Women's Advancement

The Tahirih Justice Center wins recognition for helping immigrant women

In Brief: 
  • Since 1997, the Tahirih Justice Center has worked to help immigrant women escape forced marriage, genital mutilation, and other forms of gender-based violence.
  • Using its own attorneys and a network of 1,000 others who donate services, it has won 99 percent of its cases and helped more than 14,000 women.
  • For this, founder Layli Miller-Muro has won a number of recent awards, including the DVF Award for women’s leadership.
  • Ms. Miller-Muro attributes the Center’s success to the application of Bahá’í principles of non-partisanship and consultation.

WASHINGTON — At the age of 11, Didja faced the prospect of being forced into a marriage with an older man in Mali. Her mother had died and tradition there meant her daughters should be divided among remaining aunts and uncles.

“I was given to my uncle who told me that I was to be married to one of his friends, a man who already had three wives and over 20 children,” Didja said recently. “I was certain that a life of misery and servitude awaited me.”

Today she is living safely, having successfully avoided the forced early marriage with the help of a sympathetic relative who spirited her to the United States — and with the help of the Tahirih Justice Center, which provided free legal advice to help her win asylum and prevent the possibility of an involuntary return.

Every year, millions of women like Didja, whose full name is withheld, are subjected to gender-based violence: forced marriage, rape, domestic violence, human trafficking, and female genital mutilation. Only a small percentage successfully leave their misery behind.

Since its founding in 1997, the Tahirih Justice Center has helped more than 14,000 women like Didja, mainly by offering free legal help with immigration issues — and also by advocating for changes in US policy regarding issues of gender equality and violence prevention.

A Bahá’í-inspired organization, the Center has been remarkably successful. It has won 99 percent of its legal cases. And it has taken the lead in successfully lobbying for several major changes in US public policy. For all this, the Center and its founder, Layli Miller-Muro, have been honored by a number of outside organizations.

In 2007, the Center won the Washington Post Award for Excellence in Nonprofit Management. In 2011, Ms. Miller-Muro was chosen by Newsweek magazine as one of 150 “fearless women” in the world who are “making their voices heard.” And in March 2012, Ms. Miller-Muro was one of five women to win a “DVF Award” for women’s leadership, sponsored by designer Diane von Furstenberg.

Oscar-winning actress Debra Winger presented the DVF award to Ms. Miller-Muro, noting that the Center has saved thousands of women “from some of the worst crimes imaginable, that are gender based and that could only be understood in a way by another woman.”

“Do they hear you when you cry?”

The Center was established after 17-year-old Fauziya Kassindja fled a forced marriage and female genital mutilation in her homeland of Togo, and ended up imprisoned for more than a year in the United States for immigration law violations, facing the threat of deportation back to Togo.

Ms. Miller-Muro — although still in law school at the time — took the case in 1995 and successfully won it on appeal, establishing a landmark precedent in US immigration law and opening the door for victims of gender-based violence around the world to seek asylum.

The two women co-authored a book, Do They Hear You When You Cry. With her portion of the advance, Ms. Miller-Muro founded the Center.

Today, it has more than 30 full-time staff, including attorneys, social workers, public policy advocates and paralegals, working in the main Washington office and two branch offices in Baltimore and Houston. The Center’s budget of more than $10 million dollars comes from an array of grants, foundation support, and corporate and individual donations, including some $8 million worth of “pro bono” contributions of time from lawyers and doctors who help the Center’s clients for free. Currently, more than 1,000 attorneys in some 175 law firms handle over two-thirds of the Center’s legal work on this basis.

The Center also works to advocate public policy changes that will help immigrant women. It was, for example, the lead drafter and advocate for a campaign that culminated in the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act of 2005, a bill which requires such brokers to inform women when the man who seeks to marry them is a known violent offender.

“Tahirih Justice Center is consistently at the forefront of emerging issues surrounding gender based violence,” said Julia Alanen of the Global Justice Initiative, a Washington-based NGO. “What Tahirih does that’s so extraordinary is identify these issues and bring them to light, bring them to the public’s awareness and get other service providers to respond.”

Using spiritual principles

The Center is named after an 19th century Persian poet, Tahirih, who was an early follower of the Bábí Faith, the precursor to the Bahá’í Faith. She was executed in 1844 for her beliefs. Her last recorded words were: “You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women.”

Certainly, the most prominent principle in the Center’s literature is support for the equality of women and men, which in the Bahá’í writings is upheld as a spiritual principle, with both sexes responsible for its implementation.

But Ms. Miller-Muro, a Bahá’í herself, has sought to apply other Bahá’í teachings and ideals to the Center’s operation since its founding.

“For example, we are passionately non-partisan, and this position comes from the spiritual principles of the Bahá’í writings,” said Ms. Miller-Muro. “And in Washington, we are known in the advocacy community for our non-partisanship.”

“People come to us all the time and say clearly to us, ‘You are non-partisan — you have friends who are both Democrats and Republicans. But we only have friends who are Democrats. Can you help us reach the Republicans?’ Or vice-versa. So that makes us more successful,” she said.

In its day-to-day operations, as well, the Center strives to use Bahá’í consultation, a distinctive means of non-adversarial decision-making. Among other things, consultation strives to gather information from a diversity of sources, encourages frank and candid but respectful discussion, and requires individual detachment from ideas that are presented, which become the property of the group.

Applied at all levels of the organization, consultation is “a robust tool for maintaining unity and creating widely supported solutions to social problems,” said Paul Glist, chairman of the Center’s board of directors.