Alyssa Debenedetti: My name is Alyssa, and we were wondering how you got into your current work with gender crimes and the Tahirih Justice Center.
Layli Miller-Muro: How I got into things. Well, there are long versions to that, and shorter versions to that; maybe I’ll go for the medium. My interest in civil rights, human rights more broadly, was something that was with me from an early age. A lot of that was very informed by my religious tradition, which I’ll probably talk about at some point insofar as Tahirih was a Baha’i, and there’s a lot that’s woven in there. But, suffice it to say that because the Baha’i faith believes so strongly in justice and social issues, throughout my life I was always very involved in those issues. My mother was an assistant for Coretta Scott King for many years, and kind of as a family we were always very involved in civil rights issues.
I grew up in Atlanta, and in Atlanta we were particularly blessed, or cursed, maybe, with issues of racism that were pretty acute, particularly in my high school. In my junior year of high school we had a race riot; it involved an African American young man and a Caucasian young woman who were in love with each other. That upset some people, and it upset students particularly at two different high schools, who decided to gather at our school to argue/fight with each other. We were kind of on the news; there were snipers on our roves, and these kinds of things. That was the first time that I was struck by how dire issues of prejudice and injustice were in the world, and it also gave me, I suppose, a beginning opportunity to exert leadership qualities. It was kind of the first time I was challenged to stop talking about what I thought should happen, and actually try to do something about it. That particular incident led to the creation of a club in my high school to begin race dialogues at the school, and that ended up being piloted at a few other schools. That was kind my own, I guess, entrée into issues of justice, so that’s kind of an early snapshot.
Given all your current state in school, I thought that I should go back that far. After high school I went to the Gambia in West Africa, where I participated in a Baha’i social and economic development project, and it was there that I was first exposed to extreme forms of domestic violence that were more public. They happen of course in the United States, but they’re more behind closed doors. There I saw these things more openly, and it was also there that I was first exposed to female genital cutting as a ritual. That experience is what galvanized me to later, in particularly in law school, examine the issue of women, as they were treated, in certain cultural contexts. That, in turn, led to my writing a law journal article on whether or not FGM could be a basis for asylum. When I say FGM, female genital mutilation or female circumcision/female genital cutting, there are a lot of names for it. I wrote this paper in school, it was hypothetical, of course, but I was making a legal argument that you could receive asylum, or refugee status, in United States on this basis.
At the time it was being very hotly debated because refugee law, for those of you who know anything about it, and I don’t know if you’ve had the chance maybe to talk to other people involved in this area of the law. But to give you a very quick legal lesson, refugee law was invented after World War II, we didn’t have the legal concept of a refugee until World War II, and after World War II in the Geneva Conventions, we developed globally this definition of a refugee. It was developed largely in response to the world’s outrage over hearing stories like Jews being machine gunned down as they tried to enter the Swiss border by Swiss army guards. The world kind of recognized that morally, we really had an obligation to not forcibly return people who were facing imminent death or persecution in their home country. We came up with this definition of a refugee, which legally requires countries to not forcibly return people. It doesn’t mean that they have to accept them, they can re-patriot them somewhere else, but they just can’t refuse to let them it.
This is part of the big controversy regarding the interception of Haitian boats on the high seas, because it defies the spirit of the Geneva Conventions, while legally its ok because they’re in international waters, they haven’t yet entered our country, we’re still pushing them away even before they’ve gotten into out borders, which is kind of why we do it on the seas as opposed to after they’ve entered our waters. So this is the legal definition, which the world is still grappling with in many ways, how do we accommodate refugees, how do we comply with the Geneva Conventions. The Geneva Convention definition of a refugee contemplated political persecution, religious persecution, racial persecution, nationality persecution; it did not overtly contemplate happening to be a woman in a particular culture.
That’s not a part of the legal definition of a refugee, so there was a debate at that time in the courts and in academic circles, about whether or not, because of a cultural practice such as female genital cutting, you could receive asylum. I won’t go into all the details, I think they’re kind of interesting, but they’re all kinds of nuances to that legal argument and those legal questions. But suffice it to say people were unclear. In this paper I asserted a legal argument that you should be able to receive asylum.
In my second year of law school I worked for an immigration attorney, I was a law clerk. It was around my third week working for him when he came into my office and said that he had seen on my resume that I wrote this paper. He said, “So you know something about this female genital thing,” and I said, “Well I know a little about it,” and he put a file on my desk, which was a very thin file, of a young woman who was in prison at the time, who was fleeing a forced marriage, she was to be the fourth wife of a man three times her age, and female genital mutilation which would have been forced to undergo right before the marriage. Her hearing was in two weeks, which meant we had four days to prepare or draft any kind of brief or argumentary materials. That’s because there is a ten day evidentiary requirement; you have to submit any brief or documents ten days before your court hearing.
As fate would have it, I had spent the previous year researching and writing this legal argument that you should be able to receive asylum on this basis, and so within four days we were able to submit a fifty page brief, and over a hundred pages worth of exhibits, materials. It wouldn’t have been possible if those four days was really all we had. Things work in mysterious ways sometimes, you know, and it was quite fortuitous that she and I met when we did and I had done this research, so I ended up arguing her case before the immigration judge. We lost the case, it was then appealed to the highest immigration appellate court in the United States, which is the Board of Immigration Appeals, and it was at that level that she received a lot of media attention, and that she won. Her case was granted by the Board of Immigration appeals; at that point also it was being litigated by the Human Rights Law Clinic at American University, which is my law school. I had taken it at that point from that immigration attorney, brought it to the clinic, where really kind of an army of law students and law professors helped. She then became the first woman in the United States to receive asylum on this basis.
It opened the legal doors in the US not only to receive asylum on the basis of something like female genital cutting, but also to receive asylum on the basis of what we know call gender-based persecution. This includes such things as trafficking, honor crimes, domestic violence, possibly there are some legal issues right now with whether that can be a basis, rape in the context of war, and a number of other forms of persecution that are now termed gender-based persecution. Because of the wide spread publicity in Fazia’s case, there was commercial interest in her story. She and I wrote a book together, that was published in 1998, called, “Do they hear you when you cry,” and I used my portion of the proceeds from that book to start the Tahirih Justice Center. That’s how we get to the “how did I do this particular work,” which is the Tahirih justice center. I don’t know how much Leslie explained, but when I graduated from law school I worked actually for the justice department for a year, then I came to Arnold and Porter and I was a litigator here for four years, and about five years ago I went to the Tahirih Justice Center to be there full time executive director. Even as the founder I wasn’t at the organization full time until four years into it. We were hiring staff, we had five full time staff by the time I joined, and so that’s kind of my path, in terms of work.
Emily Crubaugh: You said that, “in order to achieve equality two processes must occur. First we must create laws that protect and support equality, and secondly, more importantly, we have to transform hearts, attitudes, and behaviors because we can have all the laws in the world but without the attitude transformation it’s worthless.” As a lawyer you’re working hard on the first part of this, how do we all work on the more difficult and more important aspect of gender inequality?
Layli Miller-Muro: You guys did do your research! That was from a speech that I gave. I do think that these two paths are really important, and to illustrate the point and you may have come across this illustration in your research, in the 1960’s we had a thing in the US called the civil rights movement. It was very successful in transforming the laws, the institutions, and society. While we were very good at transforming laws we were not so good at transforming hearts, or transforming our very basic attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs. We have persistent racism, and we have persistent issues, and so this idea of doing both at the same time is very, very important, but it’s also very messy. Particularly as someone whose job it is now to manage a non-profit that has to prove to its donors that it’s making progress. We have to prove to our supporters that we’ve achieved specific things. It’s really easy to send them documents that say we got this law passed, we were able to get these many individuals to sign on to a petition, we were able to do these kinds of concrete things which lend themselves to the legal or institutional challenges. It’s a lot harder to turn to a funder and saw, “I think we transformed a heart.” We transformed a belief, we transformed a value, and also that can wane over time. You can think you’ve transformed beliefs, but then there’s a backlash over time.
I think we saw that particularly with September 11th, for those of you who are following the immigration debate, you may be well aware of the fact that he legal development of the treatment of immigrants was going, in my view, in the right direction for a long period of time. Then something like September 11th happens, and we all of a sudden go back to a period in our history, relative to immigration, that is unrivaled since the turn of the century. That’s what’s happened, many of the laws that now are in place, look a lot like the laws we had in the early 1900’s. So, you say, “Oh my gosh, we’ve gone back in time,” but I think ultimately there is progress, and I think when one takes a larger snapshot of history you can see we are moving in the right direction. How do you transform culture? How, specifically do you transform beliefs? There are lots of answers to that question, and I wouldn’t want you to interpret anything I saw as the answer, there’s no silver bullet, there’s no particular formula. In my view there are a couple of elements that can help us achieve it.
They might sound simplistic, but one of them has to do with the idea of taking yourself into account each day. Now, a lot of religions have kind of ideas about reflecting, and taking your self into account. What did I do today? How was I in conformity with my values? How was I not in conformity with my values? I think that societally, and individually, if we took more time to reflect on our behaviors and on our beliefs, I think we would do a lot to this idea of transforming ourselves. One of the first steps, and for anyone who’s been in therapy you kind of know one of the first steps to transformation is simply self-examination. We have to embark either individually, probably both, and or collectively, on some kind of a process of self evaluation. That involves looking at history, it involves looking at yucky stuff, and it involves looking at our families, making kind of honest stock. We all grew up in cultures, in our own families, maybe with our own traditions. Some of what we grow up with was good, and really important to hold on to, some of it could be improved, and to have kind of an honest dialogue with that is very important. Taking ourselves into account, I think that is one really important element.
Another important element that I think is helpful to transformation is a principle of consultation. When I use the word consultation, what I mean by that is dialogue between people. This dialogue allows individuals, who may have been voiceless, historically or even currently, to express themselves and express their perspectives. Too often, whether its within our own families, whether its within our workplaces, within our schools, within our churches, within our society, its actually very rare that we have true environments of dialogue. A place where people who have not often expressed their views express their feelings of marginalization, been given the opportunity to explain why when I approach things in a certain way, it is putting off, or its imposing, or it may be intimidating, that I’m completely unaware of. To have that dialogue is something that we don’t often enjoy, and its some thing that is really, really important.
With regard to the equality of woman and men, obviously the microcosm for all of these kinds of things is the family. That’s probably the most important level at which dialogue and self reflection has to happen. Laws can do a lot to facilitate all of that, and to protect people physically, but most of it really has to happen within a community. Another important element is religion. In the United States, Americans have a pretty close relationship to the law. We might pooh-pooh it, or we might like to think that they are down there, or inside the beltway, or whatever it may be, but the reality is the average American has a pretty close relationship with the law. We generally trust our police; you know you call them if you’re in trouble. You generally trust that the taxes you pay are at some point going to go to build roads, you may not agree with exactly how its happening, but you can trust on some level that they’re going to be used for the public good. You also generally know what laws are passed, Americans are pretty good, on average, at either watching the news or reading the newspaper, not knowing detail maybe, but having kind of a general sense of what laws are being discussed. We trust that our representatives are doing it in our interest because we’ve elected them, even though we might not agree with them, we might not like the particular party, but we trust them. That is incredibly unusual.
In the rest of the world, it is quite common, particularly for the woman that we serve, that you would, if you were being abused, for example, in your home, never call the police. Police are often corrupt, and untrustworthy. Or, if you were really desperate and did call the police, odds were very good they wouldn’t help you because domestic violence, female genital mutilation, these kinds of things are viewed in many societies, and were in our own, as personal. Similarly, laws passed in many countries are pretty inconsequential to the average person. When I was in the Gambia, for example, Gambia is a country that doesn’t make the headlines very often, but it is a dictatorship, it’s a pretty benign dictatorship that has bloodless coos every ten years, basically guys walk in with a gun and the other ones leave, that’s the process. It is a essentially governed by particular ethnic communities, and so one year the Mandinka might be in charge, and then the next year another ethnic group may be in charge. The laws which are passed to a seventy percent illiterate population, who may not particularly even care what the Mandinka are thinking in any given year, the odds that they will even know there’s a law being passed, lets say for example to eradicate female genital mutilation, or care, is really, really very slim. The odds that those laws would even be enforced at the local level are even slimmer.
The people who have power are the local Imams, the local Mullahs, the local clergy, or the village elders, depending on religious tradition of the local community. A couple of months ago I was in Botswana, Botswana is a predominantly Christian and Animast country, so for them it’s the village elders that really hold all of the power. In the Gambia where I was, which is a predominantly Muslim country; it is the Mullahs that hold the power. If, for example, I hit one of you on top of the head, you wouldn’t call the police. You wouldn’t turn to the statue that was developed in the capital city a few years ago to look for justice. You would go to the village elder, you would complain, I would be brought before a community of village elders and there would be a trial held under a tree. That is how justice is issued, and so for much of the world, but I would argue even for the United States, we take much our behavior, much of our behavior is really dictated by the source of our values. If that is coming from our church, if it’s coming from our mosque, if it’s coming from our temple, then that may be the place you go to looking for guidance.
For some it’s their community, for some its their clubs, for some its their family, for some its their grandmother, wherever our values are coming from that tends to be the place where we look when we’re faced with daily decisions about how to behave. I think its important that when we look at questions like, “How can we eradicate female genital mutilation, how can we get rid of violence against woman, how can we change all of these things, we have to not only look at laws, but we have to look at how do we transform cultures and values and beliefs, which are held in the hands of different people in society, and that depends, obviously, on the culture and on the place. For much of the world it is the religious leaders, so that will also be an important element.
Kristin Van’t-Rood: In Hollywood today there seems to be an affinity to glorify destructive sexual behaviors, such as in the recent academy award winning song, “It’s hard out here for a pimp.” In democratic societies there are obligations for the government to be tolerant of everyone, even if they promote negative values. The government also has to represent what the people want. As Americans we seem to elevate our individual rights to the point where they cannot be breached by the government even if it is for the good of everybody. Do you think that there is a way that we can design our laws to regulate tolerance, without undermining the principles of democracy?
Layli Miller-Muro: I think there is, the example that you gave, however, I wouldn’t be into the category of being a choice between individual rights and democracy. The specific example that you gave I think is really a question of corporate responsibility. I’m not sure it’s the government’s job to censor songs like, “It’s hard to be a pimp,” I don’t know. It’s not going to bring terrorists into the country, or anything like that, I wouldn’t’ see it as a matter of national security, or a matter of government intervention. I think what it is, is a matter of societal morality, in particular corporate morality because it really is corporations that promote songs like that. They promote television programs, like we might see, and some of you may like it, my husband loves it and I cannot stand it, the show 24. I think someone is tortured in every show, and somehow it works all the time, when we know, statistically it does not work, most of the time people lie to get out of being tortured, but it glorifies torture and so I see shows like that, I see lots of very destructive sexual promiscuity on television, kind of dark stuff. And other things that do infect us, that do infect and affect us in many, many ways.
Violence is a whole other issue. I’m not sure it’s the government’s job to regulate that, or that would even be most effective, to be frank, and this goes back to the question you asked about laws versus personal transformation, lets look at a country like the former Soviet Union. Former Soviet Union, through heavy-handed laws mandated a society that made it look as if it had achieved equality of women and men on level that nobody else had, it was remarkable, and most of are too young to remember but in the 1980’s, the soviet union boasted a legislature that had almost half woman. Woman were working, woman had free child care, there was kind of a remarkable apparent society where women and men seemed to enjoy this great quality, but it was all legislated, it was all mandated. And then when that fell, we saw some of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world, and we some of the highest rates of rape in the world. We saw some of the highest rates of trafficking of women in the world. So, very clearly there may have been an imposed legal equality, there was severe true equality lacking. Because when all of that was taken away, when the people’s true behavior were unleashed, it was quite shocking to the world how women were being treated.
I don’t even know that laws are truly effective in transforming behaviors, they might mask behaviors, or they might artificially guide behaviors, but really is in here that’s going to dictate whether we like to hear songs like that, or not, or whether they bother us. Corporations also have the duty to society, I think, to be thinking about those things, and even when one is self interested its important to look at how much money you might make when you put something out there that constructive versus something that is destructive. A really good example and I know that there are case studies on this, some of you might be interested, is ABC television.
I don’t know if you noticed the stark difference the reality shows on ABC versus the reality shows on Fox News, for example, or local Fox stations. The difference between Survivor or Fear Factor, where its like the goal of those shows seem to be to bring out the worst in people, and people like watching that, versus a show like The American Inventor, or even American Idol, or other kinds of reality shows that have become even more popular and made more money then the negative ones, but were actually about people’s positive qualities coming out. They’re helping people contribute, in positive ways, I actually think if the corporate world would look more critically and challenge itself a little bit harder it would find lots of ways to make money by being more positive. I wouldn’t say that the example you rose would be appropriate for government intervention, perhaps more corporate responsibility.
Andrea Schmitt: Hi I’m Andie, it’s nice to meet you. I’ve noticed in my community that women are often the harshest critics of each other, and that we often sustain unhealthy patterns around issues of self-esteem. I was wondering what you think it is about the dynamic of women in society that fosters this kind of dangerous undercutting?
Layli Miller-Muro: There are a couple of different things, I would recommend to you the book called, “In the company of women,” and it’s a book about working with women, how women work together in corporate settings. It bears out exactly what you said, and we know this to be a fact, and part of it can be explained. I’m not a sociologist, and I don’t claim to know the answer to this, many people say that women don’t have opportunities as men do to work in teams, and that’s a fault. Where men might, at a pretty early age, learn to work on a soccer team or a basketball team together, women often don’t have that learning opportunity to work in a team, and to view everyone’s success as each other’s success. So that’s one reason, you know people have studied that have see the benefits of team training, whether it be through sports or whatever, for both men and women in terms of being able to really work well together.
In this book the very first chapter talks about monkeys, and I’ll share with you what it says and I thought it was very interesting. Apparently chimpanzees, which are the closest to us in terms of DNA, have certain social structures, and the men and women, the male chimpanzees and female chimpanzees, have different social structures. The male chimpanzees, once a year, have a pretty bloody battle with each other, and they fight it out, and determine who’s on top. The male chimpanzees will fight with each other, and apparently it’s pretty bad, but at the end of it there will be a very clear hierarchy, and it’s pretty established and it’s very clear. Often younger chimpanzee has surpassed an older one, because it’s about physical strength, so it’s quite common for a young male chimpanzee to win dominance. The previously dominant male will fall back, and then all the other chimpanzees will fall into different roles, some tend to be advisors, some appear to be the comedians, they kind of fall into these roles, but it’s a really clear hierarchy that they unwaveringly maintain for the next year. And then they battle it out again, and then they figure it out all over again.
The female chimpanzees, on the other hand, fight with each other constantly all year. There is never clear hierarchy established, and what’s very interesting about the way the female’s chimpanzees operated, is that their survival depends on everyone being the same, and everyone pulling their weight, basically. The male chimpanzee’s survival or success is dependant on strength, so they actually need someone to be the dominant one to lead them in the hunt, and to gather food and however they do that. The female chimpanzee’s are largely taking care of the kids, and gathering food that’s on the ground. They need everyone to be participating, so if any female chimpanzee tries to distinguish herself, they take her down. There’s a very clear “who do you think you are” kind of response, and so, because their survival is dependant on everyone pulling their weight, so if there was a king of the female chimpanzees kind of laying there, they wouldn’t survive because they really needed everybody to be pulling their weight. The male chimpanzees could like lay around, and then they go on their hunt, so they had kind of a different social model then the female chimpanzees. They were based on this model of apparent egalitarianism, and the only possible exception to that was age. If there was an elder female chimpanzee, she was maybe given the choice of lying back, or she was given deference in terms of her decision making. Age was the only variable there.
Some of you may have see these factors play out in your own life, I definitely see it in the work environment. There is, sometimes, a tendency on the part of a lot of women to, when they see somebody else succeed, there’s almost something like intuitive, maybe its nature, I don’t know, but we want to take them down. There’s maybe a fear of distinguishment, or of success, and we view people as competitors rather then her succeeding will help me succeeding, and I can’t explain it exactly, I don’ know why it is, but it also makes it particularly hard for young women. I felt continue to feel this a lot in my own career, where older men are perfectly fine, and encourage me, actually, to kind of fight the system and try to win, and try to go up the ladder.
Older women have a harder time with that, and younger women have a harder time respecting women unless they’re clearly older. They have a hard time have a boss which is younger then them. It’s very interesting, I don’t know if it’s the monkey’s faults, or if it’s something that we can change. But it is changing, with that said, even here in these ivory towers at Arnold and Porter where only thirteen percent of all partners are women. It’s changing. I saw that among the women that I worked with, my generation of associates was very used to working in teams. We were fine with it, and we would encourage each other, and we were happy to see each other succeed, even if we didn’t get credit, where we noticed some of the older female partners have a little bit of a harder time with that.
I’m convinced that we’re going in the right direction, we have all of these challenges but I think ultimately women are learning how to work better with each other, with men, in teams, that kind of thing, but we just haven’t been trained that way. We’re still kind of stuck in the Neanderthal model, I suppose, of women believing that they all have to be the same, and anyone climbing up above the other is seen as a threat. Similarly, men have evolved from working in strict hierarchical models to more egalitarian models. I think the ideal would be for us to bring our extremes together, in a world in which there is order, there is clarity, there are clear roles, but there is also consultation, there is a modicum of egalitarianess, both of these thins should be combined. And when I say male and female, I think I should clarify, what I mean when I saw that it’s feminine and masculine qualities because there are many women who are very masculine, working in certain ways, and there are many men who are very effeminate, so I don’t think it’s a strictly gendered thing.
Daniel Nanas: Hi, I’m Daniel. And this segues perfectly, actually, so what is the role of men in the process of promoting gender equality? And how can we present this issue in a way that can encourage men to get involved?
Layli Miller-Muro: Men are critical, and part of the reason lies in an analogy, which is in the Baha’i faith. This is what Leslie was alluding to when she talked about the dove. In the Baha’i writings there is an analogy that humankind is like a bird, and the bird has two wings. One is male, and one is female. And until both wings are equally strong, the bird of civilization will be unable to fly to its fullest potential. Through that analogy you can see that humanity, this bird, has been handicapped, and still is handicapped, because we still don’t have both wings equally strong. You can also see through the analogy that both wings are unique; you know you can’t stick the right wing of a bird on its left side, and you can’t stick the left wing of a bird on its right side. They’re actually complimentary wings, but they have to be equally strong in order for the bird to fly. That’s our challenge, to ensure that both wings are equally strong.
The other perspective that I think is implicit in this analogy is the idea that we are all interested in this issue, we have to be self-interested in this issue, because we are all attached to the same bird. While women may be flapping along, and men may have been a little bit stronger in their wing, we’re both stuck on the ground together. It’s not until we achieve coordinated equality that we’re going to enjoy a full partnership and soar to our fullest potential, but we’re both handicapped because of it. I would hope, and when you say how do we sell the idea, how do we talk to men about it, I’m not an advertising agent; I don’t know exactly the best way to do that. I’m sure there are pollsters and other people to really gauge the best way, but I would like to think that if men had the understanding reflected in this analogy, that we’re all handicapped, and that we’re all attached to the same bird, and that we’re both unable to soar to our fullest potential, then that might motivate men as much as women who may feel more handicapped to care, and to become involved.
Naomi Magid: Hi, I’m Naomi. I just want to say a quick thing about Andie’s question, that there were some girls that were working on the question, and I think one of us maybe posed the idea for that question, and then we were all kind of like “Hey, why do girls do that to each other?” I think that example really helped for me. My question is kind of in a different direction, but last week we went to a panel discussion that was about human trafficking in the United States, and I had no idea that it was going on so much in our own country. Going to that really helped to understand it better, but how do you think we can bring more awareness to the people in the United States that it is in our own country, not just something overseas?
Layli Miller-Muro: I struggle with that question because at the Tahirih Justice Center we deal with a wide range of issues, and it’s my humble opinion that out of all of our issues, trafficking has actually gotten the most attention. There’s something quite literally sexy about trafficking that the media has been very attracted to. Comparatively speaking, and granted women’s issues across the board don’t get much attention, so it’s comparatively speaking, among those issues trafficking has actually gotten quite a bit of play. Front page New York Times magazine articles, 20/20 specials, these kinds of things, where the issue of honor crimes, for example, has not gotten so much play. So, I think it’s important to raise more awareness, I think one almost can’t have enough awareness out there about such a tragedy as trafficking. I also think that we need to balance it a little with the other issues which are killing women everyday, which are getting a little bit less attention.
So how do we raise awareness about violence, generally? How do we raise awareness about the inequality of women and men, and the way that many women are dying as a result? That, I don’ have the answer to, and part of the answer lies in the way our media works, which is that the media needs very dramatic specific events, that’s what they cover. What they don’t cover are persistent, everyday, long term events. This is part of the reason why environmental issues have a hard time getting covered, why we’re just now waking up to global warming. There’s no one big event, it’s a culmination of a lot of different events and it’s very hard to get media to turn its attention to stuff like that.
On women’s issues, unfortunately, it sometimes takes a very high-profile murder of a women to finally get attention, or a particularly compelling story. That’s very hard to do, plan for, publicize appropriately, and to do responsibly given the tragedy often what has just happened. I think its something that women’s organizations like ours and others struggle with a lot. It lies what we touched on briefly before, which is the corporateness of the medial, I think presents incredibly challenges to American society right now, in terms of raising awareness. I say this with first experience, my husband worked for Fox News for seven years, and then he worked for CBS news for a while. Their decisions were not based on what is the most important issue; it was based on who is going to watch it, and whether their sponsors are going to pay for commercials for it. I think that is really the tragedy.
Naomi Magid: You said something about honor crimes—
Layli Miller-Muro: Yes, should I explain?
Layli Miller-Muro: Honor crimes are where a woman has done something is perceived to dishonor her family, and then the family believes that the only remedy for their dishonor is her death, and that through her death their honor will be restored. People who are aware of it often hear of it from the Middle East, parts of Africa and Asia, in Jordan, for example, its gotten a good deal of press. In the United States in fact there was a Palestinian family, an immigrant family living here who’s daughter was decided to work at a McDonalds while she was in high school, the family perceived that to be an incredibly dishonor and orchestrated her murder. All of it happened to have been taped by the CIA, who believed the father to have been involved in Hamas, a Palestinian organization. So they were listening to it, not for the purpose of the honor crime, but for political purposes. But what they did was they heard all of the planning, all of the discussions, and then they had the actual murder on tape. That got press in the United States because it happened here, but it was also taped, so for media purposes they had clips to show or clips to air, for people to hear. It’s a global problem, in Brazil honor is a complete defense to murder, by a husband, in the United States before the 1950’s honor was a complete defense. If a man murdered his wife, if he found out she had been having an affair, people called it passion killings, and it was also a defense to murder here so it’s not a foreign concept. The idea that if a man is so enraged because his honor has been impugned, that he, as a remedy, can then kill the woman who dishonored him, is not a foreign concept. It is a global concept, but it is more acute in some places and is particularly legal in some countries.
Seychelle deVries: I’m Seychelle. A lot of times when I hear about these issues like trafficking and even the mail order brides, I see a lot of work going on with women’s side of it, helping women be more educated and saving them from these sorts of situations that are really detrimental. It seems to me to be a really unhealthy dynamic, I kind of wonder, is there work to be done on the demand side? Is it inherent to these men who are engaging this dynamic? Or, is there some healing to be done on their side too?
Layli Miller-Muro: On the man side of the equation, I think it goes back to this very fundamental issue that we’ve been talking about, which is the equality of women and men. The men who use the agencies, more often then not, I won’t generalize about all of the men, I’ve actually met a few very nice guys who use the agencies, who, for reasons you understand when you meet them, hadn’t been able to meet somebody in normal setting, but they were nice guys. Some of the guys are very clearly predatory abusers, who were not able to find American women who handle them, tolerate them. They seem to have a view of womanhood, and of women, which is subservient, which is somewhere back in time. They’re looking quite literally for their mothers, they want someone who will be home and cook and clean, which is fine in and of itself, but in an unequal way, in a subservient way, as opposed to an equal partner kind of way.
That’s really where the problem is, and so it’s the men who then specifically go on the internet looking for women who are marketed as docile, submissive and subservient, who then marry somebody they’re more likely to engage in abusive behavior. How do we address that? I think we have to look at these fundamental issues. The legislation that we successfully passed this year, which regulates the international marriage broker industry, does things that I think will help on the demand side, for example it prohibits agencies from marketing young women under eighteen, and it requires the agency to let the women of the criminal background history of the men, if they have them, things like that. Now will it stop the men from thinking like they do? I don’t really think so. That’s where we get into the transforming ideas, and culture and attitudes and beliefs side of things.
I don’t normally bring this up, but I was giving a speech at Syracuse University a couple of weeks ago, and a young man came up to me after my presentation and he raised an issue that I thought was very profound, and I think I tend to agree with him. He felt like the proliferation of pornography, particularly on the internet, and of really easily accessible internet images of women, that are unrealistic, that are fantastic, that are very unhealthy, in many, many ways, also help to stimulate interest in getting one of these figures you see on the internet to come into your home. I would agree with him on that, and I think that it also has to be looked at in terms of societal breeding of the problem, in addition to simply wanting a woman who is subservient to you in doing household chores. There is a clear sexual component in these relationships, and the abuse that we see among the mail order brides who come to us, is sick on a level that we don’t see with the other, and I hate to say run-of-the-mill domestic violence cases, but there are domestic violence cases that are result rage, you know like we’re having an argument, and I hit you, but then there is domestic violence which is torturous in nature, premeditated, and some kind of an expression of a fantasy.
That’s what we were seeing with the mail order brides, so I think he was on to something in identifying the incredible growth of the porn industry on the internet, and kind of how that’s contributing to people’s world views. As you all know, images have a profound imprint on your brain, there’s nothing you can do to get it out what its there. Even you’re not engaging in it, or enjoying it, I have to admit the work that I do, the stories that I hear, leave imprints in my brain, and I find myself having dreams at night about client that just walked into our lobby, and I have a two year old daughter and of course enters the dream often. It’s a very difficult thing emotionally to this kind of work, but it also makes me appreciate the profound sensitivities that our souls have. We are affected, it’s had to see yucky stuff and not remember it, it’s hard to see perverted things and then not think about them for days afterwards. I think we have to protect ourselves in ways; maybe, we never have before, to not even look. I do that all the time, the TV will be on, and “24” is one of those examples. I leave because my husband is watching that show, I just can’t take it.
Sadanand Maillard: There was a study that I heard on NPR about how somebody is actually doing studies on the presence of the pornography industry in relationship to the internet, and there’s a desensitization that takes place, I think it’s akin to the desensitization around violence as well. People become saturated, we become addicted to a kind of intensity, and more, creates more, creates more, and there doesn’t seem to be any limit, to where it translates over into violence. Sex becomes violence at a certain point, and I think that we have an epidemic, actually, from the study they were doing. There’s an underground epidemic that’s now starting to surface in our country.
Layli Miller-Muro: Just from a therapeutic perspective, there’s a whole industry now of sex addiction therapists that didn’t exist just ten years ago. There’s kind of a whole recognition of people’s profound addiction, almost like chemical addiction.
Kendra Froshman: My name is Kendra. In college I had a professor named Laura Nader, who was an anthropologist at UC Berkeley, talk about how when we’re criticizing other cultures we have to look at our own culture and see similar forces at work, so that we’re not just negatively looking at one culture without internally looking at our own. In the case of female genital mutilation, she said in some cultures women, because of social forces, agree to the procedure and sort what was going on there in the social forces are the same as what happens in the United States when women agree to surgery to change bodies, breast augmentation, whatever, different examples. I wanted to just hear your comments on that; do you think that that’s sort of a fair way to look at it?
Layli Miller-Muro: I think it’s a very helpful way to look at it, I think it’s a healthy way to look at it, we need to both self-examine as we look at other things, and in fact sometimes looking at other things puts a mirror to ourselves in a way that’s really helpful. To think, for example, about the social pressures women face globally, to conform, particularly physically, to different standards is a global phenomenon and something worth looking at. There are many things that are good about that perspective, but what I would caution against, however, believing them to be the same thing. To voluntarily agree to have plastic surgery under general anesthesia is completely different then being a nine year old, not even being told what you are about to undergo, and in the bush with a piece of glass that is used to cut all of the other girls, being force to under go a procedure. Very different, the consequences are very different.
There was a study done in Kenya between fifteen and thirty percent of all young women who underwent the procedure died, those rates do not exist in plastic surgery, they’re different. But, I think by way of analysis and kind of theorizing about it its fine, and healthy to think about it in those ways. I think we also shouldn’t shy away from seeing things for what they are, I think that there is right and wrong, there is. I think its ok to say, “This is really wrong,” and we should stop it. It’s ok to say about other things, “That’s not a good idea and I wouldn’t do it,” but ok. You can kind of say, “Those are different things, and require very different things and they require a different analysis.”
Edison Dudoit: What you said earlier about self-reflection really rings true for me, and its something I try to uphold in my life, because I believe it’s really important. It’s a way of improving ourselves, and transcending to that next level. As someone who is living that out, what are your greatest achievements that have been derived from self-reflection?
Layli Miller-Muro: Hmm, that’s a deep question. I think my greatest achievements from self-reflection are things no one will know about but me. It’s the stuff that you don’t get awards for, that you don’t get grants for, that you don’t get recognition for, it’s the stuff that you know is hardest for you, and that you’ve somehow been able to overcome or accomplish. I think raising my daughter is probably one of the most important things that I’m doing right now. No one will know that, no one will know particularly if I do a good job at that or not, if I’m more patient tomorrow with her then I was the next day when she throws herself on the floor having a tantrum. Those are the things that I view as biggest successes, or greatest successes, those are the things I reflect on the most. I think right now everyday what I am really reflecting is, “Am I a good mom?” Every night that’s really what I contemplate, and I have all these books by my bedside about child rearing and I try to figure out if I’m doing the right thing. That’s what I self-reflect about most, right now. Those are the things that I hope I’m improving on the most.
With regard to what I do in my workplace, because my life is pretty hectic at the Tahirih Justice Center I have to set aside moments for self-reflection. As an organization we have an annual retreat where we’ll kind of go aside and self-reflect as an organization. I work from home every Friday, I have child care help at home but I work from home just so I can get out of the office, kind of get done the things I have a hard time doing when I’m in the office. This gives me a chance to self-reflect on a regular basis, so I think there are kind of things we can build into our schedules to give us that time to self-reflect, and to do it ritually is pretty important so that we don’t miss those chances and let life fly by without pausing. The greatest achievements question would have to be those things probably no one will ever see.
Edison Dudoit: I would just like to thank you for presenting such a vivid picture of the importance of self-reflection. I have always been conscious of it, but it never occurred to me why it was so important.
Layli Miller-Muro: Yeah, I think there are many ways to do it. You can do it at the end of each day, even setting aside fifteen minutes. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried, but if you just sit, silently, for fifteen minutes, you can get a lot of thinking done in that time. It goes by very quickly, as we carry on with our life, but if you’re sitting quietly fifteen minutes allows for a lot of reflection, actually. My family, growing up, used to do what I though, at the time, a silly thing, but now I think it was a good idea. My father would video tape us every New Year and we had to say what we thought we did well that year, and what our goals were for the next year. It was just this kind of annual time to self reflect, you know, and say, “Do I like how I was last year?” Were there certain things I’d hoped I would of achieved that I didn’t, certain things I want to be sure to do, and so I guess that would be my biggest advice is to work it in some very regular way, whether for that is a time of prayer, or a time of mediation, a time of just sitting and staring, or whatever that is.
Prabha Sharan: I’m Prabha. Being so successful in your career a such a young age, I was curious to know if there were any people or mentors that influenced you to where you are know, and got you to work on gender crimes?
Layli Miller-Muro: There were a lot of people; it would be hard to identify a single person. My parents were pretty important, my father and my mother were always very encouraging. They were also very, I don’t know if there’s a word for it, “kick-in-the-pants-ing?” “Is that really all that you think you can do?” kind of thing. There would be crossroads, there would be different moments of decision, where you could kind of choose the easy path. Or, you could choose what would be a more difficult, but ultimately more fruitful path. I think in those moments it’s helpful to have people around you who challenge you, who say, “Are you sure you want to go down that easy path? Because, that’s the easy path, and you know, you might have more impact or grow more if you go down this other path.”
Rather then saying individuals, the quality that all those individuals had is that they challenged me in those crossroads moments, to take the road less traveled, I guess people call it. Because we’re all faced, I know you all are, we are all faced on a daily basis with little blessings, which can be taken advantage of. They can mold into something bigger and greater, or you can just say thanks for that blessing and kind of keep going in your same direction. When I look back on my life, at those moments where opportunities happened, Fazia’s case, for example, there was a choice there between doing something mildly or doing it a 120% of what you thought you were capable of, and then doing more. Those things are never easy, and in fact one should always expect difficulty when you choose those things, but another way to say it is that, and I go back to these analogies because for me these questions are kind of spiritual questions about values and why we do things that we do. I think that if we all intend to be of service to humanity and some people think about it a lot, some people don’t, but some people really have a very sincere desire to be of service. They wake up everyday thinking, “How am I going to leave my mark on the world, how am I going to serve humanity when I die,” and it has nothing to do with recognition. No one may no who I am when I die, but can I look back on my own life and say that I’ve had any kind of impact, have I been of service to anybody in my life. I think that when you ask that question, which is kind of the same thing as praying for that opportunity, praying for those qualities to be of service, praying for those doors to open, you’re asking to be of service, what you’re really asking for are tests. I think that’s really what you are asking for, because if you want to be of service, then you’re going to have to be a certain kind of person to be the most useful. If you want to be a tool of service, you’ve gotta be made into that tool, and odds are good that you’re not that perfect tool yet. You have to be given tests, you have be given challenges in order to mold you into whatever is necessary. Just to give you kind of an illustrated example, there was a time in my life when I was a very avid horseback rider. I loved horseback riding, and I was at the stables everyday, early in the morning, late in the evening, and I spent a lot of time watching the farrier put horseshoes on the horses. The horseshoe, it’s kind of like this, is a really simple tool that is of service to the horse. It’s simple, it doesn’t have any moving parts, it has no electrical components, and it’s just a rod of iron. The way it comes out of the farrier’s truck, like it looks pretty good, when it comes out it’s already in that shape, but in order for that really simple tool to be molded into what it needs to be in order to be of service to that horse, it goes through an incredibly painful process. I don’t know if you’ve watched the process before, but the shoe is thrown into a fire, and it becomes hot and glowing and red, and then it’s thrown onto an anvil and then its hit, a lot. Then its thrown into freezing cold water and put on the horse to see if its fitting, it never is the first time, so its thrown back again in the fire. Then it’s thrown again on the fire, then it’s beaten up a lot again on the anvil, and then it’s put back into the freezing cold water to be tested again. If you’ve watched this process you now that a horseshoe never fits the first ten times, it goes through this ordeal at least ten times, sometimes even more before its perfectly into that shape that it needs to be in order to be a tool of service to the horse.
I hope we all don’t have to go through that, but I think we do on some level if we want to be on service to humanity. If you want to help women in India access micro credit loans, then you’re going to have to be that tool, you’re going to have to acquire the skills, the tools, the character, the knowledge, the discipline, whatever it takes in order to be successful, and you have to acquire that. That will be through a process of testing and challenges. I would encourage you as you feel faced with tests in your life, to welcome them as opportunity to grow and opportunities to be made into that tool that you’ve asked to be, to be of service to humanity.
Andrea Schmitt: What tests do you see in your life now?
Layli Miller-Muro: Lots. I mentioned to you all that we passed the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act, which regulates the mail order bride industry where it has never been regulated before. What happened as a result of that is that the mail order bride industry woke up, and they organized themselves, and they hired lawyers. They’ve opened up websites that are wholly dedicated to repealing IMBRA, this law. So, they’re on the move. I happened to be kind of out there on the issue, particularly after I was on the Bill O’Reilly show at one point after that. It was particularly gruesome, but on their websites they’ve, for some reason, made me a very personal target of their attacks. They have my picture up there, they make all kinds of insulting comments, they have very personal information up there, my personal financial information, the value of my house, the names of my family, and they talk about my religion, lots of stuff. That’s a test, it’s a test of ego, because it hurts, it’s also a test of, “am I taking this personally, or can I think rationally about the larger issue, the larger cause, and make my strategic decisions not based on how I’m going to feel, but based on what’s really best for the women we serve and for the advancement of this law. This is a particular test that I face, but I think its helping me acquire some of these qualities that I need to grow on, you know, that will help me take things less personally, or be less hurt, let things roll of my back, whatever those qualities are that take a lifetime I think to acquire. That’s just a small, silly example, but we all have different tests that challenge us to develop certain qualities we don’t have yet. Any other questions?
Mark Hansen: I was wondering, do you have any advice for us as young adults, with our future ahead of us?
Layli Miller-Muro: Oh you know, I actually forgot to bring a certain quotation that would be really useful to you. But, there’s a particular quotation that says there are four qualities that are good for individuals to have. One quality is “A face wreathed in smiles,” I think that’s how it goes. “Someone who is able to see through their own eyes, and not through the eyes of others,” “Somebody who is able to once begun, see a project through to its end,” and then there is a fourth one. I can’t remember the fourth one, but its kind of a neat guide to live your life by. It comes from the Baha’i writings, but it’s something that I have cut out and put on my bulletin board, it’s one of those things I look at. I think it applies to everybody anywhere, because essentially, if you have those qualities, others will rely on you, employers will hire you, people will admire you, people will entrust you, and people will follow you. I think those very basic qualities of having a positive attitude, being responsible, seeing things through to the end, and being just and fair. Seeing things through your own eyes, as opposed to what others are saying, or what other’s first impressions might be. Those are all like qualities that are just really good to live by, and I guess I would offer that as advice. I could email you the fourth quality…
Sadanand Maillard: I’d like to hear you say something about authenticity, and the shadow work that’s required.
Layli Miller-Muro: What do you mean by that?
Sadanand Maillard: Well, there’s a man Peter Block who works out of Cincinnati. He’s brilliant, but I see him lead with who he is, rather then some image of who you might think he should be. I see partly in your self-reflection process something about discovering your whole self and bringing your whole self forward, rather then trying to hold the postures so that other people might think that somehow you’re ok. To be able to acknowledge the parts of yourself that you’re working on, as a tool for becoming fully authentic, it seems to be the work that you’re doing requires a lot of authenticity and a lot of self-reflection, as you called it. I’m curious about your process towards authenticity.
Layli Miller-Muro: Authenticity is a big word, and I don’t know anyone who has it, and I don’t think I qualify. It’s a hard thing, whenever you talk about something it kind of means, by definition, you’re not. Someone was giving this talk, it was really funny, someone had introduced them in a very glorious way, and they got up on stage. He started saying something about, “I’m just a humble person, I don’t really deserve all the accolade,” he was kind of going on and on and on. Then he said, “Oh, I forgot. My mother told me to stop talking about how humble you are, you’re not that great.”
It’s true, you know. When you obsess about these kinds of things, the more self-absorbed one becomes. There’s a book, and this was what I thought of when you first asked me the question, there’s a book called authentic happiness. Some of you may be familiar with it, it’s a really interesting book and I would recommend it to anybody. It’s a statistical study, he’s a sociologist of some kind, he basically did a global stuffy of happiness. He asked people to self-identify themselves as happiness, and rate themselves on a scale. What he found was that there were certain correlations between certain qualities of people, or certain circumstances of people, and whether or not they were happy. He was a good scientist, and didn’t say that there was a causal relationship, but there were corollary relationships. For example, people who were religious tended to self-identify as happy more then people who were not. People who were married tended to self-identify as happy more then not. Do happy people happen to get married, or does marriage bring happiness? We don’t know, whether it’s causal or coincidental, but it was a really, really interesting study.
One of the important indicators of happiness is whether you felt like you were being of service to other people. People who self-identified as happy were overwhelmingly engaged in service externally, to people outside of themselves. So, I’m answering your question in a very reverse way. To be authentic, I think, isn’t actually about thinking about it a lot, or talking about it a lot to yourself, or even going into a lot of therapy. I think being truly authentic is probably about getting outside of you, and as much as possible thinking about other people and being of service to others. People are not particularly thinking about themselves I find to be the most authentic. It’s an indirect route, right like if you say, “I want to be humble, I want to be humble,” you’re never going to be humble. If you begin respecting learning from look towards, that’s the moment at which you will probably become more humble. I think it’s a roundabout way to a pretty clear result.
Sadanand Maillard: You also are sort of identifying the paradox between forgetting about yourself and self-reflection, so there’s an interesting paradox where often it seems the truth shows up there.
Layli Miller-Muro: Yeah, I think there’s balance there. There’s also a motive question there. You can self reflect for the purpose of self obsession, or you can self-reflect for the purpose of getting qualities and improving yourself so that you can do better in your work, in your job, towards others, or whatever it may be. I think that if you’re self-reflecting for the purpose of feeling sorry for yourself, or for the purpose of self obsessing, in any way, then it may not be a fruitful process. If you’re self-reflecting with the sincere intention to improve, to be of service to others, or to do X, Y, or Z better, then that is probably where you will be fruitful.
Sadanand Maillard: So it sounds like this is all dropping down to one’s aim, in some ways. It’s also interesting that at such an early age you really stepped into such a big struggle. In reading the book it was fascinating just how hard that battle was, and how it looked like it would not be won.
Layli Miller-Muro: Yeah, I think that, and I suppose my parents are to credit for things they did for all of us in my family, for all of us they took great pains to take us out of our worlds. That wasn’t hard to do in the Baha’i community because it’s such a diverse religious community. I grew up with friends who’s skin color was like mine, and I grew up with friends who’s skin color was not like mine, who lived in public housing, who, when I had slumber parties at their house and slept on the concrete floor of the unit that they had rented, heard gunshots in their backyard. And so I had experiences at a pretty young that helped me realize that were a lot of different people in the world, who had a lot of different experiences. There were certain experiences that I had in particular with really close friends of mine, who were not statistics, who have become statistics.
A friend of mine, who is an African American male, was a sophomore in high school when he got a 1600 on his SAT. He was given it early, because you usually don’t take it until your junior year, but he was seen and identified as being very bright. He got a full ride scholarship to Georgia Tech, but it wasn’t enough to pay for all of his food needs, so he had to work on top of his scholarship. He couldn’t do that and keep up his grades in order to keep his scholarship, and he ended up having to drop out. He became a security guard, and still to this day is a security guard, but one night he was pulled over by the police, and they asked for his wallet. He reached under his seat to give the wallet, and they pulled a gun on him, I think they feared he was getting a gun. He said something rude to them, and they hauled him out of his car and beat him so severely, that he has a permanent scar on his head. And as a result of a number of experiences like that, another when he was at a Wal-Mart, it was very cold outside and he had a jacket, and he happened to put his hands in his pockets. He walked out of the Wal-Mart without buying anything, and a security guard jumped him from behind, and he landed his face and broke his nose, just because they suspected he had stolen something.
He’s now permanently on anti-depressant medication, and he’s a security guard. He’s my age, and he got a 1600 on his SAT when he was a sophomore. I have friends whose lives weren’t fair, because of society, or their circumstance, and I think at an early age I was profoundly disturbed by some of the things that I saw. You ask about the passions I had at an early age, I think it just came from exposure to really loving, having really good friends, people who the public may see as a statistic on the news, who’s personal stories I know who shouldn’t be where they are today, and who really should be in a different place. There’s enough injustice to go around, and keep us all busy for a long time. It’s my hope that you all take up the banner of whatever cause that sings to you, and I can tell from your energy and from your seriousness, and from your profound questions, that many of you are already there and thinking very deeply about the issues of the world. We’ll all be lucky to have you all in it, so thank you for coming, its been an honor to meet you.