‘Something interesting happened to me at work today . . .’
by Shirin Ebadi
Shirin Ebadi is one of my very few real life heroes. An Iranian woman, born during the relatively liberal early reign of the last shah, when true democracy seemed only round the corner, she grew up to become a passionate advocate of women’s rights. A supporter of the popular revolution of 1979 that saw the CIA-backed shah flee the country, she quickly became a casualty of it. Deprived of her rights to practice as a judge, she continued to fight for what she believes in, enduring the wrath of the regime, and prison, before winning a Nobel Prize.
Iran Awakening is a touching and sometimes humorous autobiography of her early life and later struggles against patriarchal and often corrupt government. Shirin Ebadi was not a typical Iranian child. Contrary to the tradition in many families, her father treated all his children, boys and girls, equally. In 1965, she went to law school and qualified as a judge. In those days, young women could wear mini-skirts, go to the movies and join friends of both sexes in outings and trips to the cafés. The 1979 revolution that followed the extravagances of the shah and his harsh treatment of opponents was a turning point in her life:
‘That day, a feeling of pride washed over me that in hindsight makes me laugh. I felt that I too had won, alongside this victorious revolution. It took scarcely a month for me to realize that, in act, I had willingly and enthusiastically participated in my own demise. I was a woman, and this revolution demanded my defeat.’
Ebadi had never worn a headscarf in her life, but now the government of the Ayatollah demanded that they be worn. Deprived of her professional status, she was sent to work in a menial capacity at the legal office. Under the newly imposed Islamic law, instead of an equal partner in her marriage, she became a chattel. (*) She describes in detail the climax of the 444-day-long siege of the US embassy, its conclusion and political as well as personal consequences. Shortly after the lifting of the siege and the birth of her daughter Negar, Ebadi (and Iran) had other threats to worry about. In September 1980, Saddam Hussein invaded.
(*) In fact her husband signed a post-nuptual agreement restoring equal rights and giving her the automatic right to a divorce and to the care of their children.
Iran Awakening goes on in two chapters to discuss the Iran-Iraq War, its horrific death toll and its effect on daily life in Iran. Ebadi does not draw back in her criticism of the United States and Britain where their role in supporting Saddam merits it, but she is also critical of her own nation’s rulers and their mediaeval morality.
‘The drafters of the penal code had apparently consulted the seventh century for legal advice. The laws, in short, turned the clock back fourteen hundred years, to the early days of Islam’s spread, the days when stoning a woman for adultery and chopping off the hands of thieves were considered appropriate sentences.’
After many years of lobbying the Justice Department along with female colleagues, Shirin Ebadi eventually regained her licence to practice law and set up her own legal firm. Her pursuit of fairness and justice continued to bring her into conflict with the authorities. At one point, she found her name on a death list; the quotation at the head of my article is what she said to her husband on the day she discovered it!! Her defence of dissidents earned her a time in prison.
In 2003, Shirin Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The following quotation is part of her acceptance lecture:
‘Today coincides with the 55th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; a declaration which begins with the recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, as the guarantor of freedom, justice and peace. And it promises a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of expression and opinion, and be safeguarded and protected against fear and poverty.’
Iran is a country with a long history, a cradle of our modern civilisation, a land of philosophers, scientists and poets. Its rulers over the centuries have not always been inspired and driven by humanist ideals (or even religious ones!) but that is an accusation we can level at just about every regime that has ever existed. Yet it was the founding ruler of the Achaemenid Empire, Cyrus the Great, who once announced that he ‘would not reign over a people if they did not wish it.’ In her Nobel speech, Ebadi also called Cyrus’ freedom charter ‘one of the most important documents that should be studied in the history of human rights.’
In Iran Awakening, Shirin Ebadi presents us with a picture of her country and its people which goes contrary to all the propaganda spouted by politicians and leaders on this side of longitude 25 degrees. Despite all the wrongs perpetrated in the name of Islam, she remains true to her beliefs while being tolerant of others. Above all, she is a woman who stands for peace, justice and equality in a world that has not nearly enough of any of them. Everyone, of whatever sex, race or religion, should read this important autobiography.
Readers of my musings on this forum may have been wondering (or maybe not) why I haven’t written anything in a fortnight. Well, last week I was in Italy at an Interkultur choral festival. While there, by coincidence, I visited an exhibition of ancient Iranian artifacts in the town of Aquileia, about 100 kilometers from Venice. Contrary to what I have found many people in the West believe, Iran does not seek to destroy its pre-Islamic heritage, rather to take major steps to preserve it. In the words of the Iranian vice-president: ‘In the present world a shared cultural heritage is undoubtedly one of the most effective means of establishing constructive dialogue …. between different peoples.’
The music festival that I attended had similar objectives.