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.
As one of the country’s most distinguished female judges, Ebadi and her pro-revolutionary sentiments were especially welcomed by the opposition forces helmed by the charismatic cleric Ayatollah Khomeini. Like many middle-class intellectuals, Ebadi had no problem reconciling her secularist outlook with Khomeini’s religious rhetoric. After all, she writes, “Who did I have more in common with, in the end: an opposition led by mullahs who spoke in the tones familiar to ordinary Iranians or the gilded court of the shah, whose officials cavorted with American starlets at parties soaked in expensive French champagne?”
Before long, however, Ebadi realized she had “willingly and enthusiastically participated in [her] own demise.” Almost immediately there were signs that the revolution, whose primary purpose was to free Iranians from the bonds of autocracy, was veering off course. First, there was the “headscarf ‘invitation'” announcing that women should reflect their fidelity to the revolution by covering their hair (Ebadi, who had never worn the veil before, took to tacking one in the hallway so as to remember to put it on before leaving the house). Men in her office no longer came to work in suits and ties but in stained, collarless shirts and badly wrinkled slacks meant to identify them with the humble masses. Rumors swirled around the courtroom that Islam barred women from serving as judges. Issues once central to the revolution, such as the redistribution of wealth and the opening up of Iranian society, were replaced by the most inane and purely theatrical concerns–the length of a woman’s hem or the fullness of a man’s beard.
Iran’s judiciary quickly became the chief obstacle to the imposition of Islamic law. The clerics were themselves jurists, and the new Iran they envisioned was founded on the belief that only they could properly judge what was lawful and what was not. One day Ebadi arrived at work to find that she no longer had a job: The judiciary had been purged and brought under the dominion of the mosque. Less than two years after helping to tear to down the monarchy, Ebadi had been demoted to little more than a clerk in the court she once presided over. In protest, she continued to show up at her office every morning but refused to do any work. She simply sat at her desk and stared at the wall.
By the time she and most of her colleagues realized that the revolution had been hijacked, Saddam Hussein had launched a surprise attack on Iran. Suddenly, the debate over the meaning and purpose of the revolution came to a halt. The provisional government was sacked and unconditional power handed over to Khomeini and his personal militia, the Revolutionary Guards. Ebadi could do nothing but watch her dreams of democracy transform into the nightmare of religious authoritarianism. “If we admitted to ourselves that the revolution had been betrayed,” she writes of the dilemma facing many Iranians, “we would surely lose the war.”
Ebadi’s words are a timely reminder, particularly as the United States contemplates another pre-emptive military attack in the region, that the history of revolution and war in Iran is intertwined. It was the war with Iraq that ultimately created the Islamic Republic as we know it, not the revolution itself. It was the war that brought all of Iran, including the military, under the yoke of clerical rule, allowing Khomeini to make sweeping changes in the Constitution in the name of national security (a tactic with which Americans have become familiar under the Bush Administration). More than anything else, it was the war that convinced even the most pro-American Iranians that the United States could never be trusted. As Ebadi writes:
Imagine if you were an Iranian and watched the boys in your neighborhood board the bus for the front, never to return. Imagine staring in mute horror at the television screen as Saddam rained chemical weapons down on your boys, his death planes guided by U.S. satellite photos. Fast forward about fifteen years. Now you are watching faded video footage of Donald Rumsfeld shaking Saddam Hussein’s hand, smiling at the butcher who made our capital’s cemetery a city. Now you are listening to President George W. Bush promise he wants to bring democracy to the Middle East. You are hearing him address the Iranian people in his State of the Union address, telling them that if they stand for their own liberty, America will stand with them. Do you believe him?
When the Iran-Iraq war stuttered to a truce eight years later, more than a million people on both sides had died. An entire generation of Iranian men had been obliterated, creating a vacuum in the workforce that could only be filled by the country’s highly educated and capable women. Those who had lost their jobs in the postrevolutionary purges were invited back to work. Ebadi returned to her courtroom, this time as a lawyer (she remained barred from serving as a judge), where she has spent the past decade challenging the Iranian government as much in the court of public opinion as in the court of law.
Iran Awakening chronicles many of the cases that Ebadi has fought in Iran’s inequitable courts, including, most dramatically, the infamous serial murders of a group of Iranian dissidents and writers in the winter of 1998, a case that ultimately resulted in the unprecedented arrest and conviction of members of the government’s own Information Ministry (while working on the case, Ebadi learned that she was the next person the ministry had marked for death). Of course, Ebadi lost nearly every one of these cases, but in a rigged legal system like Iran’s, winning or losing is beside the point. What matters is the light she has shone on a system that can function only if it remains in the shadows.
Ebadi’s genius as a human rights lawyer comes from her ability to exploit the founding mythology of the Iranian revolution, namely that it was fought on behalf of the dispossessed. Her objective is to show Iranians that “the dispossessed [have] now become the dispossessors.” By publicly unveiling the injustices suffered by the weakest members of society at the hands of a regime that likes to present itself as the champion of the weak, Ebadi seeks to shame the Iranian government into changing (much as she shamed the Treasury Department). In this way, she uses the same Islamic ideals that supposedly underpin the Islamic Republic as a weapon against the barbarisms of the clerical regime. It is a risky strategy that has repeatedly put her life in peril. But in a country like Iran, it is not enough to whisper that the emperor has no clothes; it must be shouted so that all the world becomes aware of his nakedness.
While such fearlessness has made Ebadi a hero to many Iranians, not everyone agrees with her approach. Indeed, Ebadi has her fair share of critics, particularly among influential Iranian-Americans who favor a more aggressive policy toward Iran. In the wake of the recent presidential election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the consolidation of the conservatives’ control over every level of government, some Iranians believe that the days when the clerical system could be reformed from within have come and gone. For them, the only option left is to destroy the regime by any means necessary and build a new Iran on its ashes.
Meanwhile, recent reports in The New Yorker and elsewhere that the United States is preparing a sustained bombing campaign in Iran in hopes of halting the country’s nuclear program, coupled with revelations that the Pentagon has been using an Iranian terrorist organization called the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) to conduct stealth operations in Iran from bases in Iraq and Pakistan, have pushed the already paranoid clerical regime into a panic. As happened during the Iran-Iraq war, the regime has begun clamping down even harder on dissent so that activists like Ebadi who seek a compromise on the nuclear impasse and détente with the West are increasingly being denounced as US stooges.
Still, Ebadi remains convinced that change in Iran can only come from within. “The Iranian Revolution,” she writes, “has produced its own opposition, not least a nation of educated, conscious women who are agitating for their rights. They must be given the chance to fight their own fights, to transform their country uninterrupted.” Whether Iranians like Ebadi get that chance depends in large part on US policy.