Skip to comments.Celebrating Shirin Ebadi (Amir Taheri on Nobel winner, pro-democracy Iranian dissident)
Posted on 10/17/2003 12:49:38 PM PDT by Stultis
October 17, 2003, 9:19 a.m.
Celebrating Shirin Ebadi
An Iranian woman gets Nobel praise.
A new T-shirt is on sale in Tehran, the Iranian capital. It bears the message "Shirin Shirin Est!" ("The Sweet One is Sweet"). This is a play on the name of Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer and human-rights fighter who has just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. (Shirin means "sweet" in Persian.)
The Nobel committee's decision to name Mrs. Ebadi as the 2003 laureate has turned her into a household name throughout Iran and the Muslim world. Within 48 hours of the announcement of the news, Mrs. Ebadi received over 10,000 cables, e-mails, and phone messages from one end of the Muslim world to another.
The announcement of her win in Oslo was followed by scenes of popular elation in Tehran, where students male and female distributed flowers and sweets, the symbol of "Shirin" to passers-by.
The Khomeinist ruling establishment, however, did not know what to do with the news. It ignored the Oslo announcement for a whole day, and then acknowledged it with a twelve-word news brief. The whole of Iran had already heard the news thanks to Persian radio and TV broadcasts from the United States and Europe.
Then began the campaign of vilification against Ebadi. One radical Khomeinist leader described her as an "agent of American Imperialism and Zionism." A Khomeinist daily in Tehran presented the choice of Ebadi as a move in "a plot by the enemies of Islam" to undermine the Islamic Republic.
Iran's president, Muhammad Khatami, often presented in the West as a reformist, had his own way of putting things: "This is not worth all the fuss. . . . The Nobel Peace Prize is nothing. Prizes for literature and science matter." Khatami's comment is a sign not only of sour grapes he himself had hoped to get a Nobel when he won his first term in office in 1997 on a reformist platform but also of the fear which Ebadi strikes in the hearts of the ruling mullahs. She is a symbol of everything they fear and loath.
To begin with, Ebadi is a woman and as such is regarded by Khatami and other mullahs as, at best, half of a human being. To present her as a hero for mankind as a whole is just too much for them to bear. Second, Ebadi makes a point of emphasizing her Iranian-ness, much to the chagrin of the mullahs, who insist that Islam recognizes no national boundaries and that the love of one's homeland is incompatible with the love of God.
Third, Ebadi says she is proud to be a Muslim in her own way. She insists that no one, least of all the mullahs, has the right to tell others how to live and practice their faith. "There are no priests and no church in Islam," she repeats. "As Muslims we are alone responsible for our deeds and shall face Divine Judgment as individuals. Because we are not robots no one could programme us with his version of religion."
Fourth, Ebadi makes no secret of her dislike of the Hijab, a head covering invented in the 1970s in Lebanon and gradually imposed as a symbol of Islamic radicalism throughout the world. She is forced to wear it in Iran, where refusal to wear the Hijab is punishable by six months in jail and/or a caning in public. But, like all other Iranian women, she casts it aside as soon as she is outside the realm of the Islamic Republic. "Instead of telling Muslim women to cover their heads we should tell them to use their heads," Ebadi says. "We must not accept anything that is rejected by our reason." Ebadi's rejection of the Hijab is one of the themes now used in the propaganda campaign launched against her by the state-owned media in Tehran. This is because Islamism, having failed to develop a serious philosophy, is forced to cling to head-coverings and beards as its only achievements.
Fifth, Ebadi is the product of a society that the Islamist terrorists have been trying to destroy since 1979. She was part of a second generation of Iranian women who were able to attend university. She studied law, a field expressly closed to women by the Islamists, and became a judge in 1974. (She was one of 46 Iranian women to serve as a judge. In 1979 the Iranian supreme court also included one woman among its nine members.)
The significance of a woman serving as a judge may be hard to grasp for non-Muslims. But the advent of female judges in Iran under the Shah was a truly revolutionary event, unprecedented in the 1,500-year history of Islam. Women whose testimony, according to Islamic sharia, is regarded as only half-valid were never allowed even to act as ordinary lawyers, let alone to judge their superiors, which is to say men.
Under the fascist worldview of Islamism, a woman cannot leave home without a chaperone and cannot travel without the written permission of her husband, brother, father, or other male relative. A man can take up to four permanent wives and as many temporary ones as he likes, and can repudiate any wife at any time without informing her. In that context, the Ebadi's generation, which gave Iran its first women members of parliament, cabinet ministers, provincial governors, ambassadors, army and police commanders, aircraft pilots, surgeons, and bus and taxi drivers was a truly heroic one.
The mullahs tried to kill that generation and thrust women again to the margins of society. They failed for two reasons. First, the Iran-Iraq War, which began in 1980 and lasted eight long years, kept almost one million men at the front, making it impossible to run many sectors of the economy without letting women work. And second, because of the existence of heroic women like Shirin Ebadi who were ready to fight and, in many cases, die defending their newly won rights. Mrs. Ebadi, now 56 and the mother of two daughters, has been repeatedly beaten up by Islamist thugs. She has been imprisoned, kept under house arrest, prevented from working, and subjected to the most vicious of media campaigns. And yet she has not wavered. The mullahs hate her because she symbolizes the failure of their criminal enterprise.
"All human beings are of equal worth simply by existing," she says. That, of course, is in direct opposition to the basic principles of Islamism, which hold that humanity is divided according to a strict hierarchy of worth. At the top of this hierarchy are free Muslim males, the cream of humanity. Below them, in descending order of humanity, are: Muslim male slaves, free Muslim women, Muslim female slaves, the males of the "People of the Book" (Jews and Christians), and, finally, the female of the People of the Book. The rest of humanity Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and others are regarded as worthless, and, because they lack a soul, cannot claim to have any rights whatsoever.
Ebadi rejects that "Islamic" hierarchy as "absurd and dangerous." "There is no future for mankind without human rights," she said at her first international press conference in Paris on Monday. "Any discrimination on the basis of gender, race, or religion is a challenge to our basic humanity." Ebadi has gone out of her way to dismiss suggestions that she may be contemplating a political career. "What I do is not political in the accepted sense of the term," she said. "All I am doing is to fight for the creation of conditions in which Iranians, and other Muslim nations, can have a real political life."
Giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Ebadi is a strong signal from the democratic world to those Muslims who are fighting fascism disguised as religion, often at great personal risk. The world of Islam is passing through a civil war of ideas of a magnitude not seen since the 12th century. And, just as in the 12th century, the fight is between those who wish to turn religion into a weapon of rule by terror, and those who, like Ebadi, see faith as a personal matter, to be worked out between the individual and God.
In the 12th century, the fascists won. The result was the advent of Islam's Dark Ages, from which it began to recover only in the 19th century and even then only slowly. Who will win this time? With people like Shirin Ebadi in the field, the fascists are right to fear for their future.
Amir Taheri, an NRO contributor, is an Iranian author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam. He's reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.
A Nobel for Shirin Ebadi
The Shirin of Persian romance literature is the iconic female who reposes in sublime passivity. Her enchanted lover, Farhad, carves a mountain into a palace and sculpture garden as a token of his devotion. Far from the languorous Shirin of the legend, the Shirin who won the Noble Peace Prize follows the example of Farhad. Shirin Ebadi has spent her life chipping away at the rock faces that block Islamic Irans view of human rights and she has done so patiently, passionately and indefatigably.
Ebadi was the first woman appointed judge under the previous regime. When she lost her position to the strictures of the Islamic Sharia, Shirin Ebadi went back to square one and started her career as a human rights lawyer. She knew others who were similarly aggrieved. They would frame the dismissal note as a badge of honor and migrate to a Western metropolis in justifiable anger at those who had ruined their lives and careers. Shirin could have led a comfortable, safe and even meaningful life, donning the mantle of the victim and denouncing the evil Islamic regime from the safety of exile. Like a recent detractor, Nahid Riazi of Copenhagen, or the radicalized Iranians who booed her at the Berlin Conference four years ago, Shirin could have spoken as the voice of the entire population of Iranian women without risking a thing or lifting a finger to help a single one of them.
But the Farhad in Shirin rejected this choice as the easy, and indeed cowardly, way out. In a recent press conference Ebadi admitted that her struggles on behalf of Iranian women, children, students and victims of political assassinations had not been easy as she lived in fear of her life and liberty for decades. But, Ebadi added, she could never have been so proud of her accomplishments had they come to her easily.
The Noble Peace Prize could not have comes to the aid of the democratic movement of Iran at a more opportune time. Nor could it have gone to a better candidate: One can hardly imagine putting the award to better use in promoting the cause of freedom and democratic struggle. Ebadi, like her fellow Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, shall wear her laurite clout as a chain mail. She will be ever more effective in pushing legislation in support of the rights of women and children. She will be virtually invincible in defending the victims of political violence and the prisoners of conscience who wander the maze of the right wing judiciarys odious Castle. As her first post-Nobel challenge Shirin Ebadi has accepted to represent Stephan, the son of the slain Iranian Canadian photojournalist, Zahra Kazemi.
One of the more interesting aspects of the coverage of Shirin Ebadi has been her self-description as a Muslim woman and her statement that Islam and human rights are compatible. This statement must be placed in the context of Ebadis legal philosophy, and that of the new theology of the Iranian reform movement. In her legal research Shirin Ebadi is at pains to expose the contradictions of the Iranian incarnation of Islamic law. For instance, she points out that a father will expose himself to the harsh, retributive punishment should he assist his wife to effect an abortion. But, should the attempt fail, the same father could kill the same child at the age of 14 and face only a monetary fine. In another paper Ebadi questions the Islamic law that prosecutes 9-year-old girls and 15-year-old boys as adults but refuses to let them travel without parental consent. In yet another paper she finds the law that would allow a childs marriage based on parental consent inhumane, contrary to the spirit of Islamic charity and contradictory to the international human rights treaties signed by Iran.
Indeed, neither Shirin Ebadi nor anyone else in the intellectual leadership of Irans reform movement believes that the actually existing Sharia or any of its contemporary legal makeovers including those issued by the Islamic Council of Europe (1980-81,) the Kuwait summit of international Arab jurists and lawyers (1980,) and the Cairo Declaration of the 19th Conference of Islamic Foreign Ministers based on the Tehran draft (1990) come close to bridge the gap between Sharia and modern conceptions of human rights. The Islam of Shirin Ebadi is not literalist, and nor is that of the emerging reform theology of Iran. In a recent, boldly iconoclastic treatise Mohsen Kadivar, who is a qualified Islamic jurist (or mujtahid) has argued that the Sharia laws discriminate based on status (slave/free,) sexuality (men/women,) religion (Islam/non-believer,) denomination (Shiite/Sunni,) training (clergy/lay,) and prescribe cruel and inhumane punishments. Thus, he avers, Sharia cannot be reconciled with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He adds that for the modern man and woman the superiority of life under rational and humanistic principles of human rights over a social order based on Sharia is incontrovertible. This leads Kadivar to the conclusion that the spiritual Islam must be allowed to molt out of the hardened, legal shell of historical Islam. Iran is not unique in the Islamic world for offering such radical departures from the traditional apologetics but it is the only Islamic country where such interpretations form the ideology of a grassroots movement that has delivered landslide majorities to the polling stations. And it is this Islam with which Ebadi identifies.
There is no denying that Shirin Ebadis life work as a tireless advocate for modern human rights in Iran could not be seen as anything but an ongoing struggle against an ossified body of laws that claim divine origin but contain mores of a tribal and feudal past. There must be no doubt that her statement about the compatibility of Islam and human rights refers to the spiritual and not historical Islam. Some might wonder why Ebadi and other reformers dont abandon Islam altogether a beguilingly simple choice to many diaspora Iranians. The reformers would respond that as long as three-quarters of Iranians are practicing Muslims (according to the most recent sociological study commissioned by the National Science Foundation and conducted by professor Mansoor Moaddel in Egypt, Jordan and Iran,) abandoning Islam to the exegeses of the medieval jurists of the right wing would be intellectually reckless and politically suicidal. They would remind the laic pessimists who repeat the mantra of Islam cant be reformed that the emergence of a post-enlightenment of Islam is not any more impossible that the accomplished facts of the Reform Judaism and post-Higher-Criticism Christianity of mainline churches. Shirin Ebadis public endorsement of Islam is a qualified proposition but it is sociologically sound and politically astute.
Ahmad Sadri, professor of anthropology and sociology a Lake Forest College in Chicago, Illinois, wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR
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