The chisel and the hammer
Shirin Ebadi's public endorsement of Islam is a qualified
proposition but it is sociologically sound and politically astute
October 14, 2003
The Shirin of Persian romance literature is the iconic female who
reposes in sublime passivity. Her enchanted lover, Farhad, carves
a mountain into a palace and sculpture garden as a token of his
devotion. Far from the languorous Shirin of the legend, the Shirin
who won the Noble Peace Prize follows the example of Farhad.
Ebadi has spent her life chipping away at the rock faces that block
Islamic Iran's view of human rights and she has done so patiently,
passionately and indefatigably. Ebadi was the first woman appointed
judge under the previous regime. When she lost her position to
the strictures of the Islamic Sharia, she went back to
square one and started her career as a human rights lawyer.
knew others who were similarly aggrieved. They would frame the
dismissal note as a badge of honor and migrate to a Western metropolis
in justifiable anger at those who had ruined their lives and careers.
Shirin could have led a comfortable, safe and even meaningful life,
donning the mantle of the victim and denouncing the evil Islamic
regime from the safety of exile.
Like a recent detractor, Nahid
Riazi of Copenhagen, or the radicalized Iranians who booed her
at the Berlin Conference four years ago, Shirin could have spoken
as the voice of the entire population of Iranian women without
risking a thing or lifting a finger to help a single one of them.
But the Farhad in Shirin rejected this choice as the easy, and
cowardly, way out.
In a recent press conference Ebadi
admitted that her struggles on behalf of Iranian women, children,
students and victims of political assassinations had not been
easy as she lived in fear of her life and liberty for decades.
But she added that she could never have been so proud of her accomplishments
had they come to her easily.
The Noble Peace Prize could not have come to the aid of the
democratic movement of Iran at a more opportune time. Nor could
it have gone
to a better candidate: one can hardly imagine putting the award
to better use in promoting the cause of freedom and democratic
Ebadi, like her fellow Noble laurite Aung San Suu
Kyi of Burma, shall wear her laurite clout as a chain mail. She
be ever more effective in pushing legislation in support
of the rights of women and children. She will be virtually invincible
in defending the victims of political violence and the prisoners
of conscience who wander the maze of the right wing judiciary's
odious Castle. As her first post-Nobel challenge, Ebadi
has accepted to represent Stephan, the son of the slain Iranian-Canadian
photojournalist, Zahra Kazemi.
One of the more interesting aspects of the coverage of Ebadi's
award has been her self-description as a Muslim woman and her statement
that Islam and human rights are compatible. This statement
must be placed in the context of Ebadi's legal philosophy,
that of the new theology of the Iranian reform movement.
In her legal research Ebadi is at pains to expose
of the Iranian incarnation of Islamic law.
she points out that a father will expose himself to the
punishment should he assist his wife to effect an abortion.
But, should the attempt fail, the same father could kill
at the age of 14 and face only a monetary fine.
paper Ebadi questions the Islamic law that prosecutes
9 year-old girls
and 15 year-old boys as adults but refuses to let them
travel without parental consent. In yet another paper she finds
the law that would
allow a child's marriage based on parental consent
inhumane, contrary to the spirit of Islamic charity and contradictory
to the international human rights treaties signed by
Indeed, neither Ebadi nor anyone else in the intellectual
leadership of Iran's reform movement believes that
the existing Sharia or any of its contemporary legal
-- including those issued by the Islamic Council of
Summit of International Arab jurists and lawyers (1980,)
and the Cairo Declaration of the Nineteenth Conference
Ministers based on the Tehran draft (1990) -- come
close to bridge the gap between Sharia and modern conceptions
The Islam of Shirin Ebadi is not literalist, and nor
is that of the emerging reform theology of Iran.
In a recent,
treatise Mohsen Kadivar, who is a qualified Islamic
jurist (or mujtahid) has argued that the Sharia laws
on status (slave/free), sexuality (men/women,) religion
(Islam/non-believer), denomination (Shia/Sunni),
training (clergy/lay), and prescribe
cruel and inhumane punishments.
Thus, Kadivar declares,
Shaira can not be reconciled with the Universal Declaration
adds that for the modern man and woman the superiority
of life under rational and humanistic principles
a social order based on Sharia is incontrovertible.
This leads Kadivar
to the conclusion that the "spiritual Islam" must
be allowed to molt out of the hardened, legal shell of
Iran is not unique in the Islamic world
such radical departures from the traditional
apologetics but it is the only Islamic country where such interpretations
ideology of a grass roots movement that has delivered
landslide majorities to the polling stations.
it is this Islam
with which Ebadi identifies.
There is no denying that Shirin Ebadi's life
work as a tireless advocate for modern human
could not be seen
as anything but an ongoing struggle against
an ossified body of
laws that claim
divine origin but contain mores of a tribal
and feudal past. There must be no doubt that her
Islam and Human Rights refers to the "spiritual"
and not "historical" Islam.
Some might wonder
and other reformers don't abandon Islam altogether
-- a beguilingly simple choice to many diaspora
respond that as long as three quarters of
(according to the most recent sociological
study commissioned by the National Science Foundation
and conducted by
Moaddel in Egypt, Jordan and Iran,) abandoning
Islam to the exegeses of the mediaeval jurists
of the right
reckless and politically suicidal.
remind the laic pessimists who repeat the
mantra of "Islam
the emergence of a post-enlightenment of
Islam is not any more impossible that the accomplished
and post-Higher-Criticism Christianity
of mainline churches. Shirin
Ebadi's public endorsement of Islam is
a qualified proposition but it is sociologically sound
and politically astute >>> News & politics
Ahmad Sadri is Professor and Chairman of the Department
of Sociology and Anthropology
at Lake Forest
College, IL, USA. See
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