia chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.   Founded in 1937, the NLG is the nation’s oldest organization of progressive lawyers and legal workers fighting for social change. Soon she was elected the Southern Representative to their national board and was active in the United People of Color Caucus (TUPOCC) of the NLG. “TUPOCC has played a large role in making the NLG become an anti-oppressive organization.”

In 2011, Shahshahani was elected President of the National Lawyers Guild “The NLG has served as my political home. NLG members have been some of my strongest mentors, role models, and friends. There is no other organization like the NLG serving as a base for legal activists. It provides a space to do political legal work and be connected to other movement lawyers, legal workers, law students, and jailhouse lawyers.”

With the NLG, Shahshahani participated in international human rights delegations to Haiti, Honduras, Palestine, post-revolutionary Tunisia and Egypt, and Venezuela. She also served as a member of jury for human rights tribunals on Mexico and the Philippines.

In January 2016, Shahshahani started a new job as Legal and Advocacy Director with Project South.   Project South is a Southern-based leadership development organization dedicated to movement building. In her new position, she provides legal support to social justice movements with a focus on immigrants’ rights and defending Muslim and Middle Eastern communities against state repression.

She has been recognized with the 2012 Advocacy Award from the American Immigration Lawyers Association among others.   Her writings have appeared in Al Jazeera America, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Huffington Post, The Guardian, MSNBC, and Truthout.

“As an immigrant and a Muslim, I am intimately familiar with the human rights issues I am working on. I know justice comes about through grassroots mobilization and movement building. My work as a social justice lawyer and activist is to help support the movement. Winning even small victories for the movement gives me great satisfaction. I get frustrated when we have to fight battles just to maintain the status quo because of current political dynamics.

“I am inspired by freedom fighters throughout history, particularly Palestinians fighting for their human dignity in the most oppressive of circumstances. On my office wall I have pictures of Mohammad Mossadegh, the democratically-elected prime minister of Iran who was toppled in a 1953 CIA-engineered coup because he dared to nationalize Iranian oil and Forough Farrokzad, a pioneering Iranian woman poet who died tragically young but who has left her mark on Iranian literature and the feminist movement.

“In order to sustain myself, I exercise for 1.5 hours every day. Every other day, I run outside. Breathing fresh air and seeing the nature is energizing. I know my limits and try to take at least one day every weekend where I stay home and rejuvenate.   I try to eat healthy home-cooked meals and I usually go out with friends once a week and we enjoy a meal together. I love food and spend considerable time cooking and reading about new restaurants and cafes.

“I recommend people read Something Fierce: Memoires of a Revolutionary Daughter. This is a fascinating story about the life of a Chilean young woman who lives with her family underground in various Latin American countries during repressive times in the 1970s and 1980s. She then evolves into a revolutionary herself. It is a captivating story about perseverance and stamina in unbelievably frightening and suffocating times.

“When social justice law students ask me for career advice, I tell them to stick with it. It can be very challenging at the beginning especially and at various points throughout your career financially, emotionally, politically. To get your foot in the door, I would also advise trying to devise a fellowship with an organization you have worked with during law school. Become involved with a social justice organization that provides you with mentorship and a sustaining network; for me, that has been the NLG. The NLG provides great support for progressive folks trying to make it through legal spaces without getting demoralized. Please join and come check us out in NYC, August 3-7!!!”

When critics ask her why she challenges the injustices of the US, she responds, “I live in this country and as such, am most effective at fighting the injustices inflicted by the US government on people here and around the world. This government in particular needs to be held accountable in light of its massive military power, disastrous neoliberal agenda, and history of repression of movements domestically and internationally. I also find inspiration in in this poem by the great Persian poet Sa’adi (which is inscribed on the entrance of the UN):

Human beings are members of a whole,

In creation of one essence and soul.

If one member is afflicted with pain,

Other members uneasy will remain.

If you have no sympathy for human pain,

The name of human you cannot retain!

Bill Quigley teaches law at Loyola University New Orleans and can be reached at quigley77@gmail.com.

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