Former DEI Manager Sues University of Minnesota Over Firing for Controversial Photo

Mashal Sherzad

Mashal Sherzad, a 29-year-old former model who had transitioned to a career as a diversity, equity, and inclusion manager at the University of Minnesota, is suing the institution after her dismissal for posing in front of an Israeli flag defaced with swastikas. Sherzad, who identifies as a queer Muslim of Afghan descent and SWANA (South West Asian and North African) heritage, claims her First Amendment rights were violated.

Mashal Sherzad

The controversy began when Sherzad, inadvertently uploaded photos on her public social media from a pro-Palestinian rally in Barcelona she attended in December. Among the images was one of her standing in front of the offensive flag. These images were later deleted but led to her termination on January 16, after the university deemed her presence a “real risk of significant disruption” to the school environment, as stated by the School of Public Health Dean, Melinda Pettigrew.

In response to her firing, Sherzad has initiated legal action against the university for violating her right to free speech and for discrimination, seeking reinstatement and over $75,000 in damages.

“I did nothing wrong. They discarded a proud Queer, Muslim, Afghan and SWANA woman,” Sherzad has stated.

Sherzad, who also promotes pro-Palestinian activism to her 4,000 Instagram followers, has a background in modeling, with previous work for the renowned agency Ford. She often compares her appearance to Kim Kardashian in her posts, which include a mix of activism and glamour shots from her travels and life with her girlfriend, Ralena Young.

At a recent news conference, Sherzad, dressed in a form-fitting bodycon dress with daring cut-outs, tearfully discussed the impact of her termination. She explained that the controversial flag was “somebody else’s intellectual property” and not her own.

“The caption on said post was, ‘This is not a conflict. This is not a war. This is genocide’,” Sherzad recounted, emphasizing that the incident occurred off work hours and outside the U.S.

Jake Ricker, a university spokesman, noted that the institution generally does not comment on active legal cases. However, Dean Pettigrew’s January letter highlighted the sensitive nature of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the potential for disruption caused by such a provocative image.

Supporters at the press conference argued that advocates for Palestinian rights are often unfairly targeted, with Jaylani Hussein, executive director of Minnesota’s Council on American-Islamic Relations, calling the situation “a dark day for freedom of speech.”

Amidst the ongoing lawsuit, Sherzad has also launched a GoFundMe to seek financial support for her “wrongful firing,” explaining her participation at the rally was peaceful and aimed at expressing solidarity for Palestinian liberation. The campaign has raised $1,300 so far.

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