Scholars at Risk Speaker Series: Renowned Pakistani Journalist and Human Rights Advocate Marvi Sirmed to Speak at Kent State Campus

Kent State University will welcome its third of three “alumni” from the Scholars at Risk Network to speak at the university and regional events over the 2023-2024 academic year. Scholars at Risk (SAR) is an organization that provides sanctuary and assistance to threatened scholars worldwide.

Professional headshot of Marvi Sirmed, journalist and human rights activist.
Marvi Sirmed

Marvi Sirmed, a fearless journalist and human rights advocate, will be speaking on the Kent Campus on March 5 at 5:30 p.m. in Bowman Hall, Room 223. The event is free and open to the public.

Sirmed's inspirational journey from investigative journalism in Pakistan to her current role as a prominent voice for human rights has been marked by resilience, determination and a steadfast commitment to justice and equality.

Before joining Scholars at Risk (SAR), Sirmed courageously reported on sensitive issues such as violence against women and "honor killings" in Pakistan, despite facing significant opposition from powerful entities. Her unwavering dedication to shedding light on these atrocities led to numerous threats and even a harrowing assassination attempt. In 2019, facing escalating danger, Sirmed sought refuge in the United States, where she continued her advocacy work with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). She is now teaching human rights and journalism courses at the University of Connecticut.

"I have been receiving threats for a long time," Sirmed said.." There was even an attempt on my husband’s and my life in 2012, which we narrowly escaped." 

They both tried their best to continue working despite all the challenges. But, things reached a melting point when, in 2020, Sirmed was accused of blasphemy, and various religious outfits started a campaign to charge her for it. 

Speaking on a Shared Culture of Patriarchy and the State of Women in Pakistan and India at the Pak-India conference of HRDs on Social Media
Marvi Sirmed (far right) speaking on a Shared Culture of Patriarchy and the State of Women in Pakistan and India at the Pak-India conference of HRDs on Social Media

"In Pakistan, blasphemy allegations are a death sentence by the vigilante," Sirmed said. "Not just my person but a section of both the mainstream and social media started dragging my daughter and husband into all this by threatening them. Now, that’s something no one can have. I couldn’t bear bringing harm to anyone, let alone my own daughter, because of my actions."

That is when she decided to prolong her stay in the U.S.  

SAR Opportunity at UConn
While serving as a Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the NED in 2019-20 Sirmed was looking for some emergency assistance in the wake of the intensified threats to her and her family back home in Pakistan. Zerxes Spencer, fellowship director at NED, told her about the SAR program and suggested she should apply, which she did immediately. After a very sensitively carried out quick verification and assessment process, she got a placement in the SAR program’s practitioner track. 

"This has been a great experience, not only professionally speaking, but also in a personal way," Sirmed said. "At the time, when I was feeling helpless and alone in my home country, there was an avalanche of hate and abuse going on against me. I could either go back and try continuing my work, which looked impossible in the face of the threats I was facing. The other option was to give it a pause, stay here and wait for an opportunity when I could return to my country to restart where I had left." 

At the above mentioned event with Ali Raza Abidi, Pakistan’s Member of Parliament who was later killed by the anti-Shia Islamist terrorists
Marvi Sirmed (left) at the above mentioned event with Ali Raza Abidi (right), Pakistan’s Member of Parliament who was later killed by the anti-Shia Islamist terrorists

She was feeling pushed to walls and in a place where she thought she would have to start life from scratch, with a lifetime of human rights work thrown out of the window if she chose the second option. With SAR, she was given an opportunity to continue working for human rights and democracy promotion through writing. Her placement at the University of Connecticut enabled her to contribute to the training and development of the next generation of journalists and human rights defenders. She taught undergraduate classes in human rights and journalism practice. 

"It not only provided me with a space to keep my work relevant and build on it, but it also provided me a livelihood - as opposed to an emergency grant, which is very important for the needy, but for me, it was far more important to continue working in the field I had been working for the last 30 years," Sirmed said. "I could not be more grateful for my luck to have known about the opportunities SAR has been creating for people like me." 

Safe harbor for healing and growth
"My three years as an adjunct professor teaching human rights and journalism at UConn were transformative," Sirmed said. "This opportunity arrived at a critical juncture in my life, offering support when I felt lost and uncertain. The UConn community embraced me with unwavering support, providing a safe harbor for healing and growth. Away from the self-censorship that plagued my writing back home, I was granted the freedom and resources to delve into the work I had long set aside – my book. The supportive environment allowed me to flourish professionally, providing space for research, writing on topics I was passionate about, and the freedom to share my experience and knowledge with future generations. This experience was professionally and personally fulfilling, reigniting my passion for the intersection of human rights and journalism. UConn became a sanctuary where I could finally nurture both my research and my spirit. Moreover, the act of teaching enabled me to channel my experiences and knowledge into shaping the next generation of changemakers and truth-tellers. My time at UConn, thanks to SAR, stands as a testament to the power of community, second chances, and my own enduring ability to persevere."

Marvi Sirmed speaking at the demonstration against the military dictatorship and the sacking of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by the dictator General Pervez Musharraf
Marvi Sirmed speaking at the demonstration against the military dictatorship and the sacking of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by the dictator General Pervez Musharraf

Sirmed's advice to those who are in a similar situation as her (dissenting voices and human rights defenders who are under threat in their own countries and are seeking refuge in stronger democracies like the USA) is to share their firsthand experiences of oppression and the risks they faced, raising awareness of ongoing abuses in their home countries.

"By connecting with human rights organizations in the USA, we can offer invaluable insights to inform advocacy campaigns," Sirmed said.."We can also join or establish networks of exiled human rights defenders to amplify our collective voice and demand accountability. Furthermore, we can participate in the political process, advocating for policies that protect human rights defenders globally and contributing to the work of monitoring the human rights situation and the state of democracy, done by the UN and the non-profit organizations working globally, especially in the U.S."

About the Speaker Series
The speaker series, titled “Women: Voices of Leadership and Voices on the Margins”, was organized by Kent State’s School of Multidisciplinary Social Sciences and Humanities and the Kent State Women’s Center, and also featured presentations by Dr. Farai Gonzo and Dr. Shuchi Karim in Fall 2023.

These women are all now settled in long-term academic homes but have reached this moment of personal safety and professional security only after having been supported by the Scholar at Risk Network.

"We are honored to host Marvi Sirmed, whose bravery and resilience serve as an inspiration and reminder of what is possible," Julie Mazzei, Ph.D., an associate professor and director of the School of Multidisciplinary Social Sciences and Humanities (SMSSH), said. "Her story underscores the importance of defending human rights and freedom of expression, even in the face of grave adversity. And, the role of Scholars at Risk reminds us that even when we feel far from human suffering we are not incapable of lending aid."

To register click the link below:

  • Tuesday, March 5, 2024, 5:30-7 p.m., Bowman Hall, Room 223: Register

Mazzei’s Perspective
“I study political violence,” Mazzei said. “One of the sort of long-standing observations about situations of extreme political oppression is that the first people they’ll go after are students and the universities. So, when a revolutionary sort of authoritarian military wants to take over the state, they want to get rid of the places where freedom of expression happens.”

Mazzei said that if people look at political violence in Chile or Argentina, college students and professors were some of the first people targeted.

“It’s important because it provides safety for people who are targeted,” Mazzei said. “It allows them not just to have physical safety, but to have intellectual safety too. Not only do we lose individuals in situations of political violence, but we lose major contributions to science when people are massacred because they are scientists. It's a loss to human knowledge. And it's a loss of very valuable lives. Organizations like Scholars at Risk don’t just provide the person with escape but with a future; a secure, happy, joyful and autonomous future.”

Support the Scholars at Risk Program 
Help us support these scholars in their time of need by giving to the Scholar at Risk Program.

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Media Contacts:
Julie Mazzei, 330-672-8934,
Jim Maxwell, 330-672-8028,

POSTED: Thursday, February 29, 2024 02:40 PM
Updated: Monday, March 4, 2024 09:11 AM
Jim Maxwell