What if Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl whose opposition to the Taliban nearly killed her, applied to the United States for asylum? Would the Department of Homeland Security turn her down? The story of Shazmina, who led a life similar to Malala's, gives us a pretty fair idea.
Shazmina (not her real name) was born into an educated Kandahar family a decade after the Soviet invasion. At 3, she was promised by her grandfather to wed a cousin from a family of Taliban sympathizers. At age 20, she returned from college in Pakistan, fluent in six languages, with the aim of teaching neighborhood children. Her illiterate cousin demanded that they wed and a council of elders said she must obey. Her father refused, and was briefly kidnapped for his courage. The family sent Shazmina to Kabul with a cousin on the pretext of shopping for a bridal gown, and she fled to the U.S. embassy. On his return, the cousin was assassinated.
Shazmina won asylum with the help of Jennifer Geetter of McDermott Will & Emery — but it wasn't a slam dunk. Experts on gender and asylum say Shazmina was lucky in three ways. First, McDermott knew to frame her as a victim of religious, political and social persecution. Astonishingly, gender is not clearly recognized as a persecuted status outside the Ninth Circuit. "It's really important that these cases get won at lower levels and get publicity," professor Deborah Anker of Harvard Law School said. "It creates momentum that will make it very difficult for the Board of Immigration Appeals to reject the concept."
Second, Geetter knew to apply within a year of Shazmina's arrival. Layli Miller-Muro of the Tahirih Justice Center said that many victims of gender violence are too traumatized to meet that unjust deadline. Shazmina is helping Tahirih to lobby the Senate to remove the rule from the pending immigration reform bill.
Third, Shazmina's odds of winning shot up from 30 percent to 80 percent by virtue of getting any pro bono lawyer. Get a great pro bono lawyer and you're golden: Tahirih has lost only two cases out of 14,000 over 15 years. Geetter is the first to call Shazmina the hero — but without a lawyer the hero would have never had her day.
Perhaps Geetter's only failing was to set such a strong example as to persuade Shazmina to switch her ambitions from education to law. Although my first instinct was to counsel Shazmina to keep thinking, Geetter reminds us that law still has the power to inspire the pure of heart.
"I want to be a lawyer," Shazmina said. "I came to know the feeling I felt in Jenn's eyes, the strong feeling that you can do something for society and for the people. She gave words to my feelings and thoughts. It's really kind of an amazing art."
Michael D. Goldhaber is senior international correspondent for ALM and The American Lawyer. E mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.