A Discussion with Layli Miller-Muro, Tahirih Justice Center

With: Layli Miller-Muro Berkley Center Profile

January 5, 2016

Background: Can women who flee gender-based violence qualify for asylum? Layli Miller-Muro asked this question first theoretically in an academic paper and later in the U.S. justice system, ultimately setting legal precedents. She founded the Tahirih Justice Center, which is now the only multi-city national organization that focuses on the protection of courageous immigrant women and girls who refuse to be victims of violence through direct legal representation and advocacy. Miller-Muro met with Crystal Corman on January 5, 2016 to discuss the role of religion in motivating her work, as well as the role of religion in the numerous gender issues that lead women to her center. In this interview, Miller-Muro explains the tenets of the Baha’i faith that taught her to seek social justice that improves the world and views all people as equal. She discusses the underlying values that are needed to stop injustice, the role of religious leaders in building these, and the courage of women to stand up for themselves.
Please tell me about the women who come to your center seeking legal assistance?

The issues that all our clients face are symptoms of a larger illness, which is the inequality of women and men. The symptoms appear in the form of forced marriage, child marriage, female genital mutilation/cutting (which is about the control of a woman’s body and the control of her chastity), domestic violence, sexual violence, human trafficking, and so-called “mail-order brides.”

They come from all over the world, but right now, over 50 percent of all our clients are Spanish-speaking, so different parts of Central and Latin America. I think 27 percent are African. The rest of the pie chart consists of Far East Asia, South Asia, Eastern Europe.

How big of a problem are such things in the United States?

At the Tahirih Justice Center, we can only help one in four women who come to us. We receive hundreds of calls every day and with only 55 staff members, we can’t help everyone. The volume of the injustice is so great. And our backlog is huge; our cases are being scheduled out now until 2021.

There are no other organizations exactly like us. If you can’t afford a lawyer and you’re a human trafficking victim, for example, and you can’t get into our doors, you may be out of luck. There is a law that can help you, but you will not be able to access it without a lawyer. It’s a huge problem.

Let’s say you’re one of the few. You are one of the very rare forced marriage victims who has the wherewithal and the resources and the opportunity to get out. This means you’re already in the top tier. Then you have the wherewithal and the opportunity, and someone who held your hand and gave you a reference number to call an organization like ours. Then you have a small chance of getting help, statistically. Let’s say we can help you. It may then take your case four years to be adjudicated.

Our work is critical. It’s important, but it’s not going to transform society in the deepest sense. Organizations like ours make a dent in the problem and contribute to the process of social change, but, fundamentally, we have to transform attitudes and beliefs to eliminate violence against women and girls. We need clergy working on it. We have to work with those who are the holders of values and beliefs. People who are the holders of behavior change.

Some contexts have customary laws or local mechanisms for resolving disputes. If legal systems are so broken, is it worth it?

It’s not an “either or”; it’s an “and.” We need the law for that unique woman who gets to run; we need lawyers and a law to protect her. But it’s highly inefficient and highly insufficient. The law has a role to play. It’s a backstop, last resort for the very privileged few who can get a lawyer, who can get a case heard in court, and who can access that law. It is a privileged few.

In Brazil, for example, the statistic is particularly striking. Brazil has a very well structured legal system, and police are viewed with relative trust. Domestic violence is quite prevalent in Brazil, but only three percent of all domestic violence cases are even reported. Of the three percent, only 17 percent are prosecuted. Does that mean that the law on the book is useless? No. But only a very few lucky people get use from it.

How did you learn about female genital mutilation (FGM), an issue important in your legal career?

I was 18 when I was in Gambia; it is very prevalent in West Africa. It was the early 1990s and it wasn’t widely discussed, even within those communities. Daughters didn’t know what they were about to undergo. Mothers didn’t tell them what they would undergo. It was a secret ritual. When I came to law school, I had to write a paper for my asylum law class. I thought, I’ll write a paper on why, under the law currently, this is not a basis for protection, and make an argument that it should be.

Then I had opportunities to reflect on the topic beyond specific legal cases. I remember sitting at roundtable discussions at the World Bank in 1996 with Mona Greiser around this idea about why we aren’t involving clergy and why we aren’t reaching out to religions. I was very excited about it because frankly, FGM was overtly discussed as one of those issues. It is an issue that relates to health, to economic viability and empowerment of women, it’s something that the World Bank might work on. But you can’t work on something like that without talking about underlying belief systems and values. You can’t in turn talk about those until you involve elders in communities and religious leaders. It’s a natural flow.

Tell me how your career and passion for these topics came to be? Was it by design?

The truth is, the answers are far more about divine intervention and happenstance than some deliberate brilliant plan. This wasn’t all on purpose! What was deliberate was a religiously-inspired motivation to want to be of service and promote justice. How I would be able to do that, was less clear to me.

I didn’t choose to be assigned Fauziya Kassindja’s case. I was working for an attorney hired by her cousin to represent Fauziya while a law student and, seeing that I wrote a paper on the subject, he assigned it to me four days before the filing deadline.

Since I had done some service in West Africa, I had been exposed to FGM. I had an academic interest in it so wrote a hypothetical paper on whether you could receive asylum based on FGM. The attorney noticed this paper and asked, “Can you help with this file?” It turned out that the hypothetical fact pattern of the academic paper that I wrote, arguing that you should be able to receive asylum on the basis of FGM, was exactly her fact pattern.

That just happened. I couldn’t plan that. So within four days I was able to edit from this paper into her brief and submit what turned into a 70 page brief and 100 pages of materials in evidence exhibits. This would have been entirely impossible to reproduce in four days for any normal lawyer doing normal legal research and writing. It was possible here because I had spent the previous year researching and writing a legal argument based on a hypothetical fact pattern that was exactly hers!

It’s amazing that your interest and research in law school perfectly matched her case. Did your impressive brief win?

We lost, so I brought her case to my law school—American University—where the Human Rights Law Clinic took it on, and I continued to help as a law student. That case then climbed to the highest immigration appellate court. It received a lot of press at that time. She won and set legal precedent in the United States.

When that happened, it obviously shaped my career and gave me opportunities. We wrote a book together called Do They Hear You When You Cry? and used the money from that to create the Tahirih Justice Center. The professional opportunities that I had at the law firm and the Justice Department also largely came from that case.

The specifics of my career were not so well designed or planned. But my goal overall was to work on social justice issues and contribute to the betterment of humanity. I feel like doors opened that I then chose to walk through. But I didn’t open those doors. I didn’t build those doors.

There are laws against FGM in some countries now, but you’re also talking about values. How do you work on both?

As a Baha’i, theology explains that our social and economic problems are fundamentally spiritual problems. We aren’t going to solve racism and gross inequalities in wealth simply though legislation. Even the most well designed, engineered political plans won’t solve these social problems because they are fundamentally about our lack of belief about the oneness of humanity. Until we fundamentally change that spiritual belief, and value, from our core, that we are one human family, people will get around the laws.

I’m a lawyer so I love laws. Don’t get me wrong, but they do have limits. They cannot change fundamental belief systems, fundamental values. Religion has a really important role to play in dealing with all of our social issues. Not only because the social issues come from the flawed values and flawed systems that then lead to the injustice, but if we could deal with those first, we could have better systems and better behavior.

Domestic violence is a great example. It is illegal in the United States, but have we gotten rid of it? No. Do we need any more laws? We could tweak a few and make the implementation of them a little bit better. But fundamentally, what we have to do is change men’s perceptions of women; change the idea that using violence is okay; and change notions of inferiority and superiority and the sexualization of women. Those are values. It’s not about tweaking laws. Where do we get values from? Call it religion, spirituality, whatever you want to, but for 90 percent of the world, it’s religion.

How can laws be better implemented? Or how can behavior change better match the words on paper and underlying values?

This is where there is a real disconnect between the West and the rest of the world. Look at the way our societies are organized and who is trusted. In the United States our society has a high level of trust: people pay their taxes voluntarily. People stop at red lights. A fundamental trust in government exists. People trust authority and the government. There is corruption, but we generally believe roads are going to be built and maintained and schools are going to be built.

Not so true in the rest of the world. So when a law in passed—for example with FGM—the laws may be largely impotent. In Gambia, where I have spent the most time internationally, there is distrust in the government, many people are illiterate and don’t know the laws, and the police are distrusted. If I’m attacked, there’s no way I’m calling the police. They would need a bribe to do anything, and the justice system would take years.

Instead, I’m much more likely to call the imam. Or I call the village elders. And they will organize a tribunal within a week. They will hear all of the sides, and they will decide on justice. My family will be behind me and will be protected. Nobody will mess with the imams because if they do, their honor will be impugned. That’s the system of justice.

But when guiding behavior—it is often our values that we look at first, not the law. People are highly motivated by a higher power, or something greater than themselves. They will give their life for higher purpose. Not for material gain. People will transform themselves for a higher purpose, but not for a World Bank loan. There’s a fundamental value in what inspires people; what causes them to change is that higher purpose. I think that it’s no secret that every 12-step program includes “a higher power.” People never make a change if it’s just for themselves. But when they see their children being harmed by violence, when they see their loved ones affected by their lack of health—that is the higher purpose. It’s outside of me, beyond me. It’s true from a behavioral science perspective.

What motivated you to get involved in women’s issues and to focus on immigrant women and girls in particular?

I grew up in the Baha’i community. Two very influential elements that did affect my life path include its theology and the community itself. The Baha’i community I grew up in was very diverse. In a sense this is not a surprise, since Baha’is
—both by value proposition and in fact—are very diverse.

When I grew up in Atlanta as a Baha’i, I went to sleepovers in public housing projects and also to sleepovers at country clubs. My best friends were recently arrived refugees from Cambodia and Iran. Some of my closest friends were African American, some of whom grew up in public housing projects. I had the intimate experience of loving people and befriending people, really knowing the character of people, who looked really different from me and who grew up in very different experiences than me. I took all of that for granted when I was growing up. I thought this was how the world is. But in high school I became exposed to some extreme versions of racism.

How did your faith inform how you responded to racism?

I lived in a town north of Atlanta bordering a county that in the 1980s boasted being the only white county left in Georgia (today, it’s almost 50 percent non-white). Back then, they were proud of their racial homogeneity, and the Ku Klux Klan had a strong presence. My high school gained media attention when a black guy and a white guy fought because they liked the same girl; friends had come to support them. The media called it a “race riot.” My principal was extremely nervous, so I approached him with an idea. I had been part of a dance group run by the Baha’i youth, and it was interracial. Since many of us in the dance group had been trained in anti-racism, we had done workshops on how to recognize prejudice, how to self-examine racism. We then created dramatic performances and dances that illustrated racism, unity, harmony. We had some “cool teenagers,” including some from the Northside School for Performing Arts.

I said to my principal, “You have a problem, and I can help you with your problem. Let’s bring this dance group up for a day and require every student to go through the anti-racism training.” We had about 2,000 students; it was a large high school. In one day, repeated over seven class periods, the dance group performed for everyone. We also had small group racism training workshops in the library. We had a poster at the entrance to the school, and people signed on it to oppose racism. Then we did deep dive racism training moderated by black and white facilitators.

It’s clear your Baha’i youth group experience empowered you. How did this high school experience shape your career path?

My religious community gave me the social experience—intimate friendships that last until today—and the experience of social activism, what it meant to apply my faith in a way that could benefit the larger community.

My intimate relationships also exposed me to different aspects of racism. A friend, 16 years old at the time, was pulled over by police and when he reached under his seat for his wallet, the police officer felt threatened and beat him so severely that he ended up in the hospital. His father called my father in the middle of the night, asking “Can you come down [to the police station] with me?” My father was a white guy who worked in a suit every day. His father wasn’t, and his father understood that there was some benefit to having a man that looked like mine helping to get his son out. That devastated me. It was unnerving that I had the benefit of my dad and my skin tone. This friend wasn’t some guy on the news or some statistic, he was a guy that I really knew and loved, who got good grades and was an amazing person.

I began to see the injustice of how we all ended up. I learned that the United States is not a meritocracy. Growing up in the Baha’i community, both with intimate friendships and with that religious community structure that allowed for meaningful service and opportunities to engage in social issues, I became very interested in social justice issues. Race was my passion because of these experiences. In college I worked for the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change as a nonviolent student coordinator. We worked in biracial pairs and did a lot of anti-racism training and social organizing training for college campuses.

What within the Baha’i faith informs ideals of equality?

The Baha’i faith fundamentally believes that humanity can’t progress until we have justice. Eliminating racism is a very important thing that is directly and overtly spoken about in the Baha’i writings as well as many other social issues, including the equality of women and men. There’s an analogy in the Baha’i writings that humanity is like a bird with two wings; humanity is unable to fly because it’s flopping around with one wing not as strong as the other. So theologically we believe as Baha’is that it is imperative for the progress of civilization essentially to redress many social issues and to solve the inequality of women and men.

I have a strong notion of wanting to be of service to humanity in some way, and wanting to work on social justice issues. As a Baha’i I fundamentally view my purpose in life as trying to, even in a small way, contribute to a larger society effort to grow and to advance. The Baha’i writings are quite specific; in fact, there’s a real road map guided by this same spiritual truth that is found in all faiths, but practically applied to all social issues.

Baha’is believe that when we have a spiritual awakening around the idea of the fundamental oneness of humanity, then there will be political will to work these things out. We will awaken and say, “What have we been doing? We should care about this.” If we really saw ourselves as one human family, it would be intolerable to step over our sister on the street.

Do you do advocacy work at the center, trying to improve legal projection for women?

We do advocacy work to help change the law to make the legal system more fair and just. But it is driven by the desires of the clients who come to us. They say to us, “We don’t want to be forced into marriage.” Our job is to say, “Okay. I’ll work with the legal system to make sure that’s possible.” That is what we do.

Does the religion of your clients come into play?

We are lawyers, and we are obligated to do whatever our client wants us to do. By the time they have walked through our doors, they know what they want. We have not convinced them that FGM is bad; we have not convinced them that their culture or their practice within their culture is problematic. That’s not our job. There are organizations that are doing that. We have no value judgment.

We are all on some spectrum with regard to the advancement of women. It’s not our job to judge where on the spectrum a person is. It’s our job to help support that woman when she comes to us, wherever she is. We are never in a position of judging that culture. Our position is simply to say, “What do you want? How are you judging your own culture? How can I use the laws that exist in the society you are in now to help you do what you want to do?” It’s not what we want, it’s what they want.

Do you think these issues are declining today?

It’s a statistical fact that we are facing the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Most are fleeing extreme violence; it’s also about injustice. Three-quarter of all refugees are women and children. Women are increasingly standing up for themselves and refusing to be subjugated. There is a refusal that in and of itself brings resistance. Some argue that ISIS is a response to the over-Westernization and liberalization of women. Looking at U.S. history, when women gained some equality, including in their personal relationships, we saw huge spikes in divorce rates in the 1970s and ‘80s. People thought families were falling apart. Today we are seeing some of the lowest divorce rates we have seen in 20 years. There was also a spike in domestic violence, but that has leveled out. Acid attacks in South Asia for example, started when young women and children began refusing people who were making advances on them. The fact that they are saying “No, I want to continue my education” was something her mother didn’t do. The violence is a sad fact. But it’s a sign of something that is actually progress.

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