On Saturday, May 12, the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy proudly graduated 62 bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. students. New alumni come from North and Central America, Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East. One such master’s alumna is Afsoon Mohseni.
Afsoon comes from Iran, and has faced challenges throughout her life to practice and learn about philanthropy, human rights, and civil society. Nevertheless, she has persevered and she continues to strive to make a difference in her home and adopted countries.
Growing up in a non-religious family in a religious country was not easy for Afsoon.
“It’s a continuous, difficult conflict when you have a freer life inside your home and then you go out into society and face so many boundaries and restrictions,” she said.
Attending university at the University of Tehran provided a firsthand experience for Afsoon of those boundaries.
“I had a class on civil society and social change with a reformist professor who introduced this topic into the country’s academia,” she said. “One day, these plain-clothed, religious ‘guards’ raided the classroom and started beating students. They took some of the students and the professor, calling him ‘an agent of the West.’ It gave me the grounds to say that, ‘OK, this is enough, this should be changed.’
“It showed me that the struggle was not about conflicts over political ideas or policies. It was deeper. It was about human dignity and the simple right to live and to be who you want. I felt that I needed to defend my rights and society’s as well, which led me to the nonprofit sector.”
Afsoon wanted to study public policy in the United Kingdom, but was banned from exiting her country due to a pending divorce and a religious restriction that would not allow her to leave the country without her husband’s permission. So, she decided to study marketing on the international campus of the University of Tehran. At the same time, she met an actress working to protect public land against corporate encroachment. Together, they set up a foundation focused on peace and conflict resolution.
“We worked hard to go and meet the Dalai Lama to learn about the peace process, which we did,” Afsoon said. “However, we couldn’t run the programs we wanted to run. There are no laws supporting the nonprofit sector in Iran and freedom to act, so I decided to do some searching to find a place where I could study what I wanted. From the GRE test, I had heard that philanthropy means ‘love of humanity,’ so I decided to look for a program dedicated to it. I found out about this school, applied only to it, and was accepted.”
Coming into the philanthropic studies program, Afsoon wanted to not only learn about the basics of philanthropy, but dive deeper into aspects of civil society and human rights.
“I started to learn about civil society from the Iranian professor, but he was taken, and there isn’t much published about it there,” she said. “I knew that I wanted to focus on human rights, civil society, and advocacy here, and I’ve been able to. I really love that about the philanthropic studies program.”
She’s also taken opportunities to become involved in local and national organizations. Afsoon has worked as a graduate assistant for The Fund Raising School and interned at the Sagamore Institute in Indianapolis and Freedom House in Washington, D.C.
For The Fund Raising School, she researched and compiled content for the new course on impact investing. At Sagamore Institute, Afsoon researched and developed content about innovative agriculture in Africa. For Freedom House, an organization that focuses on the promotion of democracy, human rights, and civil society nationally and internationally, she provided expertise and insight for their Middle East and North Africa team. Between all of that and schoolwork, she also found time to volunteer at the Indianapolis-based Center for Victim and Human Rights.
Hope in Iran
While living in the U.S., Afsoon has followed Iranian news and stays aware of movements toward social and political change.
“Right now, the Iranian philanthropic sector is poisoned by political and religious issues and is severely limited in its ability to act for the people,” she said.
However, Afsoon cites several movements that give her reason to hope.
“One is this hijab movement with Masih Alinejad, a famous exiled reporter. Her social media accounts, where she’s campaigned for ending the requirement to wear the hijab in public, allow people to express themselves and shape consensus in the absence of a free public sphere inside the country,” Afsoon said. “She’s encouraged and deepened civic engagement among every-day Iranians.
“She has shown that everyone can be an individual activist and advocate of freedom and make a difference, regardless of whether they agree with the religious exclusivism law or not. In these ways, it’s a good avenue for people to do what the government doesn’t let them do.”
The foundation she worked at also took steps in encouraging sustainable philanthropy by instituting a small, microfinance project focused on garden and herb growth in a local village.
“We wanted to stop the process of having the audience be a passive receiver of philanthropy, and instead engage and empower them to change their own situations,” she said. “It’s a very new concept in Iran.”
Even with difficult political challenges, Afsoon expresses hope about these new movements.
“There is potential with these movements, partly because of old Iranian culture. It’s inspired by the laws of nature and the love and generosity within it,” she said. “It’s based on generosity, trust, and ‘associating’ together. We ground our thinking in Zoroastrianism, which focuses on good thoughts, good works, and good deeds, which is very philanthropic, although it hasn’t been formally practiced since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
“However, Iranian people need to be more responsible and get involved. The people have the ultimate power, not the government, and they need to take action to rebuild the country, no matter how hard. That is what I would like to see.”
As a new graduate, Afsoon would like to work with nonprofits focused on human rights and political and civic freedoms in the United States.
“My priority is working in programs, particularly in Iran, Syria, or Yemen, with victims of human rights abuses and activists working on these issues,” she said. “That’s why I came here to study philanthropy: to be able to freely work and pursue my thoughts and help promote democracy in Iran and other places around the world.”
The views expressed in the article do not reflect the official views of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
Abby Rolland is the blog content coordinator for the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.