Shirin Taber’s father came to the U.S. from Iran as an international student, entering a world of bell-bottoms and flower power. “He studied engineering and married a California blonde,” Shirin told me. “He was Muslim and she was Catholic, but somehow, they forged their lives together. And my father gave me the greatest gift: the ability to choose for myself which faith to follow. He allowed me to decide, although my mom laid the groundwork for it.”
“I loved growing up bi-culturally,” she said, recalling zereshk polo—chicken with barberries, orange peel, and saffron. “Iranians always treated me with respect, care, and kindness because they knew I was only half-Iranian. They liked that I was a mix of Iranian and American culture.”
But Iran’s revolution in the late 1970s changed all that. Upheaval turned her father’s homeland from a monarchy to an Islamic republic. During the revolution, Shirin’s father lost his job, his home, and his country overnight. But back in the states, her family’s troubles escalated. Iran changed from a relatively stable US ally to, as then-president George H. W. Bush said, “the axis of evil.” “That terrified me,” Shirin recalled. “Suddenly people associated me with a terrorist state that took hostages and funded Islamic terrorism around the world. I struggled with cultural shame and identity issues. We came back to the U.S. like refugees. Like we see today, displaced doctors, professors, engineers, and other professionals like my father came into the U.S. with only a suitcase.”
A junior-high student struggling through changes in social class, status, and identity, Shirin faced an even greater trial: her mother died. “That brought a day of reckoning for me,” she recalled. And in the darkness, she found light. “A neighbor befriended our family. And she boldly urged me to consider my relationship with God,” Shirin said. “She guided me, and I made the decision to follow Christ, rather than just taking on the faith my parents passed to me. From there, I attended church and youth group.” In her college years, she attended the University of Washington, where she served as a student leader with Cru.
Shirin reflected on the hand of God in her trials: “God took this motherless Iranian-American girl and repainted that canvas with his story.” And her uniquely Iranian-American Christian perspective led her to found Empower Women Media. “I do what I do today because God cares for women, minorities, and he cares for displaced people,” she said.
Shirin’s passion for women’s empowerment and building bridges between Christians and Muslims grew because she herself benefited from such bridge-building starting from a young age. “My neighbor modeled it for me,” she said. Having been the outsider, she said, “I feel compassion for Muslims and refugees coming to America. They come to flee from things like war, poverty, and political corruption—not to make trouble. They want to build lives, put their children in school and educate their daughters. They want the same freedoms every other immigrant comes seeking. I work to help American Christians build bridges with their Muslim neighbors.”
Empowering Women Through Media
Shirin’s organization uses media to focus on empowering women and peacebuilding in conflict areas like the Middle East North African region (MENA). Their work on religious freedom issues continues to grow. Targeted research points to the needs in the region. “It works because media provides an instant connection with places typically hard to access and not safe for travel,” Shirin said. “I post something and immediately someone in the Middle East sees it and responds. I can send a video, or we can do a television broadcast campaign. Media provides the fastest way to connect with people.”
Crises in the MENA region and around the world result in trauma. So, Shirin’s organization spoke to women television broadcasters who explained that women called their talk shows seeking help for their trauma. Concerned about the fallout with refugees and ISIS, Shirin brought together a group of twenty-five women—creatives, content providers, thinkers, and media producers—for trauma training to give them the tools to help. “We didn’t try to figure out trauma by ourselves,” she said. “The American Bible Society (ABS) has a trauma healing certificate program. So, we went through the training and found it brought healing even to us. And it equipped us to hear people and make sure we knew how to help people dealing with trauma correctly and didn’t open more wounds.” The trauma training led to other projects. Some women wrote articles, while others held trauma healing workshops on the field. Eventually, Shirin co-produced with the ABS a ten-part television series about healing trauma for the Farsi-speaking world. “Instead of going house to house or church to church, we touched thousands of people instantly through television. We included ways for them to follow up, call, or email if they needed help, or if they wanted to talk to a counselor. They can also download learning tools to help with trauma healing, peacebuilding, or empowering women.”
Impact of Religious Freedom
Based on Shirin’s research, more than eighty percent of people in the world live with restrictions on religious freedom, and the numbers keep rising. Especially since the expansion of ISIS, Christians in the Middle East have continued to flee. “For years the Christian population in the Middle East hovered around twenty percent,” she said. Now, post-ISIS, the numbers have fallen to five percent. Why? “Because of persecution and violence,” she said. “People had to leave. Christians got attacked, abducted, and imprisoned or killed.” The small number who remain “still have to live under the radar.”
Yet the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18, signed by many Middle Eastern countries, guarantees them religious freedoms. And realizing that religious freedom leads to other freedoms, Shirin created a film competition in which women from a variety of faith backgrounds tell their religious-freedom stories. The film festival receives accolades from around the globe. People have viewed the films at the Vatican, in the Church of England, in the United Nations, and at the U.S. State Department.
“After 9/11, people started getting Middle East fatigue,” Shirin explained. “So rather than reporting more persecution stories, we wanted to see if we could shift the conversation and the culture by creating content that tells positive stories. How does religious freedom affect society for good? Our Empower Women Media network creates short films and gets buzz because the women tell their own positive religious-freedom stories. By saying, ‘Here’s my story about how religious freedom works for me,’ these women recommend it for others. They show how religious freedom encourages peacebuilding and human rights as well as fostering business and innovation.”
In the U.S., Shirin sees varying views on religious freedom, including some that trouble her among people of her own faith. “We need to make sure we have a correct understanding of religious freedom,” she said. “Religious freedom protects the individual, not the religion. So, when we look at religious freedom in America, we look to protect people’s individual rights. We don’t try to protect Christianity. We need to trust that the gospel stands on its own. It will survive. And we need to realize that “pluralism” and “tolerance” are not bad words. The more I study this issue, I realize that America is healthiest as a pluralist society.” Shirin acknowledges that as a Christian believer she wants all to know Jesus Christ. But in her experience, the best way to guarantee the freedom to share the gospel is to protect the rights of all people, regardless of their beliefs, or no belief at all. “Like the ecosystem, when everything moves freely about, a healthy society develops,” she said. “But when one group wants to dominate—even if it’s the evangelical church—and wants to enforce their worldview . . . all of a sudden democracy no longer feels like democracy. With only one perspective, it just doesn’t run efficiently anymore. You might think you have protected your Christian faith, but before you know it, another group that calls themselves ‘Christian’ takes over. Their values might differ from yours. They may actually take away or limit the freedoms you thought you had. We saw that in Iran in a Muslim context. We have also seen it happen in Europe and many other countries around the world.”
Shirin took a deep breath and continued: “This kind of dance feels scary for a lot of people. Right now, with a new administration, people feel afraid. But I advise them not to get hung up on identity politics. We need to protect our freedoms—freedom of belief, freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom of assembly—as paramount. Without those, the other issues that seem so important to us will not hold water later.”
Live what you believe.
Shirin points out that the countries that have the most peace and prosperity are countries that have religious freedom. And the countries that lack religious freedom live in conflict with human rights abuses. To encourage people to dive deeper into their understanding of religious freedom, Empower Women Media developed an e-course called “Live What You Believe.” Anyone can access the free online course anywhere in the world. Shirin hopes its message will help shift the culture and train people so that anyone—college students, lawyers, soccer moms, policy-makers, business owners, engineers, faith leaders—can understand religious freedom and its benefits.
“Our approach shows if you want to see change in the MENA region, you have to have a strategy. You have to create content, and you need curriculum, training, and tools. We have to have a plan to educate the next generation. We just launched ‘Live What You Believe’ about six weeks ago,” she said, “and already more than 240 students from Pakistan, India, Iran and Arab nations have enrolled in the sixty-minute online course. One of the women, an Arab PhD student, said she never realized the connection between religious freedom and women’s rights. But they are actually inseparable, mutually supporting one another. The course helped her understand why she needs to promote religious freedom in her country. And as long as the Islamists stay in power, they will deny equal citizenship and always keep a ceiling on women’s rights. But with religious freedom, women’s rights have no ceiling.”
Although it might seem counterintuitive, the pandemic widened Empower Women Media’s reach. The world changed, and Shirin’s organization focused on reaching more people online. With millions stuck at home looking for content to watch, Shirin’s phone rang even more. “A lot of NGOs realized they needed new ways of accessing people,” she said. “We can’t just travel somewhere and host a conference now. We need other avenues. So, we guide people in creating digital content. With the religious freedom e-course, while I sit here in California, I can teach anyone in the world about religious freedom and they respond. We can also train internationals to create a short film, submit it, and maybe win the film competition.”
But with so many women and girls staying home, the threat of domestic violence and human trafficking has risen. “Covid could turn back the clock on women’s rights,” Shirin said. Evidence suggests it already has. “We have to come out of the gate even stronger with our message, demanding women get equal citizenship and human rights. The research shows that with educated, active, and working women, societies grow healthier, offer more justice, and thrive economically.”
Shirin is confident God used her story to prepare her for her work today. “I have the heart of a producer,” she stressed. “A producer wants to stand behind the camera and see talent shine. I love seeing women empowered by creating media tools, sharing their stories through film, television, a podcast, or a published article. I love to facilitate, mentor, coach, disciple, and then see the fruit that comes from pouring into other women. Although my mixed heritage was painful for me as a child, I can say things other people would not say, and people listen. I can speak to Muslims and Christians alike and say, ‘The greatest gift my dad ever gave me was religious freedom.’ Now God allows me to build bridges.”