02.02.2004 -

Shirin Ebadi Nobel Laureate Walks Fine Line, by MEHRI MADARSHAHI


Shirin Ebadi, 2003 Nobel laureate, speaks at UNESCO Headquarters on “Religion and Democracy.”

In late February 2004, Shirin Ebadi, 2003 Nobel laureate, spoke at a meeting at UNESCO headquarters in Paris on “Religion and Democracy.” Pointing to the misuse of Islam, by a number of politicians to justify their dictatorial rule and abuse of human rights, she said that “being in opposition to the rules of the State could automatically be considered opposition to Islam and that is punishable by law.” However, she added, it is not Islam, a religion of equality and justice, that ought to be blamed for the sad state of affairs in the Muslim world; it is the manipulation of its principles by unscrupulous governments. Shirin invited UNESCO and other international organizations to help Islamic countries by expanding “education for all” so as to reduce the ignorance and illiteracy, that in her view are the root causes of fanaticism. In private, she is far more guarded, and the reasons are obvious. The prominence of being a Nobel laureate has brought with it a new set of concerns: of how her statements might be taken out of context or deliberately twisted, to enmesh her in political controversy back home in Iran. She speaks freely of her astonishment at winning the Nobel. She was in Paris on 9 October 2003, preparing to leave for Tehran, when the Norwegian Ambassador to France called and asked that she delay departure by a day: she was one of the three Nobel finalists, along with John Paul II and Vaclav Havel. She thought she was dreaming! The electrifying news that the winner was neither Havel nor the Pope, but she, a 56 years old, largely unknown Iranian woman, came by radio, at 11 that night. The Nobel committee selected her for promoting peaceful, democratic solutions to social problems and inducing new thinking on Islamic terms. “The prize turned my life around” Shirin says, recalling that it brought both excitement and anxiety. Anxiety, because “the prize has laid a heavy responsibility” on her shoulders, and she could no longer continue her work as a simple lawyer and a social activist. By winning the prize she became a “nightmare for that Government,” one of her friends in Paris told me. That required her to be more guarded in speech in addressing the issues of a society where a woman is not allowed to practice law and be a judge, where any opposition to and criticism of current policies and practices could be considered as subversive. Asked whether her new fame would help ease the struggle of Iranian women for a more equal and better life, she answers curtly that she has “no desire to be considered a paragon of resistance or an ivory tower of intellectual.” However, in her Nobel acceptance speech on 10 December 2003, Shirin addressed the issue I raised: “Undoubtedly, my selection will be an inspiration to the masses of women who are striving to realize their rights, not only in Iran but throughout the region - rights taken away from them through the passage of history. This selection will make women in Iran, and much further afield, believe in themselves.” But she does not aspire to be a heroine to anyone. All she plans to do is continue her efforts as a lawyer and activist — not as a role model — for other women in the Islamic world. She believes, especially, that Iranian women have reached a level of maturity that precludes the need for a social or political symbol to attain their legal and social rights. Their claims, she believes, have a logic that cannot be ignored by Iranian society. What she does not say, is that her work as writer and speaker, low key, educational, strategic, has undoubtedly had an impact on Iranian attitudes on women’s rights, perhaps even softening the stance of religious ideologues.


When she got back home to Tehran after the announcement of the Nobel, she got a taste of the new realities that now rule her life. Thousands of enthusiasts and supporters had gathered at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran, to greet her, but religious hard-liners blocked their access. Their partisans, carrying banners that expressed shame and dismay that an Iranian had earned the same award as had Menachem Begin, took up the front rows of the crowd, shouting and ranting against her. Later, a group of religious clerics from Qom released a statement saying the Nobel prize was aimed at “ridiculing Islam.” It took a while before the official organs of the Government acknowledged the Nobel award. As it had been given because Shirin was a Muslim woman, the government invited her to use the opportunity to spread the teachings of Islam. She has accepted that instruction, but in a way surely unexpected by the hardliners. In her Nobel acceptance speech — delivered in the name of “the God of Creation and Wisdom” — Shirin said: “Islam is a religion whose first sermon to the Prophet begins with the word “Recite!” The Koran swears by the pen and what it writes. Such a sermon and message cannot be in conflict with awareness, knowledge, wisdom, freedom of opinion and expression and cultural pluralism.” Some Muslims, she said, “under the pretext that democracy and human rights are not compatible with Islamic teachings and the traditional structure of Islamic societies, have justified despotic governments , and continue to do so. In fact, it is not so easy to rule over a people who are aware of their rights, using traditional, patriarchal and paternalistic methods.” The disc r i m i n a t o r y plight of women in Islamic states, she continued, “whether in the sphere of civil law or in the realm of social, political and cultural justice, has its roots in the patriarchal and male-dominated culture prevailing in these societies, not in Islam.” She also noted in her speech that on the 55th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights it was “of extreme concern to observe that under the pretext of cultural relativity, international human rights laws and standards are breached not only by their recognized opponents, but also by the Western democracies — in other words, in those countries who were among the initial codifiers of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is in this framework that, for months, hundreds of individuals who were arrested in the course of military conflicts in Afghanistan and elsewhere, have been imprisoned in Guantanamo, without the benefit of the rights stipulated under the Geneva conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

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