A woman of action
Shirin's Ebadi's background and the impact of her
Nobel Peace Prize
By Farhang Jahanpour
October 27, 2003
The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Shirin Ebadi, the
Iranian judge, lawyer and political activist, was as inspired
as it was unexpected. The granting of that prestigious prize
to the first Muslim woman, especially from a country where women
have had to put up with the medieval status forced on them by
the mullahs, sends a number of powerful messages to a whole variety
of different audiences. The first message of this award is clearly
to Iranian reformers and political activists, especially those
who work for equal rights for women.
The 1962 "Family Protection Law" passed by the Iranian
parliament under the shah was one of the most enlightened documents
on the rights of women in the entire Middle East and the Islamic
world as a whole. That law granted women votes, gave women equality
of civil rights with men, allowed women to work at all levels
of society, including as judges, government ministers, parliamentarians,
university professors and even in the military.
One of the most remarkable aspects of that law
was that it put an end to the centuries-old oppression of women
in the family.
The Family Protection Law granted women free choice in marriage,
raised the age of marriage from the age of nine permitted by
Islam to 16, and outlawed polygamy. It prevented men from divorcing
their wives at will, and what was equally important was that
women were also given the right to divorce their husbands.
1936 Reza Shah had already banned the use of veil by women,
but the rules were relaxed after his death. However, most educated
women in Iran and strangely enough the majority of women in
villages went about their lives without any veils or scarves.
The use of the loose garment chador was mainly confined to
women in the religiously conservative and often poorer families
The Family Protection Law ushered in a new age
of emancipation and public participation for women. The number
of girls studying
in schools and universities steadily grew. The participation
of girls in towns and cities in school education was almost equal
to that of boys, and the percentage of girls in the universities
was not much below comparable figures in the West. Many women
achieved high positions in the society, including a few able
ministers. Ebadi herself was one of the first women appointed
as a judge in Iran.
However, with the outbreak of the Islamic revolution
and the narrow and male-dominated interpretation of Islamic texts,
well as a reaction to whatever had happened under the shah, the
Family Protection Law was annulled. Despite Ayatollah Khomeini's
earlier promises that his regime would respect the rights of
women, many women were dismissed from their jobs, there was sexual
segregation in schools and universities. They even tried to segregate
male and female passengers in buses, but it met with massive
reaction and could not be imposed. One of the earliest edicts
issued by Ayatollah Khomeini was that women had to wear Islamic
hijab and cover their heads.
Ebadi and other female judges
were dismissed from their posts as, according to Ayatollah
Khomeini's interpretation of Islam, women were deficient in
was re-instituted, the age of marriage for girls was reduced
to nine, men were allowed to divorce their wives at will,
women were denied the right to divorce their husbands and in
cases when men had divorced their wives the fathers were given
of their children.
In many cases when women went to court complaining
about maltreatment and physical abuse they were told that they
had to "obey" their
husbands. In some cases, even when the lives of women were at
risk, the courts refused to intervene and that often led to the
murder of the wife by the husband who simply had to pay the so-called
blood money to the family of the wife. Incidentally, the amount
of blood money for a murdered man was twice that of a murdered
woman. If a woman had killed a man she would be sentenced to
death, but if a man had killed a woman he could get away by merely
paying the blood money.
Women were among the first groups to rise up against
those regressive measures and literally hundreds of thousands
of women marched
in Tehran unveiled and rejected the forceful imposition of Islamic
hijab. However, Khomeini's immense authority at the time, coupled
with the attacks on women by vigilantes, forced them to give
in to the new restrictions. In the early days of the revolution,
religious zealots would attack unveiled women and on rare occasions
pinned their scarves to their foreheads or sprayed acid on their
faces. These zealots would march through the streets chanting
an insulting rhyme "ya rusari, ya tusari" (either cover
your heads or we will hit you on the head).
students were barred from taking a number of scientific and technical
subjects. They were encouraged to go
to nursing or teaching, and even in schools they were allowed
to teach girls only. Women were discouraged from working outside
homes, as allegedly that would lead to immorality and prostitution.
A phoney referendum was held with a number of misleading
questions such as "Will a child be better cared for by her mother
or by a childminder?", "If only one person in the family
could go to work, would it be better for the mother or the father
to work?", "If the society is suffering from unemployment,
would it be more equitable to allow one member of each family
to work, or to allow both wife and husband in one family to work
thus depriving other men of jobs?, etc. On the basis of such
distorted and nonsensical questions, they decreed that women
should stay at home and take care of their families.
Women take action and their situation begin to
The first few years after the Islamic revolution proved very
difficult for women in Iran, especially as they had already experienced
a taste of freedom and legal equality under the shah. However,
Ayatollah Khomeini had underestimated the determination and tenacity
of Iranian women. Women started to organise and to protest.
war with Iraq that lasted for eight years and caused nearly
a million dead and injured meant that women were once again needed
for their labour. Despite the exhortations of Ayatollah Khomeini
and reactionary mullahs, parents put a great deal of emphasis
on the education of their daughters and in many cases girls
the boys at academic performance. In fact, during the past
few years the number of female students in universities has exceeded
the number of male students.
Many women activists started to organise activities
for women and many female lawyers started to defend the rights
even according to Koranic texts. They pointed out that the Koran
itself was not hostile to equality between the sexes, but that
the male-oriented interpretations by chauvinistic mullahs had
distorted those teachings. Ebadi was at the forefront
of such activities. In numerous articles she pointed out the
inequalities in the law and called for a change in the law.
a leading lawyer, she began to defend the rights of women and
campaigned for their emancipation. Even the daughters of some
leading clerical members of the society, such as the daughter
of the late Ayatollah Mahmud Taleqani and the daughter of the
former President Hashemi-Rafsanjani started to champion the cause
It was as the result of the activities of such
brave women that gradually those oppressive rules were moderated
and the situation
of women began to improve. The parliament began to pass laws
rescinding the earlier practices. The legal age of marriage for
girls was again raised to 15. Special courts were set up for
family disputes and they made an enormous change in the plight
of women. Custody of infants is now routinely given to mothers.
Women could sue for divorce, and although the court
initially advises reconciliation it invariably allows divorce
is a good reason for it. It has been declared that marriage is
a form of social contract, and girls could specify in that agreement
that they would not allow their husbands to marry another woman,
and many have made use of such provisions.
A few months ago, the reformist parliament passed
a bill advocating that Iran should joint the convention banning
against women, but that bill was rejected by the conservative
Guardian Council that represents the views of hard-line clerics.
The new laws passed by the Majlis during the past few days under
the pressure of activists such as Ebadi have made an enormous
difference in the lives of women and children.
strides have been made in this respect, there is still a long
way to go, including the forceful wearing of the Islamic hijab.
Of course, if women decide freely to cover themselves that is
their right, but what many people object to is that they are
forced to do so, although there is no clear Koranic injunctions
The Prize to Ebadi sends a powerful message
to the Muslim world
The issue of sexual equality is not only a matter of concern
in Iran, but in many other Islamic countries. In fact, in some
Islamic countries the situation is much worse than that in Iran.
The granting of the Nobel Peace Prize to Ebadi must send a
powerful message to all the women throughout the Islamic world
and beyond that the time for the suppression of women has come
to an end.
It is no longer permissible to discriminate against
half of the society. Women must enjoy equality with men as a
matter of right, and nobody is allowed to impose medieval values
on modern women and prevent them from achieving their full potential.
Women have an equal right to education and no one has the right
to deprive them of it. Women have the right to choose or divorce
their husbands exactly in the same way that men can choose or
divorce their wives, and there should be no distinction on that
There are many verses in the Koran about slavery
and the laws that govern it. Most Muslim jurists are embarrassed
to talk about
them, and when they are asked about those laws they merely say "the
time for slavery has passed and those laws are no longer applicable." Surely,
it is equally true that the time for regarding women's rights
to be half that of men, for polygamy, for allowing men to beat
their wives and many other teachings that might have made sense
1,400 years ago has also passed. Those old teachings that belonged
to a different age and different circumstances cannot be revived.
It would be as absurd to wish to revive those laws as it would
be to reinstate slavery. It is the task of female theologians
to point out those anomalies and to interpret Islamic teachings
in a way that is appropriate for the modern age.
often said that her quarrel is not with Islam, but with the narrow
and outdated interpretations of Islamic laws by reactionary clerics.
This problem is not only confined to Islam, but the followers
of all other ancient religions have also been forced to adjust
themselves to the realities of the modern, scientific age. That
was the message of the Reformation, and surely the time has come
for an Islamic Reformation that would retain the spirit of Islam
but would make social teachings compatible with the modern world.
If the Islamic world wishes to achieve even economic
and political development, it cannot do so without the full participation
women. Many Muslim countries are depriving themselves of the
contribution of half of their labour force. The emancipation
of women in Islamic countries would create a vibrancy and a new
sense of dynamism that would contribute greatly to the emancipation
of the whole society.
Women would civilise and refine those societies
in the same way that they have done in many advanced countries.
Respect for women and for children is an essential prerequisite
for development and progress. As the chairman of the Nobel Prize
Committee pointed "…no society deserves to be labelled
civilised unless the rights of women and children are respected."
It's also a message about political freedom
The other message of the Nobel Peace Prize was about political
freedom. This was another cause for which Ebadi has fought
all her life. The main slogan of the Iranian revolution was "Independence,
Freedom, Social Justice". Iran was one of the first countries
in the Middle East to stage a constitutional revolution and to
put an end to despotism.
The Iranian constitutional revolution
of 1905-11 put an end to the millennia-old despotic and absolute
rule of the kings and placed the real power in the hands of the
Majlis or parliament elected by the people. The kings became
constitutional monarchs and symbolic heads of state, and power
was transferred to the cabinet approved by the parliament. There
was an amazing flowering of freedom, and the works of the writers,
poets, journalists and preachers of the time show clearly the
extent of the interest and enthusiasm that existed among the
Iranians for freedom and democracy.
Unfortunately, the outbreak of the First World
War soon after the victory of the Constitutional Revolution and
of foreign powers in Iran despite Iran's stated neutrality aborted
the full fruition of the constitutional aspirations. After the
war when the country was occupied by foreign forces and the economy
was in a desperate state, a young army officer Reza Khan staged
a coup against the corrupt, former Qajar dynasty. Reza Khan initially
wanted to create republic, but strangely enough the leading clerics
ruled that republicanism was anti-Islamic. The parliament that
was anxious to establish law and order in the country appointed
Reza Khan as the first king of the Pahlavi dynasty.
Shah achieved a great deal and ensured the territorial integrity
of the country, he gradually grew more despotic. Like
Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, he waged a secular campaign and limited
the power of the clergy. There was a great deal of economic reform
and industrialisation, but they were not matched by political
development. The parliament was weakened, opposition parties
were suppressed, freedom of expression was limited and although
the country still continued to be governed according to a seemingly
constitutional pattern, the constitution was denuded of its meaning.
straight line from 1953 to the anti-American revolution in 1979
The Second World War and the reoccupation of the country by the
Allies brought Reza Shah's reign to an end, and he was replaced
by his young and inexperienced son, Mohammad Reza Shah. Again,
after the war, there was a short period of freedom and the flowering
of free press and political activity.
The exploitation of Iran's
oil industry by the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company
angered many nationalists who wished to put an end to that unjust
It has been calculated that between 1919 and 1950 when the
Iranian oil was nationalised by the parliament under the leadership
the nationalist premier Dr Mohammad Mosaddeq (1951-53), Iran's
share of her oil wealth was only 12 percent of the total revenue
while the British company received the rest.
The nationalisation of Iranian oil industry was
warmly supported by the people, and it also set a precedent for
in the region - such as Egypt - to think of nationalising their
own assets. However, Britain that saw her interests threatened
as the result of oil nationalisation plotted to topple Dr Mosaddeq's
government. America that had woken up to the importance of the
Middle East oil and wished to have a share in it and gradually
to bring it under her total control, instructed the CIA to help
Britain to stage a coup in Iran.
The Anglo-American coup of 1953
not only deprived Iran of its rightful share in its oil wealth,
it put back the cause of democracy for decades. The shah lost
his legitimacy in the eyes of the people, and the Iranians
also lost their faith in Western democracy. The 1953 coup directly
led to the anti-American Islamic revolution of 1978-79.
What people had initially hoped was that by putting
an end to the shah's regime they could again regain freedom and
A look at the books and articles written at the time and the
slogans chanted by the people shows that achieving freedom, democracy
and independence were uppermost in people's minds. They made
use of religion and the mosques because they were the last refuge
they possessed as all other forms of political activity was banned.
They were hoping that by making use of the bulldozer
of religion with its mass appeal they could confront the shah's
soldiers and the dreaded SAVAK secret police. They also hoped
that after victory they would be able to send the mullahs back
to the mosques and would be able to establish democracy and freedom.
Unfortunately, things did not turn out that way. The hostage
crisis and the Iraqi invasion of Iran in September 1979 - allegedly
at American instigation - meant that the people had no choice
but to pull together in order to repulse the foreign enemy. That
situation continued right up to the end of the war and Ayatollah
Khomeini's death in 1989.
After the war with Iraq, new reform movement:
With the end of the war, the reform movement started to re-establish
itself. Many outspoken newspapers began to be published and many
political activists called for change and greater democracy.
The hard-line mullahs who had entrenched themselves by this time
and did not wish to lose the privileges that they had gained
began to react to the new reform movement. A number of intellectuals
and political activists were attacked by vigilantes and a few
of them were killed under mysterious circumstances - something
that has come to be known as "the serial murders".
Two of those killed were veteran husband and wife activists,
Dariush and Parvaneh Foruhar.
Ebadi bravely took on
the task of investigating their murder on behalf of their children.
Her job entailed a great deal of risk, and as she said: "Any
person who pursues human rights in Iran must live with fear from
birth to death, but I have learned to overcome my fear." It
was as the result of the efforts of lawyers like her and the
support that they received from the new reformist President Mohammad
Khatami that, for the first time in the Middle East, the powerful
Intelligence Ministry of Iran had to admit that some "rogue
elements" inside the ministry had carried out the murders.
Those admissions led to the suicide of the official who had ordered
the murders and to the restructuring of the entire ministry.
Another important development under the first
term of Khatami's presidency was the massive student demonstrations
in Tehran -
the biggest since the revolution - which resulted in the death
of at least one student. The demonstrations had been sparked
off by the attack of a group of vigilantes on the peaceful protests
of students who had been calling for greater political freedom.
Instead of punishing the culprits, hundreds of students were
imprisoned on trumped up charges.
Again, Ebadi bravely took on the job of defending
the jailed students. By doing so, she confronted the entire might
right-wing establishment and their hired thugs. Despite all the
difficulties and threats, she persevered. Eventually, she was
jailed on the trumped up charge of breaking the law while trying
to defend her clients, and was kept in solitary confinement.
However, she criticised the judiciary for its bias and partisan
behaviour. As the result of those campaigns, Amnesty International
urged: "Urgent reform is needed to ensure the true independence
of the judiciary, so that human rights defenders are protected
while those who have enjoyed impunity are brought to justice."
In addition to her legal work, Ebadi has been a
tireless campaigner for human rights. She has pointed out that "Islam is not
incompatible with human rights and all Muslims should be glad
of this prize. If you read the Koran you will see there is nothing
in it that is against human rights." She pointed out: "For
20 years I have been putting out the message that it is possible
to be Muslim and have laws that respect human rights."
This is another challenge to all Islamic countries.
There has been a great deal of talk about "Islamic human rights".
The fact is that human rights do not recognise any religion or
nationality. Human rights are universal. Muslim countries must
embrace concepts of human rights, freedom and democracy or they
will fall behind. Recent history has proved that democracy is
the most effective and humane way of running a government. The
revolution in communication and the spread of new ideas and the
ease of travel have turned the entire world into a global village.
Today all nations are demanding freedom. Undemocratic governments
should either give in to popular demands voluntarily and adjust
themselves to the requirements of democracy, or they will be
pushed away by the irresistible force of the people, as was the
case with the mighty Soviet Empire.
Muslim governments must have the courage to open
up their societies and they must trust their people and allow them
to lead their
lives in the way that they see fit. They may be able to postpone
the day of reckoning but they cannot indefinitely block the inevitable.
Strangely enough, Islam is a religion that has had most to say
about the need for consultation, for public participation in
their affairs, describing people as God's deputies on earth and
saying that "my community will not err en mass". In
other words, the views of the majority will have to be respected.
The prize says that Iran has achieved a lot and
neocons should keep their hands off Iran
The third message of this award is to the hard-liners in Washington
and Tel Aviv who are constantly plotting against Iran, who have
described the country as a member of the "Axis of Evil" and
have called for invasion and regime change. This prize is the
recognition of what the Iranians have already achieved and that
the ultimate change in Iran must come from within and not be
imposed from outside.
Despite all the efforts of hard-line clerics
to obstruct reforms Iran has moved forward. It has one of the
most vibrant press
in the entire Middle East. It is true that a large number of
newspapers have been closed, but many more have taken their
place, and today there is much greater freedom of expression in
that existed before President Khatami was elected president.
Many political activists, including a number of prominent members
of the clergy such as Hasan Yusofi Eshkevari, Mohsen Kadivar,
and Abdollah Nuri and many others, have risen against despotism
and fundamentalism and have even endured imprisonment and worse.
The fact that one such individual has been awarded
the Nobel Peace Prize will bring recognition to them and will boost
morale of the reformist movement in Iran that has been feeling
rather dejected lately. Who knows! Ebadi might provide hope
that the torch of reforms will be carried by another able reformer
after President Khatami has steps down. Iranian women who
have suffered most as the result of a fundamentalist reading of
may provide salvation for the rest of their countrymen.
of the Nobel Peace Prize to such a distinguished Iranian political
activist and campaigner is a warning to the neocons
to keep their hands off Iran and to stop meddling in Iran's internal
affairs. The Iranians have already staged three major revolutions
(1906, 1951 and 1979) to gain control of their lives and establish
democracy. They are quite capable of solving their problems and
pushing the reform movement forward until they achieve complete
freedom and democracy. As Ebadi said: "The fight for
human rights is conducted in Iran by the Iranian people and we
are against any foreign intervention in Iran."
In addition to her political and legal activities,
Shirin Ebadi is also a leading academic and is a professor of law
at the University
of Tehran. She has written a number of books and numerous articles
on legal issues. In 1975 she published her first book on The
Legal Rights of Children that was also translated into
English and published by UNICEF. Her other works include: Comparative
Children, The Legal Rights of Refugees in Iran, A History of Legal
Rights Documents in Iran, Literary and Artistic Rights, Architectural
Rights, Medical Rights, and Tradition and Modernism
in Iranian Laws.
Farhang Jahanpour, PhD, is a part-time tutor at the University
of Oxford. This article was first posted on the Swedish webside
TFF under the title: "Shirin Ebadi, the Winner of the
Nobel Peace Prize:
The recognition of the work of women and human rights activists
this page to your friends