by Kavita Menon
…She said she would keep fighting for me until I was free. She was like an angel, someone who had come in rescue me from the living hell I had endured since coming to the United States.”
– from Fauziya Kassindja’s Do They Hear You When You Cry?
She must have looked like an angel to Fauziya Kassindja as Kassindja languished in prison, after having’ entered the U.S. without papers, in desperate flight from a forced marriage and the threat of female genital mutilation (FGM) bark home in Togo. West Africa. Layli Miller Bashir. with her small frame and child-like voice, blond curls, bright blue eyes and delicate skin, had come to the prison as Kassindja’s lawyer. But with her promises of enduring prayer and support. Kassindja regarded her as a sister sent from on high.
Bashir is one of those people whose lives seem to proceed eerily straight and clear down some preordained path – one of those bright young things who has done so much so fast that you begin to doubt your arithmetic. She was born on March 24, 1972. She left high school a year early, at 17, married at 18. finished college in 1993. and graduated with a master’s degree in International Relations and a law degree in 1996, just months after helping secure the much-publicized, precedent-setting legal victory for women and refugees whereby Fauziya Kassindja was finally granted asylum in (he U.S. She contributed to the book that was written about the case, then used her share of the profits to found the Tahirih Justice Center, which provides legal, medical, and social services for immigrant women. She has jumped from slogging through the system at (he Hoard of Immigration Appeals to working at the blue-chip Washington, D.C., law firm Arnold & Porter.
Now, at 26, Bashir says she doesn’t have a grand plan, and admits only that “I always have rules for everything….! look at where I can be most useful.”
More than anyone else. it was lawstudent Bashir who was responsible for the legal and media campaign that freed Fauziya Kassindja and ultimately led the U.S. to grant her asylum. Thanks to kassindja’s case, the torture of FGM, which had long been ignored, or cuphemized as “female circumcision” and dismissed as a “cultural norm.” was finally recognized in the U.S. as a form of persecution, a violation of human rights. The case also established the legal propriety of women making gender-based claims of persecution. Kassindja’s story – of being treated like a criminal after her arrival in the States; of being held in maximum security prisons, where she was chained and tear-gassed during her nearly two-year wait for asylum hearing – also cast a revealing light on the brutality of the immigration service’s routine treatment of asylum-seekers.
Bashir first heard about genital cutting when, before entering law school, she spent three weeks in The Gambia, West Africa. When she asked her husband, then a medical resident, about FGM, he gave her several articles detailing the practice. At law school, she wrote a paper on whether a woman fleeing FGM could, theoretically, qualify for asylum in the U.S. It was that bit of expertise that qualified her to handle Kassindja’s case. She was just a summer intern working for an immigration lawyer, but she ended up not only doing the bulk of the research for, and drafting, the brief, but even arguing the case at the hearing.
She lost, but then assumed full responsibility for seeing that the case was appealed. “She is very young.” says Jessica Neuwirth. the president of Equality Now, a U.S-based human rights organization that helped draw media attention to Kassindja. “But I think that’s part of it. As you get older you become more cynical and jaded. She was so genuinely horrified by what went on at that hearing that she had to do something about it….We try to mobilize people around outrage. There’s a certain quality about it that’s important to human rights activism.”
Bashir first heard of Equality Now while at the 1995 Beijing Women’s Conference, which she attended with her mother as part of the Baha’i delegation. She was Kassindja’s personal lobbyist in Beijing, telling anyone who would listen about the case she had just lost and the woman she was determined to save. And when she returned to the Washington College of Law at American University, she convinced the school’s International Human Rights Law Clinic to take on the appeal.
“A lot of people come to the law school with a passive, consumer mentality – like they’re watching TV,” says Jamin Raskin, an associate dean at the university during Bashir’s time there. “Layli came to the law school with a hunger for justice . . She found that case during the summer, brought it back to the clinic, insisted the school take it on, and she never let go.”
Though the case was turned over to the clinic, then headed by Karen Musalo, Bashir remained fiercely attached to Kassindja. “When she described Fauziya being led out of that courtroom in shackles, and saw the terror, the hopelessness, the rage – she felt all that. And we felt it too,” her mother, Carole Miller, says.
Bashir’s commitment is easier to understand in the context of her family, and their faith. Her parents are both civil rights activists, nationally and internationally, working through the Baha’i community’s network. Carole Miller is a close friend of Coretta Scott King and Dick Gregory.
Baha’is tend to be concerned with issues like racism and sexism – believing in the idea of one human family, and the value and wisdom of all the world’s religions. Dorothy Nelson, a federal judge at the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California, and a Baha’i herself, has known Bashir since she was a child. “1 remember Layli, at the age of nine or ten, came to me . . . and asked. “Can you be a good lawyer and a good Baha’i at the same time?’
“In the Baha’i faith, work in the form of service is equivalent to prayer. It’s not enough to believe, you have to act.”
Kavita Menon works in the Asia program at the Committee to Protect Journalists in NY.