Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi is one of the most eloquent advocates for liberalism and reform in the Muslim world. Her tireless work on behalf of those left unprotected by Iran’s draconian laws–the orphaned, the widowed, the dispossessed–has made her an almost saintly figure in Iran. Her recently published memoir, Iran Awakening, is an inspiring account of her herculean struggle to hold Iran’s clerical regime accountable for its gross human rights violations. As a testament to how a single, inspired voice can rise above the cacophony of bigotry and fanaticism, the book should be required reading for any American trying to see through the fog of misinformation about how to bring freedom to Iran.
But had the US government had its way, no American ever would have read it.
Until recently an outmoded and discriminatory Treasury Department regulation, enforced by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), prohibited the translation, editing, promotion or marketing of any work from an embargoed state (e.g., Iran, Cuba, Sudan) unless the work had been previously published in the writer’s home country. Ebadi’s memoir, of course, never would have passed Iran’s unyielding censors and thus had no chance of being published first in her home country. It was precisely for that reason that Ebadi turned to the United States, assuming that a country that has sanctified freedom of speech would provide her the opportunity denied by Iran’s hard-line government to publish the story of her life and work.
To her astonishment, OFAC banned the publication of her memoir here, in effect censoring a liberal Muslim reformer who has spent her life battling the very Islamic extremists that the United States is so keen to defeat. OFAC eventually suggested that she apply for a license that would allow her to publish her memoir here without facing any penalties. But rather than accept the compromise, Ebadi and her American agent initiated a lawsuit against the Treasury Department in federal court, claiming that the OFAC law was unconstitutional. Embarrassed by the media attention, the department backed down. On December 15, 2004, OFAC revised its laws regulating so-called “embargoed literature,” clearing the way for the publication of Iran Awakening.
If you find it remarkable that a female human rights lawyer from Iran should have the audacity to remind the US government of its constitutional responsibilities, then you don’t know Shirin Ebadi.
Born in 1947, Ebadi grew up in an era of profound social and political change. The country’s young monarch, Muhammad Reza Shah, only recently placed on the throne by the victors of World War II, had launched a forced modernization/Westernization program that dramatically reformed Iran’s archaic family law. For the first time, women were allowed an active role in shaping domestic policy. The universities were flooded with bright, ambitious girls studying law, engineering and medicine. But equal access to education did not translate into equal status in society. Despite the Shah’s reforms, the patriarchal codes that underlay Iran’s social order were still firmly in place. A woman could go to college. She could even serve in the government. But she could not expect to transcend the traditional limitations placed on her by Iran’s rigid, male-dominated society.
It was Ebadi’s great fortune to have grown up somewhat sheltered from the experience of most women of her time. Reared in a wealthy and unconventional family, Ebadi never suffered the “low self-esteem and learned dependence” she observed in women from more traditional homes. Her father, a former agricultural minister in the Shah’s government, always encouraged her to be a strong and independent woman. After college she married a kind and almost comically unpatriarchal husband who, by her account, deferred to her wisdom and strength in nearly every situation. At the age of 23 she became a judge whose authority over the men who entered her courtroom was accepted as a matter of course. All of this may explain why, even as she enthusiastically took part in the movement to topple the Shah’s government, it never occurred to her what effect the revolution would have on the status of women in Iran.