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Turning her Baha’i faith into precedent, lawyer helps women gain asylum

Layli Miller-Muro, right, founder and CEO of the Tahirih Justice Center, poses with actress Eva Larue, from left, and asylum recipient Aicha Abdoulaye Mahamane at a Tahirih gala fundraiser in Laguna Beach, Calif., in September 2018. Photo by Gabe Sullivan/Tahirih Justice Center

(RNS) — More than 20 years ago, when Layli Miller-Muro was still in law school, her first immigration client was a Muslim woman from Togo who sought asylum in the United States to avoid a forced marriage and female genital mutilation. Instead, the woman, Fauziya Kassindja, spent 17 months in detention before the young law student intervened.

In 1996 the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals granted Kassindja asylum and her case set a precedent establishing gender-based violence as grounds for asylum.

It also changed the course of Miller-Muro’s legal career. After receiving her J.D. from American University in 1996, the following year she created the Tahirih Justice Center, a national nonprofit organization that ever since has worked on behalf of women and girls who are fleeing gender-based violence and seeking asylum in the United States.

A member of the Baha’i religion, Miller-Muro named Tahirih after a 19th-century Persian woman and Baha’i martyr who, facing her execution in 1852 for being an outspoken proponent of women’s rights, proclaimed, “You can kill me as soon as you like, but you will never stop the emancipation of women.”

Layli Miller-Muro, founder and executive director of the the Tahirih Justice Center. Photo courtesy of Tahirih Justice Center

“Representing her (Kassindja) wasn’t an academic exercise, it was a deeply moral obligation that I felt, that certainly came from a spiritual compass,” Miller-Muro told Religion News Service.

Miller-Muro’s own roots in Baha’i begin in the buckle of the Bible Belt. Her grandmother, who left her family farm in Ohio when she was in eighth grade to pursue her education, attended Cornell University and eventually earned a doctorate in nutrition. Paying her own way through school, she took a summer job as a maid during the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Ga., and let a room in a boardinghouse that rented to both white and black women — a wildly countercultural move at the time. The brave woman who owned the boardinghouse (where crosses were burned on her front yard) was an early American convert to Baha’i, said Miller-Muro, who grew up in Georgia.

“Baha’is always believed in interracial marriage, even when it was still illegal,” she said. “They have always stood for racial equality. In fact, in the Baha’i writings, we’re told that racism is the most challenging issue in American society.”

Rising in Persia (now Iran) in the 1860s, Baha’i was introduced to the United States during the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893, a year after the death of its founder, Baha’u’llah, who preached the essential unity of all religions and of humankind. Baha’i’s earliest American convert is generally agreed to be Thornton Chase, who served as an officer in the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War.

Today, there are about 126,000 Baha’i adherents in the United States, according to a 2010 U.S. Religion Census, the most recent statistics available.

“All of the teachings of the Baha’i faith revolve around helping people who have traditionally been disunified come together, whether it’s issues of racism, equality of women and men, extremes of wealth and poverty, political division,” Miller-Muro said.

The Tahirih Justice Center works with clients of all faith traditions and none, and the vast majority of its staff, and the army of 2,500 attorneys who work pro bono for the organization, are not Baha’i. But its overarching ethos is rooted in the spiritual principles of Baha’i, particularly the belief that the achievement of full equality between women and men is necessary for society to progress, Miller-Muro explained.

The organization’s logo — the outline of a bird in flight — is inspired by a quote from Baha’i scripture: “The world of humanity has two wings — one is women and the other men. Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly. Should one wing remain weak, flight is impossible.”

Baha’i teaches that the best decisions should be made consultatively — not by fiat or in a top-down hierarchical manner. It also insists on strict nonpartisanship.

While Baha’is are allowed to vote and are expected to participate in their respective cultures and societies, they are not supposed to belong to any political party or accept political posts. So while Tahirih’s work is enmeshed with the U.S. immigration and legal systems, it is vehemently nonpolitical, Miller-Muro explained.

“We’re nonpartisan, we’re consultative, we’re embracing of men and women in the process of equality — all these different things that we’re trying to apply, those are spiritual solutions above and beyond normal lawyering or a normal legal aid organization and I do think it contributes to our success,” she said.

Since its inception in 1997, Tahirih, with offices near Miller-Muro’s home in Washington, D.C., as well as in Baltimore, Houston, Atlanta and the San Francisco Bay Area, has assisted more than 25,000 immigrants. Last year, the organization provided free legal services to more than 1,800 women and girls, and more than 1,700 of their family members. The organization’s success rate for winning asylum cases is a staggering 99 percent, according to its annual report.

Among those successful asylum cases is that of Aicha Abdoulaye Mahamane, who suffered a litany of horrors for the first 27 years of her life that are as unimaginable as they were relentless: rape, beatings, forced marriage, international sex trafficking, modern-day slavery.

A native of Niger, in Africa, she experienced and witnessed violence from a young age, culminating (after she refused to undergo ritual female genital mutilation) in a forced marriage at age 17 to a violent man more than thrice her age who raped and beat her for months on end.

Aicha Abdoulaye Mahamane, who received asylum in the U.S., speaks at a fundraiser for Tahirih Justice Center in Laguna Beach, Calif., in September 2018. Photo by Gabe Sullivan/Tahirih Justice Center

Fearing for her life, Mahamane fled to an aunt’s home in neighboring Togo, where she lived in constant fear of her abusive husband discovering her whereabouts until her aunt could arrange for her to immigrate to the United States.

But when Mahamane arrived in New York City in 2004, the man who had promised to help her start a new life, instead sexually abused her and kept her a prisoner in his home for five months, until word came that her sister had died, and he allowed her to return to Niger. There she stayed in hiding for almost a year, until her husband learned she was in country. She returned to the States, this time to Maryland.

Once again, the person entrusted with Mahamane’s well-being became her oppressor. “At the time, I didn’t know what human trafficking was, but I knew how I felt — being treated like a slave,” Mahamane said. “I had hoped to get a job, become independent, but this woman made me work for three years as a domestic servant — never paying me, never allowing me to have visitors, never allowing me to leave the house unless it was to go to church on Sundays.”

It was at that church in suburban Maryland, however, that Mahamane, who was reared Muslim before converting to Christianity, first learned about Tahirih.

“Not only did they help me file for my asylum, they also helped me with shelter, with food,” she said. “And the most amazing thing they could have done for me: They helped me with a therapist. She worked with me for three years and it changed everything in my life.”

In June 2014, Mahamane’s asylum petition was approved. She now is happily married and has a young son. “I finally am free from violence and abuse,” she said. “Please don’t underestimate the power you have to make a difference in girls’ lives. Every day there are girls just like me calling Tahirih looking for help.”

Mahamane and many of Tahirih’s clients are “change agents, like my grandmother,” Miller-Muro said. “By their courage and willingness to say no to multigeneration practices, they are changing the trajectory of their cultures and their communities and their families.”

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Cathleen Falsani

Cathleen Falsani is a veteran religion journalist and author, specializing in the intersection of spirituality and culture. She lives in Southern California.

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