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When a whistleblower, a nurse named Dawn Wooten, came forward last fall with the disturbing allegation that migrant women in Georgia’s Irwin Detention Center were being forcibly sterilized, Middle East Studies alumna Azadeh Shahshahani (A.B. ’01, M.A. ’04, J.D. ’04), the legal and advocacy director of human rights nonprofit Project South, who represented Ms. Wooten at the time of this interview, called for government accountability, care for victims, and the immediate closure of the Irwin Detention Center.

“Currently [as of November 2020] our network of lawyers have documented 57 cases of women who have been medically abused,” Shahshahani says. “Our complaint opened the door to more women coming forward.”

This fight for civil liberties is not new to Shahshahani, who previously served as president of the National Lawyers Guild and as National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project Director with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia. She is currently on the Advisory Council of the American Association of Jurists and on the Board of Directors of Defending Rights and Dissent, is the author of several human rights reports, and has served on tribunals in Mexico, Brazil, and the Philippines as well as fact-finding delegations to Egypt, Tunisia, and Palestine. She has called upon the United Nations to investigate human rights abuses and wrongful deaths in Georgia detention centers, and for over a decade she has worked towards shutting down privately owned detention centers in the United States, securing care for migrants who have suffered abuses in detention centers, and ending police collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Now she’s calling for redress for the women who suffered abuse at Irwin. For the migrant women who have been deported since Wooten’s testimony made headlines, Shahshahani is demanding they be allowed to return to give further testimony, and to seek refuge from persecution in their home countries.

Upholding the right to seek refuge is a cornerstone of her work. Unfortunately, she says, this right to refuge is not always respected.

Shahshahani’s investigations of detention centers reveal layers of systemic abuse that extend beyond forced sterilization. At another facility in Georgia, Shahshahani says there's a forced labor program where immigrants are paid between one and four dollars a day and deprived of human rights and necessities. “If they don’t work, they are threatened with solitary or actually sent to solitary confinement.”

“People are fleeing abuse, persecution, and economic deprivation to seek refuge in the United States,” Shahshahani says. “Instead of providing them refuge, the government puts them in detention centers.”

The Humanities and Human Rights

Shahshahani herself migrated to the United States from Tehran with her parents when she was 15. A promising student, Shahshahani was accepted to U-M Medical School while she was still in high school through a program called Inteflex. At U-M, she began shadowing doctors and taking courses in bioethics and human sexuality.

Shahshahani had always wanted to support people undergoing hardship, and becoming a doctor was one way of reaching directly-impacted populations. However, her interest in human rights work inspired her to take classes outside of the medical field, including a major in LSA’s Department of Middle East Studies and a minor in history.

Middle East Studies Professor Kathryn Babayan first encountered Shahshahani through her artistic talent. “She was playing a santoor, an Iranian dulcimer, at the Persian Student Association cultural show. I was so impressed,” Babayan says. Soon afterwards, Shahshahani began taking courses with Babayan.

“She was the most voracious and generous student in my gender and sexuality courses,” Babayan says. Eventually Babayan became Shahshahani’s undergraduate academic advisor and her mentor.

“She never took the easy path!” Babayan laughs. She remembers Shahshahani choosing an interdisciplinary and eclectic academic trajectory. For example, Shahshahani could have easily fulfilled her language requirement by taking Persian, but instead she studied Arabic, and excelled beautifully in that difficult language.” Shahshahani insisted on taking the most challenging classes in both Arabic language and literature, as well as advanced Persian text courses usually open only to graduate students. She spent a semester studying English literature and drama in London, a summer in Florence, Italy studying art history and drawing, and a summer in Iran working with a women’s rights’ organization.

 

When a whistleblower, a nurse named Dawn Wooten, came forward last fall with the disturbing allegation that migrant women in Georgia’s Irwin Detention Center were being forcibly sterilized, Middle East Studies alumna Azadeh Shahshahani (A.B. ’01, M.A. ’04, J.D. ’04), the legal and advocacy director of human rights nonprofit Project South, who represented Ms. Wooten at the time of this interview, called for government accountability, care for victims, and the immediate closure of the Irwin Detention Center.

“Currently [as of November 2020] our network of lawyers have documented 57 cases of women who have been medically abused,” Shahshahani says. “Our complaint opened the door to more women coming forward.”

This fight for civil liberties is not new to Shahshahani, who previously served as president of the National Lawyers Guild and as National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project Director with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia. She is currently on the Advisory Council of the American Association of Jurists and on the Board of Directors of Defending Rights and Dissent, is the author of several human rights reports, and has served on tribunals in Mexico, Brazil, and the Philippines as well as fact-finding delegations to Egypt, Tunisia, and Palestine. She has called upon the United Nations to investigate human rights abuses and wrongful deaths in Georgia detention centers, and for over a decade she has worked towards shutting down privately owned detention centers in the United States, securing care for migrants who have suffered abuses in detention centers, and ending police collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Now she’s calling for redress for the women who suffered abuse at Irwin. For the migrant women who have been deported since Wooten’s testimony made headlines, Shahshahani is demanding they be allowed to return to give further testimony, and to seek refuge from persecution in their home countries.

Upholding the right to seek refuge is a cornerstone of her work. Unfortunately, she says, this right to refuge is not always respected.

Shahshahani’s investigations of detention centers reveal layers of systemic abuse that extend beyond forced sterilization. At another facility in Georgia, Shahshahani says there's a forced labor program where immigrants are paid between one and four dollars a day and deprived of human rights and necessities. “If they don’t work, they are threatened with solitary or actually sent to solitary confinement.”

“People are fleeing abuse, persecution, and economic deprivation to seek refuge in the United States,” Shahshahani says. “Instead of providing them refuge, the government puts them in detention centers.”

The Humanities and Human Rights

Shahshahani herself migrated to the United States from Tehran with her parents when she was 15. A promising student, Shahshahani was accepted to U-M Medical School while she was still in high school through a program called Inteflex. At U-M, she began shadowing doctors and taking courses in bioethics and human sexuality.

Shahshahani had always wanted to support people undergoing hardship, and becoming a doctor was one way of reaching directly-impacted populations. However, her interest in human rights work inspired her to take classes outside of the medical field, including a major in LSA’s Department of Middle East Studies and a minor in history.

Middle East Studies Professor Kathryn Babayan first encountered Shahshahani through her artistic talent. “She was playing a santoor, an Iranian dulcimer, at the Persian Student Association cultural show. I was so impressed,” Babayan says. Soon afterwards, Shahshahani began taking courses with Babayan.

“She was the most voracious and generous student in my gender and sexuality courses,” Babayan says. Eventually Babayan became Shahshahani’s undergraduate academic advisor and her mentor.

“She never took the easy path!” Babayan laughs. She remembers Shahshahani choosing an interdisciplinary and eclectic academic trajectory. For example, Shahshahani could have easily fulfilled her language requirement by taking Persian, but instead she studied Arabic, and excelled beautifully in that difficult language.” Shahshahani insisted on taking the most challenging classes in both Arabic language and literature, as well as advanced Persian text courses usually open only to graduate students. She spent a semester studying English literature and drama in London, a summer in Florence, Italy studying art history and drawing, and a summer in Iran working with a women’s rights’ organization.

“I was always struck by her spirit of collaboration, collegiality, and curiosity,” Babayan says. Outside of the classroom, Shahshahani was known for building community. She established the Persian Students Association and organized cultural events that brought the Iranian-American student body at U-M together. All of these pursuits fed into her humanitarian endeavor, and allowed Shahshahani to engage in creative ways of thinking about the world and its history of social injustice and resistance.

“Her senior year she was in my office and we were looking through her major checklist,” Babayan says, remembering a pivotal experience in her mentorship of Shahshahani. “I asked her what she wanted to do with her degree.”

Shahshahani clearly remembers this moment. Her parents wanted her to go to medical school. But she wanted to do human rights law. She felt duty bound for the medical field because her parents had given up so much for her education.

“She was part of an immigrant generation who felt that they couldn’t pursue the humanities,” Babayan says. “I told her that it was okay to follow her heart and engage in human rights work. I assured her that her parents would continue to love her and accept her career choice.”

These were the assurances that Shahshahani needed. She applied to law school and went on to receive her J.D. from the University of Michigan’s Law School, while also earning a masters degree in the International Institute’s Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies. The parallel disciplines have nurtured her career in human rights advocacy.

“I was always struck by her spirit of collaboration, collegiality, and curiosity,” Babayan says. Outside of the classroom, Shahshahani was known for building community. She established the Persian Students Association and organized cultural events that brought the Iranian-American student body at U-M together. All of these pursuits fed into her humanitarian endeavor, and allowed Shahshahani to engage in creative ways of thinking about the world and its history of social injustice and resistance.

“Her senior year she was in my office and we were looking through her major checklist,” Babayan says, remembering a pivotal experience in her mentorship of Shahshahani. “I asked her what she wanted to do with her degree.”

Shahshahani clearly remembers this moment. Her parents wanted her to go to medical school. But she wanted to do human rights law. She felt duty bound for the medical field because her parents had given up so much for her education.

“She was part of an immigrant generation who felt that they couldn’t pursue the humanities,” Babayan says. “I told her that it was okay to follow her heart and engage in human rights work. I assured her that her parents would continue to love her and accept her career choice.”

These were the assurances that Shahshahani needed. She applied to law school and went on to receive her J.D. from the University of Michigan’s Law School, while also earning a masters degree in the International Institute’s Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies. The parallel disciplines have nurtured her career in human rights advocacy.

It’s About Dignity

The 9/11 attacks happened during Shahshahani’s first year of law school, and attacks on Muslims across the United States followed. As an Iranian American, a lawyer, and a scholar of Middle East history, Shahshahani wanted to provide support to communities. When Shahshahani relocated to the U.S. South after law school, she was surprised to find a large Muslim community there, and she wanted to provide legal support.

“I started looking for programs to address the needs of communities in the face of anti-Muslim crackdown after 9/11,” Shahshahani says. “I couldn’t find one, so I started a project with the ACLU myself, in North Carolina.” Shahshahani eventually brought her project to Georgia as well, working with Muslim and immigrant communities to secure pro-bono legal support in cases of discrimination, addressing issues like green card delays, giving know-your-rights presentations, and training attorneys to take on the legal issues migrant communities face.

Since 2016, Shahshahani has worked as the legal and advocacy director of Project South, and the goal of dignity continues to be at the heart of what Shahshahani does in her work to protect the human rights of vulnerable populations.

She shares a victory. A Muslim woman in Douglasville, Georgia, Ms. Lisa Valentine, accompanied her nephew to a courthouse, where she was told to remove her headscarf. She refused on the grounds that wearing the headscarf is part of her faith.

Ms. Valentine was then taken before the judge, who sentenced her to ten days in jail for contempt of court. She was chained and her headscarf was forcibly removed. The case made national headlines, and so she was let out of prison within a few hours. But the harm and the impact on her was profound.

“So we sued the city and got a settlement for the family,” Shahshahani says. “But we didn’t stop there. We went before a panel of judges, who were also appalled by the treatment she had suffered. They approved a policy we had proposed that a person of faith can wear their headgear in the courthouse.”

Compared to the goal of abolishing private detention centers, this story, centered on the case of a single woman, may seem small. However, the case set an important precedent for ensuring dignity for people of faith all over the state of Georgia. “People should never have to choose between faith and access to a courthouse,” Shahshahani says.

As she looks towards the future and a new presidential administration, Shahshahani’s primary goals remain unchanged: to shut down the Irwin Detention Center and all privately operated detention centers, and, above all, to secure care, dignity, and human rights for immigrants.

“Seeking asylum became much more difficult during the Trump administration,” Shahshahani says, citing xenophobic rhetoric and the child separation policy. However, challenges to migrant dignity and to Shahshahani’s human rights advocacy did not begin with the Trump administration, nor did they end with its term, she says. “We hope future administrations respect immigrants’ human rights,” she says.“But politicians never saved us. It’s us who’s going to liberate us.”

 

 

It’s About Dignity

The 9/11 attacks happened during Shahshahani’s first year of law school, and attacks on Muslims across the United States followed. As an Iranian American, a lawyer, and a scholar of Middle East history, Shahshahani wanted to provide support to communities. When Shahshahani relocated to the U.S. South after law school, she was surprised to find a large Muslim community there, and she wanted to provide legal support.

“I started looking for programs to address the needs of communities in the face of anti-Muslim crackdown after 9/11,” Shahshahani says. “I couldn’t find one, so I started a project with the ACLU myself, in North Carolina.” Shahshahani eventually brought her project to Georgia as well, working with Muslim and immigrant communities to secure pro-bono legal support in cases of discrimination, addressing issues like green card delays, giving know-your-rights presentations, and training attorneys to take on the legal issues migrant communities face.

Since 2016, Shahshahani has worked as the legal and advocacy director of Project South, and the goal of dignity continues to be at the heart of what Shahshahani does in her work to protect the human rights of vulnerable populations.

She shares a victory. A Muslim woman in Douglasville, Georgia, Ms. Lisa Valentine, accompanied her nephew to a courthouse, where she was told to remove her headscarf. She refused on the grounds that wearing the headscarf is part of her faith.

Ms. Valentine was then taken before the judge, who sentenced her to ten days in jail for contempt of court. She was chained and her headscarf was forcibly removed. The case made national headlines, and so she was let out of prison within a few hours. But the harm and the impact on her was profound.

“So we sued the city and got a settlement for the family,” Shahshahani says. “But we didn’t stop there. We went before a panel of judges, who were also appalled by the treatment she had suffered. They approved a policy we had proposed that a person of faith can wear their headgear in the courthouse.”

Compared to the goal of abolishing private detention centers, this story, centered on the case of a single woman, may seem small. However, the case set an important precedent for ensuring dignity for people of faith all over the state of Georgia. “People should never have to choose between faith and access to a courthouse,” Shahshahani says.

As she looks towards the future and a new presidential administration, Shahshahani’s primary goals remain unchanged: to shut down the Irwin Detention Center and all privately operated detention centers, and, above all, to secure care, dignity, and human rights for immigrants.

“Seeking asylum became much more difficult during the Trump administration,” Shahshahani says, citing xenophobic rhetoric and the child separation policy. However, challenges to migrant dignity and to Shahshahani’s human rights advocacy did not begin with the Trump administration, nor did they end with its term, she says. “We hope future administrations respect immigrants’ human rights,” she says.“But politicians never saved us. It’s us who’s going to liberate us.”


Illustrations by Julia Lubas. Top photo of Shahshahani courtesy of Fernando Decillis.

 

 

 

 


 


 

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Release Date: 05/10/2021
Category: Alumni
Tags: LSA; International Institute; Center for Middle Eastern & North African Studies; LSA Magazine; Humanities; Middle East Studies; Julia Lubas; Gina Balibrera