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Paralegal Negar Ashtari has always been interested in the law and women's rights. Growing up in Botswana, the daughter of Iranian parents, Ms. Ashtari was impressed and influenced by women - mostly attorneys - who were activists and leaders of social justice movements.
Ashtari, 27, first joined the Tahirih Justice Center in 1999 as an intern. At the time, Tahirih was a small group, working in the basement office of a small building. But the group had big plans to help women, and Ms. Ashtari was impressed. The center helps women and girls fleeing human rights abuse seek justice through the law and education.
In 2004, Ashtari earned a Master of Arts in Human Geography from the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied and researched African land-tenure systems and critical perspectives on international development.
Although she is not a paralegal by training, Ashtari convinced the center she was the right person for the job when it was looking to hire a paralegal. And she has excelled in that job.
"We do a lot of asylum work and generally deal with a lot of African clients, so it's been nice to have that background," said Ashtari. "The other major pull has been that I'm also Bahá'I, and it's been exciting to work in a Bahá'i-inspired organization. Those are principles I believe in."
Tahirih, she notes, is a secular organization, but the group was named after a 19th-century Bahá'i poet who fought for women's rights in the Middle East. The poet traveled throughout Persia, organizing women and encouraging them to reject their oppressors. Tahirih was stoned in the streets and repeatedly threatened, but she never quit fighting for women's rights.
"The equality of men and women are very important principles of the Bahá'i faith, particularly in understanding that human society won't really advance until women are given their rightful place and opportunities," Ashtari said. "It's a very strong principle. In fact, Bahá'is often use the analogy that human society is like a bird, and one wing might be male and the other female, and until they're both equally strong, they won't make any proper advancement."
And you can't switch the wings around, because they're different, Ashtari said. But you need both wings to fly.
Ashtari learned most of her paralegal skills on the job. The attorneys at Tahirih, she said, always have their doors open and were willing to teach her paralegal skills.
"A lot of the work we do here is through consultation. And I was just inspired by the way Tahirih makes decisions, by everyone coming together and sharing their different opinions," she said. "Be it a paralegal or administrative assistant or managing attorney—we all get to share in setting the vision and strategic plans for the center, which is fun to do."
Most of Tahirih's clients are migrant women who have been victims of abuse, from their husbands or employers. Migrant workers often do not know their rights, and one of the group's biggest challenges is outreach and education—through fliers, lectures, and word of mouth.
Ashtari said the stories she hears from the women who call Tahirih are often desperate and horrifying. As an Iranian, Ms. Ashtari said she feels fortunate that she was raised in Botswana, where women have more of a voice in society and are very politically active.
"As a woman, I would have had a very different life if I'd been raised in Iran," she said. "In Botswana, social justice movements and activism has been spearheaded by women, women lawyers, and women's rights groups. And that always fascinated me."
She has served on Bahá'i social- and economic-development projects in Zambia, South Africa, and Ethiopia, where she lived for a year. Ashtari has also worked for a number of nonprofit organizations such as Development Alternatives, Inc.; Africare; NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund; and Women and Law in Southern Africa.
Ashtari is fluent in Farsi and speaks French, Amharic, and Setswana, which helps her communicate with many of the clients Tahirih serves.
Ashtari, who would like to return to work in Africa someday, said she is considering going to law school. She said she has learned a lot about the law from the attorneys at Tahirih and knows what a powerful tool the law can be in helping people.
"It's nice that we work so closely with the attorneys and they have offices next door. It's very collaborative, and there's an open-door policy, so a lot of the technical stuff I've picked up and studied a bit on my own and worked closely with the attorneys," she said.