Shirin Ebadi

(WOMENSENEWS)–Shirin Ebadi is a leading women’s rights activist and advocate for women and children in Iran whose new autobiography, “Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope,” has just been published by Random House in English. Ebadi was born in 1947 and became a leading jurist and activist before the Iranian revolution toppled the monarchy and established an Islamic state in 1979. Following the revolution, Ebadi continued to crusade for human rights, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, despite facing harassment and pressures from clergy and officials.

“Any person who pursues human rights in Iran must live with fear from birth to death,” Ebadi told a BBC interviewer in 1999, “but I have learned to overcome my fear.” In this excerpt from the third chapter of her book, Ebadi recounts how she slowly realized the revolution’s new leaders would oust her from her judicial post.

‘The Bitter Taste of Revolution’

The head-scarf “invitation” was the first warning that this revolution might eat its sisters, which was what women called one another while agitating for the shah’s overthrow. Imagine the scene, just days after the revolution’s victory. A man named Fathollah Bani-Sadr was appointed provisional overseer of the Ministry of Justice. Still flush with pride, a group of us chose a clear, breezy afternoon to descend on his office and congratulate him. We filed into the room, and many warm greetings and flowery congratulations were exchanged. Then Bani-Sadr’s eyes fell on me. I expected he might thank me, or express how much it meant to him that a committed female judge such as myself had stood with the revolution.

Instead, he said, “Don’t you think that out of respect for our beloved Imam Khomeini, who has graced Iran with his return, it would be better if you covered your hair?” I was shaken. Here we were, in the Ministry of Justice, after a great popular revolt had replaced an antique monarchy with a modern republic, and the new overseer of justice was talking about hair. Hair!

“I’ve never worn a head scarf in my life,” I said, “and it would be hypocritical to start now.”

“So don’t be a hypocrite and wear it with belief!” he said, as though he had just solved my dilemma.

“Look, don’t be glib,” I replied. “I shouldn’t be forced to wear a veil, and if I don’t believe in it, I’m just not going to wear one.”

“Don’t you see how the situation is developing?” he asked, his voice rising.

“Yes, but I don’t want to pretend to be something I’m not,” I said. And then I left the room.

I didn’t want to hear, or even think about, the kind of reality “the situation” had in store for us. I was distracted with more intimate concerns. That spring, after a second miscarriage the previous year, Javad and I had planned a trip to New York to visit a fertility specialist. The appointments had been made long in advance, before the massive breakdown in social order, and now traveling was nearly impossible. Everyone, by decree was “mamnoo ol-khorooj,” barred from leaving the country. I appealed to Abbas Amir-Entezam, the deputy prime minister, with a special letter from the head prosecutor’s office. Amir-Entezam–who was shortly thereafter arrested, and is still serving prison time to this day–granted us permission, and in April we flew to the United States. Tehran’s Mehrabab Airport, usually bustling with passengers on flights to Europe, felt like something between a ghost town and a military base. Our bags were searched minutely, lest they be full of antiques or illicit government cash, and we boarded the Boeing along with the 15 other passengers on the flight. As we stretched out in the empty rows, I gazed out the window at the Tehran disappearing beneath us, and wondered what sort of Iran we would find upon our return.

The specialists in New York were sympathetic. And perhaps in those days also more frank about what advanced medicine could do for a woman in her 30s struggling to conceive. There was an Iranian gynecologist among the Long Island clinic’s fertility team, and he put it to me, in a classically Persian way, with a metaphor about blossoms: “An apple tree might grow a hundred buds, but all of them don’t turn into apples. Can we explain why, with the same watering and climate, some of the buds fall, and others turn into fruit? Certainly not.” He explained that doctors simply cannot detect the cause of some miscarriages, and that I should fight back the depression and keep trying.

The day after we flew back to Tehran, I went straight to work. We had been gone for less than a month, but it was already a different city. The streets that crisscrossed Tehran–long boulevards with names like Eisenhower, Roosevelt, Queen Elizabeth and Peacock Throne–had been renamed after Shia imams, martyred clerics and third-world heroes of anti-imperial struggle. During our short absence, people had begun wearing their support for the revolution on their sleeves, literally. As my taxi crept past government buildings in downtown Tehran, I noticed that the usual line of ministry cars along the curb was missing, and a long line of motorcycles was parked in their stead. When I arrived at the court, I passed from hall to hall, peeking incredulously into various offices. The men were no longer wearing suits and ties but plain slacks and collarless shirts, many of them quite wrinkled, some even stained. Even my nose caught a whiff of the change. The slight scent of cologne or perfume that had lingered in the corridors, especially in the mornings, was absent. Finding one of my female colleagues in the hall, I whispered my shock at the overnight transformation, as though the ministry of staff were in dress rehearsal for a play about urban poverty.

At some moment during my short absence, apparently the populist revolt had stopped to devote attention to truly consequential matters, such as the outlawing of the tie on government property. The radical mullahs has long disparaged Westernized technocrats as “fokoli,” from the French word “faux-col,” or bow tie, and now the tie was deemed a symbol of the West’s evils, smelling of cologne signaled counterrevolutionary tendencies, and riding the ministry car to work was evidence of class privilege. In the new atmosphere, everyone aspired to appear poor, and the wearing of dirty clothes had become a mark of political integrity, a sign of one’s sympathy with the dispossessed.

“What are these chairs!” Ayatollah Taleghani, one of the prominent revolutionary clerics, had famously barked in complaint after arriving to rewrite the constitution at the senate building and finding a roomful of elegant brocaded chairs. They were already here, his aides said defensively; we didn’t go out and buy them or anything. For days, the ayatollah and his assembly penned the constitution while sitting cross-legged on the floor, until they gave up and perched on the corrupt chairs.

There was truly an air of theater to those times, but I was distracted by the rumors swirling through the judiciary, rumors so appalling that with each new repeating, I had to breathe in gulps of air to beat back my despair. The word in the halls was that Islam barred women from being judges. I tried to laugh these rumors off. I counted many senior revolutionaries among my friends, and reasoned that my connections were strong. I should mention, only for the sake of communicating what my potential removal could symbolize, that I was the most distinguished female judge in the Tehran court. My published articles had secured me some exposure, and beyond that, I had loaned the credential of my support–the support of a top female judge–to the revolution. Surely, I thought to myself, they will not come for me. If they came for me, it meant it was all over for women in the justice system, and perhaps in the government altogether.

For several months, during which I became pregnant, I stood my ground. One day, the provisional justice minister Bani-Sadr, he of the head-scarf invitation, summoned me to his office and suggested gently that he transfer me to the investigative office of the ministry. It would have been a prestigious job, but I worried that my stepping down would carry implications, and people would presume that the ranks of judgeship were closing to women. I said no. Bani-Sadr warned me that a purging committee might be formed, and that I could potentially be demoted to court assistant. “I’m not stepping down voluntarily,” I said.

Excerpted from “Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope” by Shirin Ebadi with Azadeh Moaveni. Copyright 2006 by Shirin Ebadi. Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.

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For more information:

Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Lecture, Dec. 10, 2003:

Shirin Ebadi: The 2003 Nobel Peace Prize Winner
(in Persian):

“Irani Women Protest in Shadow of Nuclear Face-off”