by Jim Engineer
Chances are if you know Dr. Niaz Kasravi, you know you have a friend, a leader, and a mentor. For those who don’t know her, there couldn’t be a better time to briefly shine a spotlight on the life of the selfless and conscience-driven Kasravi, who represents and leads her generation by example.
Currently an Independent Consultant to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Washington, D.C., Kasravi earned a doctorate in Criminology, Law & Society from the University of California at Irvine, where she also earned a Master of Arts in Social Ecology, and Bachelor of Arts degrees in both Criminology, and Psychology & Social Behavior.
But it’s not just her extensive education that makes her story compelling – it’s her passion for social justice and human rights that transcends every corner of her life. Most notably and arguably, she has been influenced and affected by the incredible life of Shirin Ebadi.
“I went to Iran in 2000 to do research with Shirin Ebadi for my doctoral dissertation on the role of women in the reform movement,” Kasravi said. “Specifically, I focused on their work on changing custody laws in Iran, looking at the different tools and tactics women activists use to get their voice heard and work towards change.”
Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her significant and pioneering efforts for democracy and human rights, especially women’s, children’s, and refugee rights, and remains the only Iranian to ever receive the prestigious Nobel commendation. “Shirin Ebadi always says that if she could accomplish all that she did under the repressive conditions that she live in, then we who live in freedom can do so much more,” Kasravi noted.
Kasravi’s research under Ebadi would be realized in a real-world sense on the streets of Tehran nine years later, with the struggle and sacrifice of a new generation of Iranians led visibly by women – who openly called into question the authority, oppression, and power of the government.
Like many in the Iranian American community, Kasravi has been witnessing the aftermath of the recent elections in her native Iran, looking in from the sidelines of a game being played with dire repercussions for some, and the promise of a generational shift in Iranian leadership, culture, secularism and democracy. “I feel cautious,” she said. “I don’t feel it’s my place as an Iranian who’s been enjoying the benefits of freedom in the United States to determine what future the Iranian people should have. That decision must be theirs alone. The only ones who have a right to make demands are those who stand and fight on the streets of Iran. Our role in the diaspora is to support them. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own views on the matter.”
She came to the United States in 1984 during another national conflict in Iran, the long and bloody Iran-Iraq war. She was in grade school and her parents troubled about how much worse the war might get. Once settled in 1987 as permanent residents, her father Dr. Hoshang Kasravi and mother Farinam Shahvir, instilled a new hope in little Niaz – that their new homeland would provide for a life of active involvement, enriched with a strong identity for her Zarathushti religion, the Persian culture, and a ability to freely assimilate, celebrate, and worship with her fellow Zarathushtis.
In the mid-nineties, Kasravi got active in the southern California Iranian Zarathushti community, lending her time, talent, and energy toward youth programming and leadership at the California Zoroastrian Center’s Youth Committee. She then took a particular interest in sports as a way to unify and bring people together, and became actively involved in the Zoroastrian Sports Committee (ZSC). Today she serves as its president.
Under Kasravi’s leadership, the ZSC was voted a standing committee of FEZANA in 2008. That year, the 11th Zarathushti Games had united more than 1,200 Zarathushti athletes and spectators from 17 U.S. states, Canada, Germany, Australia, United Kingdom, France and Tajikstan. The next Games will take place in 2010 and are sure to surpass previous events in quality and attendance.
The ZSC is also organizing the Sixth Zoroastrian Unity Cup Soccer Tournament, to be held Sept. 5-7 in Redondo Beach, California. The event, which takes place every two years, brings together Zarathushti soccer/football fans for a highly-competitive tournament, socializing, and camaraderie.
Commenting on the success of the ZSC, Kasravi remains humble and in awe of the dedication and focus of her leadership team – a philosophy of modesty and teamwork instilled and perpetuated by ZSC founder Bijan Khosraviani through the years.
“We’ve come a long way since the first Zarathushti Games in 1988,” Kasravi recalled. “We relied on a small budget of just five hundred dollars from people who had chipped in, and the event generated 30 participants.”
Kasravi mentioned that the ZSC is constantly working to address the perception of being an Iranian Zarathushti organization, with today’s Games attracting approximately 60 percent Iranian and 40 percent Parsi athletes and spectators, a gap that’s been closing through the years. “Bridging the divide between Iranians and Parsis has been a challenge for the founding generation – and you can still see some of those divides,” she added. “The next generation is different. I remember people getting into arguments on whether Farsi should be spoken at events or not. We don’t have those arguments. Our ZSC founders were primarily Iranians, but today we are working on being very conscious to show balance in food, music, and be as all-inclusive as possible.”
Kasravi also cited NextGenNow’s ability to attract a broad cross-section of Iranian and Parsi Zarathushti youth into its fold, as another example of the Parsi-Irani divide dissipating as the next generation of Zarathushti youth mobilize and organize to sustain Zarathushti communities and organizational infrastructure.
“I strongly believe that it is the younger generation that will advance our community and keep us united. For one, this must be their calling, if they don’t do it, it won’t happen. And two, they know the needs and desires of their own generation and they must be take charge. That’s why I have so much faith in NextGenNow’s leadership, vision, and mission. They have recognized this calling.”
Kasravi believes that only Zarathushti youth can play the critical role of ensuring a smooth transition from one generation to the next. “What makes us (ZSC) a success is being open-minded about making people feel welcome,” she pointed out. “It’s for the participation of all Zarathushtis, and we want everyone to feel welcome. Many young kids get turned off by strict definitions – and while there is a time and place for strict adherence to rules and customs – there also is a time to relax rules and truly be all-inclusive. We listen to young people and know what they want.”
And what of her future? What’s the next chapter in the life of Dr. Niaz Kasravi?
“I want to concentrate on areas where I’ll have the most impact, and my focus will always remain on humanity – whether I decide to write a book, form my own organization, or go back to teaching,” she said. “The fast-paced cut-throat world takes away from our humanity, decency, equality and kindness. It’s my calling to help reintroduce that humanity.”
Kasravi’s current project focuses on issues of police accountability, police brutality, excessive use of force, racial profiling and other criminal justice issues. To her, they serve as reminders that we still live in a world where people’s humanity is largely taken for granted.
Jim Engineer is an independent public relations consultant and a director of NextGenNow (www.nextgennow.org). For more than 20 years, he has donated his time and talent to the North American Zarathushti community, serving twice as FEZANA’s Public Relations Chair, starting and perpetuating the FEZANA Journal’s Youthfully Speaking section, co-founding ZYNA, and representing Zarathushti youth at the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions.