American Friends Service Committee
Sara Burke, Managing Editor
Sam Diener, Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
2161 Massachusetts Ave.
Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
Nobel Peace Prize Recognizes Iranian Feminist, Highlights Nonviolent Resistance to Repression
Ziba Mir-Hosseini, a research associate at the Center for Islamic and Middle Eastern Law of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, wrote this piece, excerpted here, for the Middle East Report Online, a free service of the Middle East Research and Information Project, www.merip.org.
The decision to award the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize to Shirin Ebadi, the intrepid Iranian human rights lawyer and former judge, took everyone by surprise-not least Ebadi herself. Conservative forces in the government initially tried to ignore it, according it the briefest of mentions at the end of an afternoon news bulletin.
Much coverage of Ebadi's award has speculated on the message being sent by the Nobel committee to the Bush administration: contrary to the implications of Washington's "axis of evil" rhetoric, reform in Iran must come from within. Ebadi herself underscored this message when she spoke out against Western intervention. But more important in the short term may be how her Nobel Peace Prize, by highlighting contradictions in the Islamic Republic of Iran and within the "reformist" camp, strengthens a particular set of forces in Iran's long and arduous transition from theocracy to democracy.
When Ebadi arrived at Tehran airport on October 14, she received a hero's welcome. A crowd of many thousands, mostly women holding white flowers, filled the terminal. Zahra Eshraqi placed a garland of flowers around Ebadi's neck. Eshraqi is the granddaughter of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and wife of Mohammad Reza Khatami, himself the brother of the president and leader of the largest reformist party in the Majles (Parliament).
The next day, the most hard-line conservative newspaper blasted
Eshraqi's gesture as a betrayal of her grandfather. Eshraqi was
surely manipulated by her husband, who, in a desperate attempt
to save his embattled party, had forced his wife into making the
despicable gesture, the newspaper concluded. Eshraqi defended
her action, attributing the criticism to the patriarchal mindset
that "for everything, women get orders from their husbands"
because they lack the power of discernment. Friday prayer leaders
denounced Ebadi and her Nobel Prize from every pulpit in Iran.
The Nobel Peace Prize for Ebadi was "the latest plot of the
Global Arrogance (the current variation on 'the Great Satan')
to undermine Islam."
Exemplar of Struggle
Such diverse reactions to Ebadi's prize are clearly indicative of the tensions that divide her country, where Islamism - that is, the use of Islam as an ideology and the demand for application of Islamic shari'a as the law of the land - has lost its popular appeal. The 1979 revolution, which merged political and religious powers in Iran, transformed "Islam" from an ideology of opposition into one of state power. The implementation of shari'a amounted to mandating an "Islamic" dress code for women, enforcing gender segregation in public spaces, dismantling the legal reforms of the deposed Pahlavi regime, and applying a patriarchal model of social relations, defined by pre-modern Islamic legal texts, in courts dealing with penal cases and family disputes. The results were so out of touch with women's aspirations, not to mention the realities of Iranians' lives and their sense of justice, that 20 years later they helped to unleash a popular reform movement, major currents of which seek a withdrawal of religion from its fusion with state authority.
This reform movement emerged in the aftermath of the 1997 presidential election, when Iranians voted en masse for Khatami, a cleric who ran on a platform of tolerance and the rule of law. Since then, the reformists - both inside and outside the structures of the state - have been trying to forge a democratic and pluralist political culture, aided by a vocal press but in the face of intense and at times violent opposition from conservative theocratic forces. Shirin Ebadi is a prominent voice among those who are trying to reconcile Islam with discourses of democracy and human rights.
Ebadi's life in many ways exemplifies the struggles of women in Iran in the years since the 1979 revolution. Born in 1947, she graduated in 1969 from Tehran University's Faculty of Law, and later became one of the first women judges in Iranian history. She lost her post in 1979. At the time, clerical wisdom argued that women were unfit to be judges, as they were too emotional to render decisions based on reason and legal principle. She soon emerged as the leading figure in the Iranian human rights movement. Along with other women, in 1994 Ebadi founded the Society for Protecting the Rights of the Child, which has lobbied the parliament to introduce legal reforms in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Ebadi's outspoken defense of human rights has antagonized the
Iranian judiciary, and hard-line jurists ordered her arrested
in June 2000. Accused of producing and distributing a videotape
that allegedly "disturbs public opinion" by implicating
certain senior officials in atrocities against reformist personalities
and organizations, she was tried in closed court, given a suspended
sentence and banned from practicing law.
A State at War with Itself
Ebadi's Nobel Peace Prize comes at a time when the reform movement in Iran is under a great deal of pressure. The public has lost hope and patience with Khatami and his allies in government, who have failed to fulfill their campaign promises. The reformist front's political and legislative moves to bring tangible change in the structure of power have so far been frustrated by those who safeguard the theocratic side of the state - especially the judiciary and the Council of Guardians, an elite group which, though unelected, has the authority to vet or veto all legislation. The Council has vetoed 90% of the laws proposed since June 2000. Among the rejected bills were proposals to change the restrictive press laws, ban the use of torture in prisons, raise the minimum age of marriage, abolish the unilateral right to divorce for men, expand women's access to divorce and, most recently, join the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The frustration of the reformists has created not so much a stalemate, or even a "dual state," as a state at war with itself, where members of the unelected bodies controlled by the Supreme Leader see their survival in power as contingent on preventing the elected bodies from carrying out their agenda.
At stake is the legacy of the 1979 revolution, and at war are two different notions of Islam based on two different readings of its sacred texts. One is a legalistic and absolutist Islam, premised on the notion of "duties," which makes no concession to contemporary realities and the aspirations of Muslims. The other is a pluralistic and tolerant Islam, premised on the notion of "rights" as advocated by modern democratic ideals.
It is this latter with which Shirin Ebadi, as a human rights lawyer working outside the structures of state power, is aligned, and it is this Islam for which she went to prison. With the Nobel Peace Prize in her portfolio, Ebadi is now a formidable force. The conservatives can no longer prosecute her with impunity. Her voice can give a boost to human rights campaigners - as it already did when she called for the release of political prisoners upon stepping off the plane at Tehran airport - and to the reform movement that has fallen into such a critical condition. Khatami, not wanting to rock the boat by challenging the Supreme Leader, has lost more and more of his supporters and associates. The emerging split between impatient reformists and Khatami, with his gradualist strategy of parliamentary maneuver, was underlined when the president described Ebadi's Nobel award as "not very important."
Khatami and his remaining allies have suffered many political setbacks. As a result, they have lost the trust and support of the general public. But they have succeeded in one important respect: they have demystified the power games that were for so long conducted in a religious language, and they have exposed the way Islam and the shari'a have been used to justify autocratic rule. This success is central to what the reformist movement in Iran is about - changing the terms of reference of Islamic discourses by separating Islam from despotism and Islamic law from patriarchy, and by creating an Islamic discourse that is democratic and respects the human rights of the people.
To learn more about Shirin Ebadi's work on behalf of children,
please visit www.iranianchildren.org. For more information about
human rights violations and struggles in Iran, please see www.amnesty.org,
or www.hrw.org. For daily updates on Iranian issues in English,
see www.payvand.com/news. Please also see www.badjens.com, an
English language Iranian feminist journal.
Ebadi's Nobel Prize Lecture
Excerpted from Shirin Ebadi's Nobel Lecture, Oslo, December 10, 2003.
In the name of the God of Creation and Wisdom.
Undoubtedly, my selection will be an inspiration to the masses of women who are striving to realize their rights, not only in Iran but throughout the region - rights taken away from them through the passage of history. This selection will make women in Iran, and much further afield, believe in themselves. Women constitute half of the population of every country. To disregard women and bar them from active participation in political, social, economic and cultural life would in fact be tantamount to depriving the entire population of every society of half its capability.
Today coincides with the 55th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; a declaration which begins with the recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, as the guarantor of freedom, justice, and peace. And it promises a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of expression and opinion, and be safeguarded and protected against fear and poverty.
Unfortunately, however, this year's report by the United Nations Development Programme, as in the previous years, spells out the rise of a disaster which distances mankind from the idealistic world of the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 2002, almost 1.2 billion human beings lived in glaring poverty, earning less than one dollar a day. Over 50 countries were caught up in war or natural disasters. AIDS has so far claimed the lives of 22 million individuals, and turned 13 million children into orphans.
At the same time, in the past two years, some states have violated the universal principles and laws of human rights by using the events of 11 September and the war on international terrorism as a pretext. Regulations restricting human rights and basic freedoms, special bodies and extraordinary courts, which make fair adjudication difficult and at times impossible, have been justified and given legitimacy under the cloak of the war on terrorism.
I am an Iranian. A descendent of Cyrus The Great. The very emperor who proclaimed at the pinnacle of power 2500 years ago that "... he would not reign over the people if they did not wish it." And [he] promised not to force any person to change his religion and faith, and guaranteed freedom for all. The Charter of Cyrus The Great is one of the most important documents that should be studied in the history of human rights.
I am a Muslim. Some Muslims, under the pretext that democracy and human rights are not compatible with Islamic teachings and the traditional structure of Islamic societies, have justified despotic governments, and continue to do so. The Koran swears by the pen and what it writes. Such a message cannot be in conflict with awareness, knowledge, wisdom, freedom of opinion and expression and cultural pluralism. The discriminatory plight of women in Islamic states, too, whether in the sphere of civil law or in the realm of social, political, and cultural justice, has its roots in the patriarchal and male-dominated culture prevailing in these societies, not in Islam.
Ladies and Gentlemen, In the introduction to my speech, I spoke of human rights as a guarantor of freedom, justice, and peace. If the 21st century wishes to free itself from the cycle of violence, acts of terror and war, and avoid repetition of the experience of the 20th century - that most disaster-ridden century of humankind - there is no other way except by understanding and putting into practice every human right for all [hu]mankind, irrespective of race, gender, faith, nationality, or social status.
In anticipation of that day.
With much gratitude,