By Yassamine Mather, Workers' Left Unity-Iran
Thousands of people greeted Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi at Tehran's Mehrabad airport. Ebadi is a lawyer and human rights activist. Many who came to meet Ebadi were women activists from NGOs. Others were from independent human rights groups. Comments by Iran's president Khatami, belittling the Nobel peace prize as a political gesture by the Norwegian committee, made sure that this welcoming turned into a major anti government protest. The majority of the participants were from the middle and upper classes.
At the protest were heard slogans such as "Ebadi enemy of apartheid" (referring to sexual apartheid in Iran), "Political prisoners should be freed", "Tank, bullet have no effect, the Islamic Republic will not last". Many women's groups held placards with the slogan "Stop execution of Afasaneh Norouzi". Afasaneh Norouzi is facing execution for stabbing and blinding a man who intended to rape her. She has been in prison for the last five years and her final appeal against the death sentence was recently rejected.
Shirin Ebadi was not known by the majority of Iranians before her award. Some of her comments soon after echoed the sentiments of the Nobel Committee - about the co-existence of "an Islamic government" with democracy and women's rights. That deterred some people from joining the welcoming ceremony. Since her arrival in Tehran Ebadi has corrected some of these statements. On 19 October in an interview with the Arabic paper Al Shargh she emphasised the need for the separation of state and religion and openly criticised the president for falling behind the "reformist" movement.
Shirin Ebadi was appointed a judge in the last year's of the Shah's regime, Once the Islamic regime came to power, she could not continue as a judge. Her work as a lawyer was first and foremost in defence of the rights of women and children, inevitably concentrating on improving the rights of women in cases of divorce, polygamy and abuse, all within the confines of the laws of the Islamic regime.
Some Iranian groups of the left have criticised her for trying to fit women's rights within the limits of the laws of the land. This is an absurd criticism as the other alternatives would have been to not take women's cases, to concentrate on more lucrative clients, give up law or go into exile. She has set up a children's charity, mainly for victims of abusive parents and for children whose mother is not able to look after them. In 1999 she defended some of the students arrested after the demonstrations in Tehran University. She was also the lawyer of the families of victims of serial political murders in Iran (these were murders by agents of Iran's Ministry of Intelligence). She is currently the lawyer of Nasser Zarafshan a fellow lawyer arrested for exposing the role of high ranking members of the regime in serial political murders. Since her return to Iran she has spoken out in defence of Zarafshan.
I don't think there can be any doubt that this award has a political message. The committee was taking a stance against US/UK warmongering and Islamophobia in the region. However, if the intention was to give any solace to Iran's Islamic regime (as claimed by some groups on the left) by giving the prize to an Iranian woman, it has not had that effect. They have encouraged more outspoken forms of opposition to the Islamic regime inside the country.
Shirin Ebadi has no claims to lead struggles for democracy and women's equality, she is not a suitable person to do so. The task of the left is to warn against all forms of "elitist" individual leadership and encourage movement from below. However the demonstration at Tehran airport showed once more the anger of ordinary Iranian people, especially women, with the continued rule of the clergy. It will encourage others to join the women's movement in Iran. The task of an intelligent left is to see the contradictions presented by this award; to realise the strengths, weaknesses and limitations of a human rights lawyer. It is not to see her either as a heroine nor as a villain.