For Shirin Afsous, the problem of sex trafficking in the Middle East hits home. The 2012 graduate of the University of Mary Washington was born in Iran and grew up making occasional visits to the country with her family.
When Afsous learned that human rights activist Leila Asadi wanted help with research on gender and sexuality issues, Afsous jumped at the opportunity. Asadi is visiting professor at UMW this semester, where she’s continuing the research she began in the Middle East.
Although hundreds of UMW students study abroad every year, undergraduate research like Afsous’ work with Asadi provides a way for students to make global connections without ever leaving the Fredericksburg campus.
In Iran and other Middle Eastern countries, Afsous explained, research has shown that, in some cases, girls as young as 12 years old are engaged in prostitution rings. Some girls may see it as their only way out of poverty.
Asadi, herself, fled Iran after one of her friends was arrested in connection with their presentation before the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women a little more than a year ago. She came to UMW through a program called the Scholar Rescue Fund, part of the Institute for International Education committed to academic freedom.
As part of the research, Afsous examined the language in various legal systems surrounding sex trafficking, prostitution and women’s rights.
Afsous emphasized that although finding a solution to the problem of sex trafficking may be difficult and that reading case studies of abused women with no clear way to help them is frustrating, research like Asadi’s provides an important starting point.
“We need to get the word out,” Afsous said.
Her research has received a positive reaction.
“Most people think it is good that we are talking about a taboo topic,” she said.
Asadi, who teaches a seminar this semester about the contradictions between human rights and the feminist approach in Iran, agreed that sharing a holistic view of the issues is paramount.
“Shirin as a Muslim woman is willing to find a way to come at the challenges from a positive approach,” Asadi said.
Although Afsous’ portion of the research culminated at the end of the spring semester, she hopes others will have the opportunity to work alongside Asadi.
“Working with Leila has been eye-opening,” Afsous said. “She has introduced me to an area of law I never would have considered before. UMW is so lucky to have her.”
The experience was so influential for Afsous that she decided to start a research project of her own – “Women in Islam” – based on what she has learned in Asadi’s class.
“My project focuses on a reinterpretation of the Quran to show that there are human rights for women, certainly with many gray areas,” Afsous explained.
For Professor Mehdi Aminrazavi, Afsous’ research mentor and co-director of the Leidecker Center for Asian Studies, the project delves into the complexities and interpretations of human rights in Islam.
“The challenge of a project like Shirin’s is how to interpret and contextualize Quranic law in modern times,” Aminrazavi said.
Afsous presented her research at UMW’s Research and Creativity Day on Tuesday, April 17.