By Dan De Luce
Sunday, October 12, 2003
Legal warrior for Iran's women and a brilliant interpreter of Islamic law, Shirin Ebadi became the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. She spoke to Women's eNews in an exclusive interview two weeks before her award was announced.
TEHRAN, Iran (WOMENSENEWS)--There was a time when Shirin Ebadi was a lone voice in the wilderness.
No more. Women's eNews spoke to Ebadi two weeks ago, before she became the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The interview was wide-ranging, with Ebadi freely discussing her decades of insistance that Islam does not require the repression of women's rights. She revealed how she withstood solitaryconfinement and expressed her dreams for the future of an Iran that respects the rights of women.
After the 1979 revolution that toppled Iran's monarchy, the conservative clerics who seized power told her she could no longer serve as a judge. And she was castigated for questioning draconian laws imposed against women.
"I remember the early days after the revolution, when I wrote articles about women's rights, many Iranian women attacked me, saying I was not respecting Sharia law," Ebadi told Women's eNews in an interview last month.
"In parliament, one representative, a female doctor, read one of my articles out loud and then she said, 'Please Mrs. Ebadi, shut up. Or people will make you shut up.'"
Ebadi refused to shut up. She argued for women's rights and free speech in the courtroom, published books on human rights, won over moderate clerics and inspired students with her lectures on the rule of law.
More than 20 years since she was verbally attacked on the floor of parliament, the tide has shifted in her favor. Revolutionary fervor in Iran has given way to frustration and impatience. Now female legislators are seeking out her legal opinion and she is a role model for law students.
By staying above the partisan political arena and using Islam as a basis for her arguments, she poses a dilemma for the theocratic leadership. Married with two grown daughters, her personal life is beyond reproach.
Unlike some political activists, she cannot be accused of treasonous opinions as she is citing the writings of clerics and the Koran itself.
"Islam is not the problem. It is the culture of patriarchy. Some clerics have interpreted Sharia law in a way that discriminates against women," Ebadi said.
According to Ebadi, women are increasingly aware of their rights and unwilling to tolerate the status quo.
"At the beginning, few people knew about these discriminatory laws. Few could understand what I was trying to say," she said. "Now women in parliament, even the ones who wear the chador, think like me," she said, referring to the head-to-toe garment worn by more traditional women. "One reason is that 63 percent of students entering university are women. Before the revolution, it was about 25 percent. That's very important."
In a country where two-thirds of the population is under 30 years old, Ebadi believes the social change that has begun cannot be stopped.
"If you ask Iranian women, 'Are you satisfied with your legal situation?' about 90 percent will say no," she said.
The Nobel committee provided a shot in the arm to Ebadi and others who have dared to confront the powerful judiciary, which regularly imprisons journalists, student leaders and other activists for criticizing the theocratic system.
From a small book-lined office in Tehran, her influence reaches far and wide and her energy seems boundless. The 56-year-old Ebadi churns out books and articles on human rights, reads her students' dissertations, prepares for high-profile trials and discusses plans for her new nongovernmental organization. She has refused to call herself a feminist, saying that the problems of women cannot be separated from society as a whole.
Three years ago, Ebadi and another human rights lawyer were accused of "disturbing public opinion" by interviewing an ex-member of the notorious
Ansar-e Hezbollah vigilante group. In a video of the interview, the paramilitary implicated senior establishment figures in a failed assassination attempt against a former vice president Abdollah Nouri.
In a closed trial, Ebadi received a suspended sentence of 15 months. She said her most frightening experience occurred when a document emerged after a purge of the intelligence ministry. The document resembled a list of political enemies. Some of the names on the list included intellectuals who had been murdered in unexplained circumstances. Ebadi's name was the list.
During a brief spell in solitary confinement at Evin prison, Ebadi's back pain and other ailments became almost unbearable. "I hate myself for being so weak. I try not to complain," she wrote later.
"I would just press my teeth against each other and would flex my fingers
hard--my nails have turned blue because of the intensity of the pressure--but never would I groan."
The international spotlight created by the Nobel award will make it difficult for the judiciary and its security forces to go after Ebadi again. Her newly created nongovernmental organization, the Center for the Defense of Human Rights, will also receive much-needed support from the $1.3 million in cash that comes with the award.
One of her colleagues, Mohammad Fayfzadeh, said the organization was launched by Ebadi and several other lawyers in an attempt to promote civil rights without partisan political interference.
"In recent years, we reached the conclusion that reviving democracy in Iran wouldn't be possible without establishing a nongovernmental organization which is independent of the government," he said.
Iran's powerful hard-liners accused the Nobel committee of meddling in the country's internal affairs by awarding the annual peace prize to an Iranian dissident. The conservative-controlled state television hesitated for a few hours before finally reporting the news that Ebadi won last week, burying the item at the end of the broadcast.
The reformist government led by President Mohammad Khatami, which has been thwarted by powerful clerics in the judiciary and security forces, welcomed the Nobel award. The embattled reformists might try to use the occasion to push through initiatives that have been blocked in the past by unelected bodies.
But Khatami's cautious approach in politics has drawn criticism from Ebadi and some of her associates.
"Khatami is talking about the rule of law. Everyone is talking about the rule of law. We will only have the rule of law in Iran on the day that women are treated the same as men under the law," Ebadi once said.
Many of Iran's dissident voices have been compromised, forced into exile or reduced to silent despair. But Ebadi stands out for her determination and her consistency.
Although she has been repeatedly threatened and harassed, she continues to speak her mind and to take on sensitive cases that highlight human rights abuses. Ebadi also is a popular mentor for aspiring lawyers at the university where she lectures, and that must have hard-line clerics worried.
Ebadi's latest court case has her arguing against the provisions of "blood money" law that puts the value of a woman's life at half that of a man's. Ebadi said she has taken on the case to expose the law's injustice.
She is representing the parents of a Kurdish 11-year-old girl who was raped and murdered. One of her killers confessed seven years ago. Two other men have been convicted in a trial and the court sentenced them to death.
Under the bizarre terms of "blood money" law, the family of the female victim has to raise money to pay for the execution of the male killer. The murderer's life is worth twice that of the Kurdish family's slain daughter.
"The family had to sell their house and possessions but it wasn't enough," Ebadi said. "The father went to a doctor to try to sell his kidney."
A judge recently ruled that the state would help pay a portion of the blood money. Ebadi does not consider the decision a genuine victory but she feels the news coverage of the case has helped shed light on a law created for another era when men were the sole breadwinners.
"As an optimist, I believe the law will be changed. But when, I don't know. Maybe in two months, maybe in two years," she said. "But it will be changed."
Her forecast is spoken with utter confidence. Awarding the Nobel to Ebadi will only make her supporters more confidant that time is on their side.
Dan De Luce is a correspondent based in Tehran, Iran.
Women in Iran