Philosopher. Feminist. Human rights activist. Assistant professor in the College of Liberal Studies (CLS). Outspoken advocate for social justice and racial awareness. OU women and gender studies faculty member. All of these are accurate descriptions of Roksana Alavi, now entering her fourth year as a full-time faculty member in CLS. Two other descriptors also fit Alavi: first generation immigrant to the United States and a child of war.
Dr. Roksana Alavi is now one of five full-time faculty members at CLS. Hired in 2012, Alavi teaches several core courses in our graduate and undergraduate programs. Her disciplinary training is in philosophy, beginning with a bachelor of philosophy degree from OU (1996), completing her doctorate degree in philosophy at the University of Kansas (2008), along with a graduate certificate in women’s studies. Her interests include race and gender issues, identity formation and human rights with a special focus on human trafficking. Through her teaching and scholarship, she strives to create positive change and raise awareness in each of these areas of social justice. In doing so, she models the active citizenship CLS strives to instill in its students.
When asked what motivates her scholarship and activism for social justice, Alavi explained, “The level of harm that one human can inflict upon another is beyond comprehension. I cannot just stand aside and watch this happen, and so I am moved to help the most vulnerable among us. Also, my commitment to justice requires me to act.”
“The level of harm that one human can inflict upon another is beyond comprehension. I cannot just stand aside and watch this happen, and so I am moved to help the most vulnerable among us. Also, my commitment to justice requires me to act.”
With her scholarship and teaching on human trafficking, Alavi hopes to raise awareness on a topic that many people do not even realize exists. Globally, both sex and labor trafficking continue to be a growing problem. Most Americans are unaware that illegal human trafficking happens in the United States on a daily basis. Alavi works to ensure that victims of human trafficking have a voice and that her students are well aware of the causes and conditions that encourage traffickers to exploit their victims.
Alavi explained that three significant events in her life primed her interest and prepared her to be a social justice advocate. The first was growing up in Iran during the Iranian revolution (1979), which overturned the U.S.-supported Shah of Iran, and installed the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic Republic as the new government of Iran. After that moment in history, the culture in Iran become more oppressive, and civil and women’s rights were more severely limited.
The second event was surviving the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), during which she was displaced from her home in southern Iran at the age of seven. Her family lived in Tehran for much of the war and was frequently threatened by missile attacks launched from Iraq. An estimated 500,000 Iranians lost their lives in that conflict, with many more wounded. Alavi recalled the fear and uncertainty that always accompany life in an active war zone. She vividly remembers food shortages, spending many nights in the basement of apartment buildings with other families, waiting out missile attacks and witnessing the carnage of bomb blasts afterward.
The third event was immigrating to the United States.
“I have been lucky to have lived in two different cultures,” she said. “I moved to the United States in 1988, when I was 15 years old. This interruption of life circumstances brings with it many questions of right or wrong. Once I became well-versed in the ways of life here, which didn’t really take long, I aimed to look at my bicultural experience and take the best of both cultures. Philosophy continues to give me the tools to ask the right questions and evaluate my life.”
Further explaining her research interests in women’s studies, gender issues and human trafficking, she said, “My own experience of being a woman of color, and an immigrant, has shaped my interest in women’s issues, but my commitment requires me to be an ally for those who need one. Although I have never been a victim of human trafficking, I will speak up for those who have been.”
When she was only seven years old, Alavi’s life in the southern part of Iran was disrupted by the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). Forced to flee from her childhood home as hostile Iraqi forces approached, Alavi spent the next several years in northern Iran, in the capital city of Tehran. During one of the numerous bombings, the young Alavi made a decision that, despite the unhappy circumstances that surrounded her and her family, she would choose to remain happy and optimistic. Rather than surrender to fear, and give in to despondency, she chose to face obstacles with a determined and positive outlook.
This determination served her well and has led to continuing accomplishments. At the age of 15, and with little to no English-speaking skill, Alavi found herself in the heart of the United States, attending high school at Putnam City in Oklahoma City. By the time she graduated , she had mastered the English language and even at one point earned a scholarship to attend OU. Enrolling in a religious philosophy course taught by Tom Boyd, she discovered a lifelong passionate love for philosophy that would lead her to complete a Ph.D.
During the Fall 2014 semester, Alavi co-taught a prestigious Presidential Dream Course titled “Human Trafficking: Men, Women, and Children Held Captive” with Jill Irvine, director of the OU Women and Gender Studies Program and the co-director of the Center for Social Justice. CLS and the Women and Gender Studies program co-sponsored the course.