Shirin Ebadi and Iran's women: in the vanguard of change

Nazila Fathi
30 October 2003

Shirin Ebadi

Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human rights lawyer and 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner, returned to Tehran on 13 October to a mixed reception that is itself a symbol of the country’s deep political divisions. Where ordinary people and activists greeted her with joy and pride, pro-regime hardliners unleashed an unprecedented wave of hostility against her.

A spontaneous gathering of 10,000 people assembled at Tehran’s airport to welcome Shirin Ebadi as she flew in. They made the occasion a pro-democracy demonstration and demanded the release of political prisoners and a referendum on the future state of the country.

One of them was Shadi Sadr, 30, a lawyer and advocate for women’s rights, who said that the prize would help younger women in their campaigning. “She has become a role model for young women. When young women see what a woman from a patriarchal society has achieved they feel more confident to continue their struggle.”

Indeed, although the winning of the peace prize has made Ebadi a symbol of democracy and national pride throughout many sectors of society, she is a particular inspiration for younger, educated women. More than 60% of students accepted to universities this year were women and they are striving for equal rights with men.

The crowd at the airport included several members of the majlis (parliament) who came to show their solidarity. “The prize has given Ebadi’s demands an international credibility now. We expect it to become difficult for the judiciary to confront her,” said Alireza Alavitabar, a professor of political science at Tehran University .

But the exuberant response at the airport was matched by the bitter denunciation of the award from partisans of the regime. One indication of their anger was that they forced university officials to cancel a ceremony in her honour scheduled to take place at Tehran’s Polytechnic University.

This was only the start. A militant newspaper, Ya-Lessarat, issued a covert death sentence against her; one member of the majlis compared her to Salman Rushdie, the British author of the book Satanic Verses, against whom Iran’s late religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini had proclaimed a fatwa in 1988; and a group of clerics from the religious city of Qom released a statement saying that the aim of Ebadi’s prize was to ridicule Islam.

“The Nobel institute has been after political gains … and has given the prize to a person who has tried to show the enlightening Islamic teachings as dark and has challenged the fundamentals of religion,” thundered an editorial in the Jomhuri-ye Islami.

A voice without fear

“This is really unusual and worrying,” Shirin Ebadi told me in her modest, book-lined office. Yet, since her return from Paris, where she heard the news of her prize while attending a conference on Iranian film, she has taken on several new cases to defend political activists and has vowed to continue her struggle for human rights. “This prize has put a heavy burden on my shoulders because I have to prove at least to myself that I deserved it,” she says. “So, I will not lessen my work but will increase it. I will never deprive myself of the honour of struggling for human rights.”

Before the 1979 revolution she had been one of the country’s first women judges, but the new Islamic Republic deemed women ‘too emotional’ for such work and demoted her to court assistant. Her campaign for human rights starts from this event.

She started her work with children. “Children are the most vulnerable group in society and their rights are widely violated. But they do not have anyone to defend them,” she says. She was the founder of the Association for Children’s Rights where she campaigned against child beating, child labour, and for government payment for the education of working children.

For twenty-five years, Ebadi has carried on her principled, professional work while refusing to become entangled in Iran’s political divisions. Now, at 56, she remains assertive, severe and fearless – probably the worst nightmare of Iran’s hardline clerics who have attempted relentlessly to confine women and limit their ability to play a full part in society.

Since her return with the prize, Ebadi has been giving constant interviews explaining how she will pursue her career. “Iran has signed major international human rights conventions and is obligated to change those (national) laws that are in contradiction to these conventions,” she says. “It is governments that always violate human rights and I will continue my fight until they respect them.”

Her bravery reminded me of December 1998. I was visiting her at her office in central Tehran and we had just heard that another dissident, Mohammad Pouyandeh, had disappeared – the fifth in ten days. The others had been found stabbed or strangled to death a few days after they were kidnapped. The last three had been members of the Writers’ Association, as was Shirin Ebadi. Her name had appeared on a blacklist that some newspapers claimed to be a death list.

She was indeed jailed in 2000 and kept in solitary confinement for three weeks for revealing a tape in which a former vigilante had confessed that members of his group had planned an assassination attempt against two reformist ministers. When asked now if she fears imprisonment, she replies: “fear is an instinct like hunger and we all know it. I have learned not to let fear prevent me from what I should do.”

Who are the hardliners?

Iran is in political limbo: conservative politicians who have opposed a more liberal society confront all those who have campaigned for human rights and democracy. Although recent elections have shown that the former enjoy less than 15% support from the people, they control most levers of power: the judiciary, army, and the ‘watchdog’ body known as the Guardian Council which has the right to veto laws it holds to be inconsistent with Islamic law or the constitution. As a result, reformist supporters of President Khatami, who came to office in 1997 with majority support, have proved incapable of advancing their reform agenda.

Many of these supporters and allies of the president have been jailed by the judiciary. The Guardian Council has prevented the majlis from approving bills that could permit more civil liberty. Some twenty journalists and many students are in jail today; more than 100 reformist newspapers have been shut down since 1998; paramilitary forces have suppressed pro-democracy demonstrations; dissident intellectuals have been murdered by a rogue group of intelligence ministry officials (Shirin Ebadi volunteered to represent the family of the first two victims, Parvaneh and Daryoush Forouhar).

These restrictions and oppressions affect everyone, but as a woman Shirin Ebadi represents a particular challenge to the hardline elements. They hold that women’s rights are incorporated by the tenets of religion, and they wish to maintain their authority in defining those rights.

Women’s status, freedom’s condition

After the 1979 revolution, Iran’s Islamic regime replaced the secular legal code with an Islamic one according to which women’s lives and their testimony are considered half of those of men’s. According to the law, women have no right to divorce but “a man can divorce his wife whenever he wishes.” After divorce, the son belongs to his mother until the age of 2 and the daughter until the age of 7. Segregation is enforced in public places and women are required to cover their hair and wear long shapeless coats.

Ebadi argues that Islam is a religion of peace and equality, and that inequality originates from culture not religion. Moreover, Islamic law should be interpreted according to modern needs; “I am against (patriarchal) culture, not Islam,” she says.

One of the most notorious cases Ebadi defended was that of Leila Fathi, an 11-year old rural girl who was raped by three men and then killed. The court ruled that since Leila’s life was worth half of the value of each man who had murdered her, her family – in so-called compensation for the death sentence imposed on them – actually had to pay blood money for the men.

To this day, the men have not been punished because Leila’s family has failed to raise the necessary amount even after they sold all their property. “Leila’s family lost their daughter. They are homeless now because they sold everything to seek justice. Doesn’t this money seem like a prize to the family of these men?” asks Ebadi. The law remains unchanged.

A spate of recent incidents shows how this injustice is felt at all levels of society. In July, a female photo-journalist, Zahra Kazemi, was suspiciously slain in custody; in August, a young woman received a death sentence for killing a man who had allegedly tried to rape her; four women were given suspended prison sentences merely for translating and writing secular articles about women’s rights. Reformist women in parliament suffered a major setback in August after the Guardian Council rejected a bill that would have allowed Iran to sign the United Nations Convention on Eliminating Discrimination against Women.

All this makes the Nobel Peace Prize even more significant. The lawyer Shadi Sadr sums up the feelings of many: “what is important is that this prize restores an identity and pride that has been taken away from women. The Nobel Peace Prize makes us feel vindicated after all our sufferings.”


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