Women’s Search for Justice
Today, with a hardline President like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the helm, there are ever more signs that for many religious and secular women in Iran, the revolution has failed to create the society they had hoped for. In December 2003, I went to Oslo, Norway to cover the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights lawyer, who challenges the ruling clerics’ interpretation of Islam. This summer, Ebadi and other women’s rights activists lead a campaign to collect one million signatures from Iranian women and men calling for a change to Iran’s discriminatory laws. Politically active women are using non-violent means in their silent protest for change in Iran’s legal code.
Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi has said, “If human rights are not manifested in codified laws then human beings will be left with no other choice but to stage rebellion against tyranny and oppression.”
Ebadi has gone on record stating that some Muslim countries justify repressive governments by saying that democracy isn’t compatible with the teachings of Islam. Ebadi says it is. Robin Wright, of the Washington Post, has said that Shirin Ebadi is part of a larger movement in the Islamic World, “The 50 plus nations of Islamic world are beginning to go through their Reformation and that means reinterpreting Islam to allow for multiple interpretations so that there is not just one set of ideas, one true path that directs all Muslims. And this is a process that is going to be very difficult, very traumatic and very even tumultuous in the Islamic world,” according to Wright.
Before the Islamic revolution of 1979, Iran was the first country in the Middle East to bring together secular and sacred law. A legal code developed in 1927 did away with extreme Islamic punishments such as stoning and lashing. I grew up in Iran. My great-grandfather, Ali Akbar Davar, was the architect of Iran’s legal code in the late 1920’s. But it wasn’t until Shirin Ebadi was named the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize that I realized the connection between my great grandfather Davar, Shirin Ebadi and the history of Iran’s struggle for a lawful society.
That day marked a turning point in my life. An Iranian scholar noted in an email that throughout Iran’s modern history the question of the rule of law, the relationship between secular and religious law and concerns about due process have been the main preoccupation of many lawyers, judges and law professors in Iran. Nobel Laureate “Shirin Ebadi,” the scholar noted, “is only the latest fruit from a big tree with deep roots in modern Iranian history starting with Ali Akbar Davar.”
Then the milestone, the self-realization moment came to me, in Washington, after my trip to Oslo to the place where I had been guided in memory of my great grandfather, Ali Akbar Davar, in the shadows of one of the most prestigious awards given to mankind, the Nobel Peace Prize. As I sat in the nation’s capital, in my office at NPR, searching for a title for the radio documentary I was doing on Iran’s struggle for a lawful society, I turned to my editor Deborah George and said, “You know my first name is actually Iran”… It was then that Deborah insisted that be the title of the radio stories. I too realized that if my journey to consciousness was real, I had to admit to America that my name is Iran. I could no longer hide from my identity, veil it from my American friends, and live in two separate worlds.
It all came together at that very moment. The country of Iran had been declared part of the “axis of evil,” I felt empowered that the “axis of evil” label had been an unfair generalization. I am Iran and, yet, I am not evil. There was much more to both the country of Iran and the woman. Iran has over two thousand years of history and a rich culture of art, architecture and poetry-both epic and mystical-all also a part of my identity and me.
Researching the documentary, together with Iranian-American scholar Rasool Nafisi and later writing my book gave me the opportunity to explore Iran’s identity and to appreciate evermore the great American tradition of freedom and civil society under which I have matured.
I began to intensely research my great grandfather and his reforms to Iran’s Judiciary.
In 1927, he shut down Iran’s Justice Ministry to completely revamp it. The new system combined European legal code with Islamic jurisprudence with local courts, regional ones and a Supreme Court. Judges decided which cases should be handled by the clerics – creating independent judge, independent lawyer and the parliament could legislate democratic law.
After the Revolution, the clerics suspicious of anything having to do with the Pahlavi Shah threw out all of Davar’s legal reforms. But he hasn’t been forgotten.
Radio Farda, the Persian service of Radio Liberty reported in 2003 that a prominent journalist in Iran had said publicly that the judicial system was so corrupt that it should be completely shut down and revamped like the in the time of Davar.
Many voices in Iran are challenging the institution of the Judiciary. Over seventy years after Davar’s reforms they find themselves once again struggling to reinterpret Shariah law, to make it more compatible to modern times.
Iran’s first Nobel Laureate demands a reinterpretation of Islamic law that nurtures freedom of expression, “The People of Iran have shown that they deem participation in public affairs to be their right, and that they want to be masters of their own destiny.” Ebadi says.
I want to give you an example of the laws that Shirin Ebadi opposes. Ebadi is the attorney to Parastou Forouhar, an outspoken critic of Iran’s judicial system. A tall elegant woman in her early 40’s, she wears a locket with photos of her mother and father—Parvaneh and Dariush Forouhar who were prominent dissidents in Iran. On November 22, 1998 her parents were brutally murdered by agents of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The two were long-time pro-democracy activists in Iran. Her father was imprisoned several times by the Shah. Her mother was an outspoken critic of Iran’s clerical regime especially it’s treatment of women. Parastou is convinced their murders were ordered at the highest levels of government. She’s spent the past five years trying to obtain justice in Iran’s criminal courts. In January 2001, three former intelligence ministry agents were condemned to death for the killings. But that raised another problem for Parastou. She is against the death penalty and against a law that would require her to come up with thousands of dollars to “avenge” her mother’s death.
You see, according to the law of the Islamic Republic, a woman’s life is worth only half that of the man and therefore Parastou had to pay the family of the killer of her mother blood money if she wanted to ask for the death penalty for him. This is precisely the kind of law that Ebadi is against.
Because Parastou refused to demand the death penalty as Islamic law decrees; the judges instead, gave the three light jail sentences. Examples of how arbitrary the Islamic courts are.
But there is a quiet movement underway. Unlike Afghanistan under the Taliban, women and girls in Iran are encouraged to get an education. In fact, 63% of University students in Iran are female. The women’s lobby is strong. They have created grassroots efforts handing out brochures to women – everything they need to know about their rights in marriage – what they need to know about the dowry. An independent observer to Iran’s family court said to me that she has seen how the judges give women their dowry after a divorce and how women are trying to negotiate their situation in the court.. she said it’s fascinating to hear Islamic arguments to reform an Islamic system.
In Iran today, there are hundreds of female journalists and publishers. There are more female members in parliament than there are in the US Senate. The activists were instrumental in bringing back the Family Court that was disbanded after the revolution. Today eighty percent of those going to family court to dispute divorce and custody cases are women.
But these activists are still only making incremental changes. And that has been frustrating for those who want to see tangible change. There are those who believe Iran will only change with strong international pressure. And there are those who insist regime change is the only solution. Shirin Ebadi though who has by choice remained in Iran says support the efforts of Iran’s Islamic reformers, “The people of Iran have been facing the continuous challenges of reconciling tradition and modernity for over 100 years.”Ebadi says Iranians should be allowed to have a part in choosing their own destiny.
Feminism in Iran sounds like an impossible contradiction, but Iranian women ARE among the most active reformers in the Muslim world. They’re pushing the interpretation of Islamic law in ways that modernize the treatment of women. The debate over religion and modernity in the Muslim world will continue for decades to come but Iran, the birthplace of the first modern theocracy, might very well be preparing for a future Islamic reformation.