From Tehran to Atlanta, Lawyer Azadeh Shahshahani Fighting for Human Rights


Azadeh Shahshahani is a human rights lawyer who has worked for over a decade in the US South. She was the first woman of color to lead the National Lawyers Guild and as a social justice lawyer has been deeply involved in the movements for immigrants' rights including shutting down the Stewart Detention Center and repealing the discriminatory educational bans affecting undocumented students in Georgia, dignity for Muslim-Americans, a just US foreign policy, and Free Palestine.

Growing Up

Azadeh Shahshahani was born in Tehran, Iran, four days after the 1979 Iranian revolution. The Iranian people overthrew the unelected, US-supported, Shah of Iran who had ruled the country since a 1953 CIA coup which eliminated the democratically elected President of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh.

Her parents named her Azadeh, which means free-spirited in Persian, signifying the hopes they had for the revolution. Her father as well as several aunts, uncles and cousins were all in the medical profession.

She grew up with war. The Iran Iraq war started when she was one and it did not end until she was nine years old. Readers should recall the US supported Saddam Hussein in that war giving Iraq billions of economic aid, plus weapons and intelligence to fight Iran.

"I remember that my family had created this space underneath the stairs with a blanket hanging where the four of us (my parents, sister, and I) would go, sit, and hold hands when there were sirens to warn us that Saddam's missiles were coming.

When she was 15, her family immigrated to the US for greater educational opportunities for her and her sister, settling in Memphis.

"Though I had a privileged immigration experience because I was able to come with my parents and with documents, I still felt deeply traumatized and uprooted." Because of the role the US played in overthrowing the democratically elected government in Iran and supporting Iraq in the war against Iran, "I developed a keen interest in US foreign policy and the destructive role the US government has played recently and historically in many countries. My background and upbringing made me into a semi-revolutionary, but it was college and law school that finally sealed my fate!"

Human rights led her to law school, even though she originally planned to be a doctor and had been selected for a spot in the University of Michigan Medical School. As an undergraduate she majored in Middle Eastern Studies and history. "I became involved with various social justice and human rights organizations and realized that my true passion was fighting for human rights. I thankfully had the support of a mentor at the time, Professor Kathryn Babayan of the Near Eastern Studies Department, who encouraged me to follow my heart. Much to my parents' chagrin and disbelief, I postponed medical school for a year and applied to Michigan law school."

Graduating in 2004 from the University of Michigan Law School, Shahshahani also has a Masters in Modern Middle Eastern and North African Studies. There she met her future husband, who earned his PhD in Electrical Engineering from Michigan. They have now been married almost 15 years. Together they moved to Raleigh North Carolina where her husband was hired as a professor.

"I had no connections to North Carolina whatsoever. Honestly, for a while, it was very rough. I was in a state of loss and desperation. There was a large Muslim and Middle Eastern community living in the state. I was expecting to find an organization or program to provide legal support to the community. But there was not any. So I thought maybe I could help start something. I approached the ACLU of North Carolina with the idea of a program to provide the community with the legal support tools they needed. We got funding for the project which enabled me to do a series of "Know Your Rights" presentations at various mosques and community centers around the state. I also helped put together a network of attorneys to help represent community members when they were approached by the FBI or faced discrimination.

Three years later, Shahshahani was asked to serve with the ACLU of Georgia. "These were times of terror for immigrant communities in Georgia. ICE launched a number of police collaboration programs and detention centers such as the Stewart Detention Center. The Georgia legislature also notoriously put forth and passed several anti-immigrant bills including an Arizona copycat bill. I served as director of the Georgia National Security and Immigrant Rights for 7 years. I took on litigation, human rights documentation, coalition and movement building, advocacy at the legislature, training of attorneys, and public education." With the ACLU she helped publish a 2012 report on private prisons for immigrants in Georgia, and a 2014 report on hyper-enforcement against immigrants in Georgia.

One of her human rights victories was on behalf of Mrs. Valentine who was prevented access to a courthouse in Douglasville, Georgia in 2008 because she was wearing a headscarf. Not only was Shahshahani able to help secure an individual settlement for Mrs. Valentine from Douglasville, but she was also able to implement a statewide policy change allowing religious headgear in courts.

During her time in Georgia, Shahshahani restarted the Georgia chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. Founded in 1937, the NLG is the nation's oldest organization of progressive lawyers and legal workers fighting for social change. Soon she was elected the Southern Representative to their national board and was active in the United People of Color Caucus (TUPOCC) of the NLG. "TUPOCC has played a large role in making the NLG become an anti-oppressive organization."

In 2011, Shahshahani was elected President of the National Lawyers Guild "The NLG has served as my political home. NLG members have been some of my strongest mentors, role models, and friends. There is no other organization like the NLG serving as a base for legal activists. It provides a space to do political legal work and be connected to other movement lawyers, legal workers, law students, and jailhouse lawyers."

With the NLG, Shahshahani participated in international human rights delegations to Haiti, Honduras, Palestine, post-revolutionary Tunisia and Egypt, and Venezuela. She also served as a member of jury for human rights tribunals on Mexico and the Philippines.

In January 2016, Shahshahani started a new job as Legal and Advocacy Director with Project South, a
Southern-based leadership development organization dedicated to movement building. She provides legal support to social justice movements with a focus on immigrants' rights and defending Muslim and Middle Eastern communities against state repression.

She has been recognized with the 2012 Advocacy Award from the American Immigration Lawyers Association among others. Her writings have appeared in Al Jazeera America, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Huffington Post, The Guardian, MSNBC, and Truthout.

"As an immigrant and a Muslim, I am intimately familiar with the human rights issues I am working on. I know justice comes about through grassroots mobilization and movement building. My work as a social justice lawyer and activist is to help support the movement. Winning even small victories for the movement gives me great satisfaction.

"I am inspired by freedom fighters throughout history, particularly Palestinians fighting for their human dignity in the most oppressive of circumstances. On my office wall I have pictures of Mohammad Mossadegh, the democratically-elected prime minister of Iran who was toppled in a 1953 CIA-engineered coup because he dared to nationalize Iranian oil and Forough Farrokzad, a pioneering Iranian woman poet who died tragically young but who has left her mark on Iranian literature and the feminist movement.

"When social justice law students ask me for career advice, I tell them to stick with it. It can be very challenging at the beginning especially and at various points throughout your career financially, emotionally, politically. To get your foot in the door, I would also advise trying to devise a fellowship with an organization you have worked with during law school. Become involved with a social justice organization that provides you with mentorship and a sustaining network; for me, that has been the NLG. The NLG provides great support for progressive folks trying to make it through legal spaces without getting demoralized. Please join and come check us out in NYC, August 3-7!!!"