Human Rights

Prize Fighter

Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi on Islamic feminism, living with fear, and losing trust in U.S. foreign policy.
Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi has never hesitated to fight for her principles. The 57-year-old lawyer and activist has had repeated confrontations with the Iranian government over democracy, freedom of speech, the rights of women and the rights of children. One of the first female judges in Iran, Ebadi lost her seat on the bench after the Iranian Revolution, when the clerics decreed that women could not serve as judges. But that did not dampen her zeal. The Nobel Committee commended her in its announcement as a "courageous person" who "has never heeded the threats to her own safety" and has "consistently supported nonviolence."

Her activism hasn't endeared her to the Iranian authorities. She has been imprisoned for uncovering government complicity in the killings of dissident students and suspended from legal practice, and she has, by her account, escaped two assassination attempts. "Angrily, I am trying to write on the cement wall with the bottom of my spoon that we are born to suffer because we are born in the Third World," she wrote while in confinement. Even though she is the first Iranian to be awarded the Nobel, the government downplayed her achievement, with President Mohammad Khatami saying that the prize would have been more significant if she had been awarded it for scientific or literary achievements. The state-run television did not broadcast her acceptance speech last December because, by not wearing a headscarf, she was in violation of the official dress code for women.

Today, she still practices law and takes on the government. She is currently representing the family of an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist, Zahra Kazemi, who was beaten to death in an Iranian prison in July 2003. Ebadi works within the framework of Islam, attempting to come up with a progressive interpretation that provides maximum space for religious tolerance and women's rights. In the post-September 11 world, this informed the Nobel Committee's decision to bestow her the honor. "It is a pleasure for the Norwegian Nobel Committee to award the Peace Prize to a woman who is part of the Muslim world, and of whom that world can be proud – along with all who fight for human rights wherever they live," the committee stated.

Ebadi has harsh words for the Bush Administration, its war on Iraq, and its bluster about Iran. She told AP that "the Iranian people in the case of a war from the U.S. will be united to stop an occupation of their country."In person, Ebadi exuded a dignity that was formal but still friendly.

I interviewed her in May at Syracuse University. She was at the law school for a speaking engagement. She was wearing dark blue pants with a formal matching top and was without a headscarf, quite a different outfit from what she would be allowed to wear back home. She warmly responded to my questions, only momentarily showing a flash of anger when I alluded to criticism of her work. I followed her around for much of the rest of the day as she fielded queries from law students and gave a speech on Islam and human rights, in which she condemned governments that "hide behind the shield of Islam and continue to oppress their citizens." The interview is put together from my meeting with her and the questions she answered at the law school and after her talk.

You're the first Muslim woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Do you feel it to be a burden to be representing Muslim women?

Shirin Ebadi: I have to begin by saying that the prize does not belong to me alone. This prize truly belongs to all of those who have worked for the cause of human rights in Iran. The awarding of this prize to me is a recognition by the international community of the cause of Islamic feminism. Therefore, Muslim women around the world and all of those who have worked for the cause of human rights in Iran are partners in this award.

Could you tell us your assessment of the state of women in Iran and in the Muslim world?

Let me start with Iran. Sixty-three percent of our university students are female. But you still see violations of women's rights in Iran. A Muslim man can have up to four wives. He can divorce his wife without offering any reason, while it is quite difficult for a woman to get a divorce. The testimony of two women is equal to that of one man. Any woman who wishes to travel needs the written permission of her husband. And the number of unemployed women is four times that of men.

Whenever women protest and ask for their rights, they are silenced with the argument that the laws are justified under Islam. It is an unfounded argument. It is not Islam that is at fault, but rather the patriarchal culture that uses its own interpretations to justify whatever it wants. It utilizes psychology to say that women are emotional. It utilizes medical science to say that men's brains are formed in such a way that they are better able to understand concepts. These are all hypotheses. None of this has been proven. Needless to say, the dominant culture is going to insist on an interpretation of religion that happens to favor men. Before the revolution, there were the first 100 female judges in Iran. I was one of them. After the 1979 revolution, they argued that women cannot be judges, and they made us all into peons in the ministry of justice. But women resisted. We wrote essays, held protests, and organized conferences to insist that women being judges was not incompatible with Islam. After twenty years, they finally accepted the argument and said, OK, women can be judges. So, as you can see, one day they interpret Islam in such a way that women cannot be judges and the next day they manage to reverse themselves.The condition of women in Islamic societies as a whole is also far from desirable. However, we should acknowledge that there are differences. In certain countries, the conditions are much better and in others much worse. For example, the conditions women face even in Egypt differ a whole lot from what their Iranian counterparts deal with. The condition of women in Pakistan is far different from that in Saudi Arabia. This shows that you can have different interpretations of Islam. There is no "true Islam," just different interpretations. Since I brought up patriarchy, let me make one thing clear. I am not singling out men; I am addressing the issue of inequality of genders. A patriarchy does not only not accept the equality of the sexes, it also has a hard time understanding the principles of democracy and its essence. Women are the victims of this patriarchal culture, but they are also its carriers. Let us keep in mind that every oppressive man was raised in the confines of his mother's home. This is the culture we need to resist and fight.

Who have been your role models and inspirations?

I have never been convinced throughout my life that one needs to be imitating others. I even tell my daughters not to look at me as a model. Everyone's condition is different, and the way that each person lives his or her life is different. What is important is that one utilizes one's intellect and not to be 100 percent sure about one's convictions. One should always leave room for doubt.

Two criticisms of your approach have been that you are hesitant to fundamentally challenge the Islam-based sociopolitical system in Iran and that you favor Islamic democracy rather than a truly secular government. How do you respond?

I am Muslim, to begin with. It's perfectly OK that there are certain people who do not accept Islam at all. Therefore, to announce that I am a Muslim can rub some people the wrong way. But my aim is to show that those governments that violate the rights of people by invoking the name of Islam have been misusing Islam. They violate these rights and then seek refuge behind the argument that Islam is not compatible with freedom and democracy. But this is basically to save face. In fact, I'm promoting democracy. And I'm saying that Islam is not an excuse for thwarting democracy. Don't forget, I'm not here to promote Islam. Islam has its own preachers.

But some, as you said, criticize me, thinking I'm too tolerant of the clerical regime in Iran. In response, I have to say, I have served time in prison, I have lost my position [as a judge]. Do I need to prove that I am brave? Do I need to be killed? I have never had a governmental position, and I will never accept such a position.

What's your response to the argument that human rights is just a Western invention and are not applicable to the Middle East?

The idea of cultural relativism is nothing but an excuse to violate human rights. Human rights is the fruit of various civilizations. I know of no civilization that tolerates or justifies violence, terrorism, or injustice. There is no civilization that justifies the killing of innocent people. Those who are invoking cultural relativism are really using that as an excuse for violating human rights and to put a cultural mask on the face of what they're doing. They argue that cultural relativism prevents us from implementing human rights. This is nothing but an excuse. Human rights is a universal standard. It is a component of every religion and every civilization.

Democracy doesn't recognize east or west; democracy is simply people's will. Therefore, I do not acknowledge that there are various models of democracy; there is just democracy itself.

You've said that any person who is doing what you are doing "must live with fear from birth to death. But I have been able to overcome my fear." How?

How can you defy fear? Fear is a human instinct, just like hunger. Whether you like it or not, you become hungry. Similarly with fear. But I have learned to train myself to live with this fear. Every time I am fearful I think to myself, the reason they do this is to discourage me from doing what I do. Hence, if I discontinue my work I will have succumbed to my fears. Finally, I believe in God. This helps make me strong.

I wanted to move on to President Bush's war on terrorism. Here's a quote of yours: "One day they help the Taliban rise to power and the next they attack Afghanistan with the excuse of ousting the Taliban regime." If the United States is fighting the war on terrorism in the wrong way, then what is the right way to fight Islamic fundamentalism and Al Qaeda?

Certainly, the fight against terrorism is a legitimate fight. And certainly whoever commits terrorism should be brought to justice. Unfortunately, the United States and a few other governments have used the war on terrorism as a way of violating human rights. I am referring to the case of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners. This violation of the rights of prisoners has been so unbelievable that the United Nations has reminded the United States repeatedly that the treatment of prisoners should take place according to the preestablished conventions of the United Nations.

I also want to raise this important question of whether the punishment of terrorists has led to a decline in the acts of terrorism that we have witnessed. Unfortunately, the answer is a negative, since terrorism seems to be on a rise, not a decline.We need to do away with what is causing terrorism in the first place. Terrorism is based on two major pillars: One is injustice, and the other is a certainty of attitude, the notion that their version of the story is the correct one. This way of thinking – this self-certainty – is based on not being educated. Once you get exposed to other cultures, civilizations, and ways of thinking, this self-certainty should evaporate. How do you do away with this? By promoting education throughout the world. And we need to do away with injustice throughout the world, which is a major culprit. When a person is humiliated, when his rights are being violated, and he does not have the proper education, naturally he gravitates toward terrorism. We also have to acknowledge that certain groups and countries benefit from waging war. Instead of dealing with the causes of terrorism, they let terrorism serve as a justification for war. Unfortunately, violence begets violence. And this is how the war on terrorism seems to be going at this juncture. A lot of people are losing their lives. Many children are losing their parents. Too many houses are being destroyed. And, unfortunately, the arms industry seems to flourish.

When you say that countries are benefiting, do you have any particular countries in mind?

The countries with important military-industrial complexes that engage in producing arms, including the United States.

People's ignorance of the region and Western imperial interests over oil are the main reasons why we are where we are now in the region. I have said many times that I wish there was no oil in the Middle East, and more water. People would have been much happier than they are right now.

In January 2002, President Bush named Iran as part of the "axis of evil." What effect has this had in Iran, especially on democratic forces?

I have never agreed with President Bush's argument regarding the axis of evil. Unfortunately, fundamentalists in Iran have used this as an excuse to brand us as allies of Mr. Bush. When we criticize in Iran the actions of the government, the fundamentalists say that we and the Bush Administration are in the same camp. The funny thing is that human rights activists and Mr. Bush can never be situated in the same group.

And what effect has the Iraq War had on Iran and other Muslim countries?

First and foremost, people have lost their sense of trust in U.S. foreign policy. Despite the fact that the United States has been in Iraq for many months, there is still no security to be found there. The Iraqis have not been able to enjoy around-the-clock water supply and electricity. And yet oil seems to flow perfectly. On the other hand, the U.S. invasion of Iraq has created solidarity and unity among the Iraqi people because they all now have a common denominator, which is the expulsion of the United States from Iraq. And the people of Iran and the Muslim world in general have turned against the United States because they never like a foreign occupying force in their midst.Even pro-Western countries are quite worried about the actions of the United States because they, too, have lost their sense of trust in the U.S. I am 100 percent sure that the U.S. invasion of Iraq has led to a decline in American legitimacy.

But President Bush has said the Iraq War would further the cause of freedom and democracy in the region. What's your view?

The United States insisted that it was justified in invading Iraq because Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. There was discomfort in the fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction. To influence public opinion, to counter criticism, the United States then came with a second reason to invade Iraq – that it had invaded Iraq to advance democracy and human rights. North Americans do not understand that you do not throw down human rights like bombs on the Iraqis. I want to take my American friends back to the end of World War II, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was formulated. A group of thinkers met to come up with ways and means to prevent yet another war. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt played a crucial role in assembling this group of people. And that is why the name of the United States is synonymous with the cause of human rights around the world. Now what has happened to the glorious American civilization that has brought us to the present phase when we see those despicable pictures of mistreated Iraqi prisoners? What do you think Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt would have said if she were alive in this day and age? The present Administration should apologize to the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt for what it has done, for the atrocities committed.
Amitabh Pal is Managing Editor of The Progressive.
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