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A woman of action
Shirin's Ebadi's background and the impact of her Nobel Peace Prize

By Farhang Jahanpour
October 27, 2003
The Iranian

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.

Short background
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.

In 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 the 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 in the cities.

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, as 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 judgement. Polygamy 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 the cases when men had divorced their wives the fathers were given custody 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).

Female university 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 improve
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.

The 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 surpassed 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 of women, 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.

As 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 of women.

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 if there 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 discrimination 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.

Although great 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 for it.

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 score.

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.

Ebadi has 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 of 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 the interference 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.

Although Reza 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.

A 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 situation. It has been calculated that between 1919 and 1950 when the Iranian oil was nationalised by the parliament under the leadership of 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 other countries 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 independence. 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 heavily armed 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: Ebadi's role
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 of the 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 Iran 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 the 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 Islam may provide salvation for the rest of their countrymen.

The award 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 Laws on Children, The Legal Rights of Refugees in Iran, A History of Legal Human 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 in Islam"

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