Hina Shamsi ’93, an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyer who successfully argued a recent federal district court case challenging the constitutionality of the government’s no-fly list procedures, calls Mount Holyoke “a formative influence.”
“I was part of an intellectually rigorous community in and out of the classroom,” she says. “I was grounded in sound academic theories in an environment that encouraged debate.”
Born in Pakistan, she was the first woman in her family to go abroad to college.
At an early age, she says, she “was exposed to notions of people who were less privileged than I was and how problematic that was.” Shamsi created her own major in critical social thought, and the courses that she took in philosophy, politics, and literature helped to lay the foundation for the work that she does now.
As director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, Shamsi litigates cases that focus on the intersection of national security and counterterrorism policies with international human rights and constitutional law.
In the case she helped argue about the no-fly list, a judge in Federal District Court in Oregon ruled in June that the procedure the government uses to prohibit people from boarding flights in the United States or flying through American airspace violates the right to due process.
The case was argued on behalf of 13 people who had been prevented from boarding flights and who had unsuccessfully sought to know the reason they had been barred.
“People were placed in this Kafkaesque situation where the government had branded them as suspected terrorists and denied them fundamental rights to travel without the means of challenging whatever error led to their inclusion on the no-fly list,” Shamsi says.
The parties are due back in court in August for a consultation on how the government will amend the procedures.
“I’m hoping this is a wakeup call for the government to reform a system that is broken and bloated,” she says. “Sound national practices have to be based on law and compliance with our values, not on fear and fearmongering.”
After graduating from MHC, Shamsi attended Northwestern University’s School of Law. She had thought she might work in South Africa or South Asia, but changed her focus after 9/11. “I saw the U.S. more and more engaged in systemic violations of human rights, and I felt compelled to work on these issues here,” she says.
Shamsi is also a lecturer at Columbia Law School, where she teaches a course in international human rights. She is the author and coauthor of publications on the use of drones, torture, and “extraordinary rendition,” the CIA program in which suspects were moved to secret prisons abroad and often tortured.
“It’s work that is necessary, and I am constantly inspired by my clients and the people I work with,” she says.
—By Ronni Gordon