Joan Trevor reviews “Iran Awakening” by Shirin Ebadi (Rider, 2006)
Shirin Ebadi is a human rights lawyer in Iran and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. She takes up cases like that of the well-known political journalist Akbar Ganji, and of completely anonymous Iranians, like the dirt-poor family of Leila Fathi.
Leila was raped and murdered by three men in 1996. One of her killers supposedly committed suicide, the other two were sentenced to death.
Ebadi describes what happened next: “Under Islamic law, the family of a victim of homicide or manslaughter has the right to choose between legal punishment and financial compensation, referred to as ‘blood money’… Under the Iranian code, the worth of a woman’s life equals half of a man’s, a point that often leads to grotesque legal judgments that effectively punish the victims. In this instance, the judge ruled that the ‘blood money’ for the two men was worth more than the life of the murdered nine-year-old girl, and he demanded that her family come up with thousands of dollars to finance their executions.”
The family were ruined in their quest for what they saw as justice. The Islamic Republic regime’s laws denied them justice. But this story reflects social realities that existed before the Islamic Republic regime was installed and that will need to be fought long after it is gone: the family felt they could not go back to their village because they had been shamed by their daughter’s loss of virtue!
Ebadi was born into a family with an enlightened father who treated her no different from her brother, which was unusual. She studied law and became a judge, aged 23. In spite of this, she supported the revolution against the Shah in 1979. With others, however, she soon realised that “this revolution might eat its sisters”. At work she was “invited” to wear hijab (modest dress) in the form of a headscarf. Soon “modest dress” would be made compulsory.
Ebadi was no longer allowed to be a judge or practise law. A new Islamic penal code was introduced that discriminated against women. But Ebadi remained in Iran fighting the regime in her own way, while many of her friends and colleagues fled. After 1992 she was allowed to practise law again, and took up human rights cases. The way she argues her cases is by trying to beat the clerics at their own game, using law first devised in the seventh century.
She explains why: “We lived under an Islamic Republic that was neither going anywhere nor inclined to recast its governing ethos as secular; the legal system was underpinned by Islamic law; and every facet of a woman’s place in society… was determined by interpretations of the Koran.
“If we wanted to make a tangible difference in the lives of the women around us and in the lives of people like Leila and her family, we had no choice but to advocate for female equality in an Islamic framework.”
“On May 23, twenty-two million Iranians voted to give the Islamic Republic a second chance”, in the shape of “reformist” president Mohammed Khatami. There was partying in the streets.
Many of the reformists’ reforming plans were blocked, and Khatami was discredited for denouncing student protestors, whom he accused of “attacking the foundations of the regime and of wanting to foment tensions and disorders”. Ebadi no longer believed that “Islamic reforms” are deliverable within a theocratic regime.
For all she is a secularist, Ebadi is also a political Muslim. Summing up her career when she wins the Nobel Prize she explains: “In the last twenty-three years… I had repeated one refrain: an interpretation of Islam that is in harmony with equality and democracy is an authentic expression of faith. It is not religion that binds women, but the selective dictates of those who wish them cloistered.”
Ebadi’s book charts the brutality of the Islamic Republic regime against those Iranians it regarded as its enemies. In one period it sent assassins to kill dissidents abroad, in another period a death squad killed prominent political writers within Iran. Ebadi was on its hit list.
Ebadi sees no appetite among Iranians for revolution, but they want change. On her recent tour of the US and Europe, she made it very clear, however, that she does not want intervention by the US or other governments to bring that change:
“…the Iranian Revolution has produced its own opposition, not least a nation of educated, conscious women who are agitating for their rights. They must be given the chance to fight their own fights, to transform their country uninterrupted.”