What’s to Fear?

Students prepare testimony of threats to refugees.


An expert in violence and human rights issues, Cynthia Mahmood is often called to testify in political asylum cases. She helps courts of the United States, U.K. and Canada determine whether refugees qualify for protection. Last fall, she decided to get Central students involved.

The 11 students, participants in Mahmood’s Anthropology of Violence class, helped prepare expert testimony for three political asylum cases. One was a Pakistani honor killing case, one a doctor who treated torture victims and one a Taliban propaganda worker.

“I was the main, legally responsible party,” says Mahmood, Frank Moore Chair of Anthropology and professor of anthropology, “but basically, it was in their lap to try and save this person from future violence.”

Cynthia Mahmood

Cynthia Mahmood

Students researched conditions in the countries these people fled. “They had to rely on human rights reports, academic literature about the country, contemporary media articles, broadcasts and so on,” Mahmood says, “and then they produced an expert statement.”

“I was really nervous, actually,” Breza says, “and motivated to do really well because Dr. Mahmood said our work could influence the judge’s decision. Most class projects, you kind of put it off — this was something different because you know you’re actually impacting a life.”

Mahmood assured students she would take responsibility and check their work thoroughly. However, she wanted them to experience research that matters and know they can make a difference. This spring, Mahmood congratulated her students when two individuals in their cases received asylum.

“The one that did not win, we thought would not win — that was the Taliban person,” Mahmood says. “In the United States, when you hear ‘Taliban,’ people are afraid for national security. But the other two both won asylum in the United States, and now they’re safe here. I personally find that one of the things really to be proud of about the U.S. is that we admit people who are fleeing horrible violence and have nowhere else to turn.”

Mahmood taught at Central right after completing her Ph.D., 1986-1991, then taught at the University of Maine and Notre Dame before returning to Central 24 years later. In Anthropology of Violence, students enter her area of specialty. “That’s what I study — war and peace and violence all around the world,” Mahmood says. “Studying that as an anthropologist means doing ethnographic field work with people involved in violence, and I am known primarily for working with perpetrators of violence, especially in South Asia.”

Mahmood’s many writings include “The Guru’s Gift: An Ethnography Exploring Gender Equality with North American Sikh Women,” “Fighting for Faith and Nation: Dialogues with Sikh Militants” and “Frisian and Free: Study of an Ethnic Minority of the Netherlands,” as well as encyclopedia articles, textbooks and a newly completed book manuscript. She was named Frank Moore Chair of Anthropology last year.

Mary Strey, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty, says Mahmood’s ability to involve students in her work exemplifies Central’s commitment to global, experiential learning. “Whether through summer research opportunities on campus, research participation and projects during the academic year, honors projects or creative endeavors, all Central College students have the opportunity to engage in research, scholarship and creative inquiry with Central faculty,” Strey says.

The Refugees


Tamil doctor, Sri Lanka, treated torture victims

“Eventually the government was suspicious that he was one of the militants,” Mahmood says, “and they treated him very badly — and his wife as well — and he fled to the U.S.”

Young girl, Pakistan, caught befriending a boy

“That’s considered really shameful in her culture, and she was under threat of an honor killing — that her own family would kill her,” Mahmood says.

Education minister, Afghanistan, former worker for the Taliban

“He never had been engaged in violence,” Mahmood says, “but he used to write pamphlets about what the Taliban wanted to do. Then he decided they had gone too far, and he wanted to quit. So he was afraid of two things: both the government coming after him and the Taliban coming after him.”

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