"My mom didn't sleep for two months," says Sherli Shamtoub ('08) with a guilty giggle. Those were the two months that Shamtoub was in Chiang Mai, Thailand, working with women who had fallen into a life of prostitution and trafficking. "My mom and I have a really close relationship, and it was really difficult to do that to her." In the end, however, Shamtoub knew that if she didn't pursue her passion for women's rights, she'd have a lifetime of sleepless nights ahead of her.
The National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) recently recognized Shamtoub's passion and potential as a recent law school graduate from Pepperdine University School of Law. The organization honored her with the 2008 Outstanding Student Award.
"Sherli represents the qualities of leadership and endorsing the advancement of women that are fundamental for the National Association of Women lawyers," said Holly English, 2007-08 president of NAWL.
Shamtoub began her crusade for women's rights as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. As an Iranian-American, she had a particular interest in raising awareness about abuses of women's rights in her native country and formed her own organization in solidarity with the women's movement in Iran.
"My interest comes from my own immigrant background, and understanding that as a woman, I would be limited in a number of ways if I was to have remained in my country of origin," Shamtoub notes.
Her experience at Pepperdine opened her eyes to global issues in women's rights, specifically refugee women and victims of human trafficking. Professor Laurie Serafino, director of clinical education, saw Shamtoub's talents and became her mentor. "She is an extremely bright, enthusiastic, capable, and compassionate young woman," Serafino says.
Upon learning of Shamtoub's passion for women's rights, Serafino suggested that she spend the summer in Thailand, working for an organization called Garden of Hope, which was founded by Christa Crawford, a former worker at the Pepperdine Union Rescue Mission.
Garden of Hope reaches out to women, children, and youth involved in, or at risk of prostitution, sexual exploitation, and/or trafficking by developing Christ-centered relationships and offering alternative livelihoods and resources. Much to the dismay of her mother, and after considering her own reservations about not being a Christian, Shamtoub soon found herself on a plane to Thailand.
"The typical local bar in Chiang Mai looks like a garage installed with a bar; there is no door, rather the entire interior of the building is exposed to the public. In front of the bar, there is line of women standing, cat calling anyone who passed by," she remembers, explaining that most of the women fall through the government's cracks because they come from the local hill tribes and boarding countries, in particular Burma. "As they move into the cities, it's more difficult for them to integrate because they don't have the things that we take for granted, like a birth certificate, a means of getting an ID. Also, they speak different languages."
Shamtoub's job was to try to build relationships with the women, in hopes of enabling them to choose new options in life, free of judgment and free of charge. Despite the language barrier and cultural differences, Shamtoub found that with frequent visits, she was able to develop trust among the women.
She connected with one young woman in particular, who eventually became employed as a tour guide for the Garden of Hope. "Her eyes completely lit up," Shamtoub recalls. "It was incredibly moving and beautiful to see."
The experience in Thailand made Shamtoub even more interested in serving at-risk women. She spent the following semester interning with the British Institute for International and Comparative Law in London. There she worked on the Iran Project, which, in addition to other objectives, hosted yearly roundtable dialogues with Iranian officials to discuss Iran's human rights violations.
"I was a big proponent of discussing women's rights at the dialogue, which had been a difficult issue in the past," she explains. "However, Iran wasn't willing to talk about it. It is not an issue they are yet willing to address."
The following summer, Shamtoub worked as an intern and volunteered as a trainer for the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) in Los Angeles. Her role was to assist women who were trafficked into the United States in gaining legal status.
"One of my clients was a woman in her fifties who came to America with promises of working in a household. After enduring a number of traumatic experiences, she was able to escape," Shamtoub comments. "I think we tend to think of [these women] as naive 18 year olds, but that's not the reality."
Now that she has completed law school, Shamtoub plans to one day start her own nonprofit organization to help refugee and trafficked women. "I want to use my law degree to cater to their immigration needs," she says, noting social, creativity, and empowerment services as other areas she'd like to incorporate.
The award from the National Association of Women Lawyers, she says, has reaffirmed her commitment to a life of service to women's rights. "This award solidifies my determination to give back to the women who lacked the opportunities I've had."
And to those who deem prostitutes as worthy of their lot in life, Shamtoub has this to say: "I think, if I had been abducted and sold when I was 13, how would I go on? These women did go on; some of them have gone on to wonderful things. Nobody is worthless, and their ability to endure and be where they are now speaks volumes about their worth."
by Audra Quinn