Iran’s Prize Fight


When Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer and champion of women’s rights, was announced winner of this year’s Nobel Peace prize, reaction around the world, apart from a few commentators who thought the ailing pope should have won it, was overwhelmingly positive. Not so in Ebadi’s native Iran, where she’s suddenly at the center of the country’s ceaseless struggle between conservatives and reformists.

While Ebadi has won support from those pushing for civil reforms in Iran, her place in the spotlight has enraged the powerful conservatives who see her as a threat. And they have a point. One of Ebadi’s first post-prize acts was to call for radical reforms in theocratic Iran including an end to Islamic punishments for crimes, including stoning and amputation of limbs.

Iranian state-run TV downplayed Ebadi’s award and insinuated that she was given the “western” award because she is a convict who supported homosexuality, abortions, and pre-marital sexual relations. Hamid Reza Taraqi, a member of the conservative Islamic Coalition Society, told the press that Ebadi’s award was interfering with Iranian politics.

“The prize is a support for secular movements and against the ideals of the 1979 Islamic revolution…The Norwegian Nobel Committee, against its original objectives of promoting peace, has turned into a political tool in the hand of foreigners to interfere in the internal affairs of our country.”

While the hardliners dismissed Ebadi’s achievements, Iran’s somewhat reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, was a bit warmer, albeit waiting till four days after the prize was announced. “Obviously I am pleased that a compatriot has achieved such success,” he told the press, though he also warned his compatriot to “pay attention” upon her return home. Khatami basically agreed that the award was political. “This award has been given to her totally on the basis of political considerations,” he said. While many suspect that Khatami’s reformist message would generally support Ebadi, his delicate relationship with conservative forces in Iran means he can’t get too excited. Jahanshah Javid, writes in the Iranian that Khatami’s position is tenuous.

“[Khatami’s] comments are understandable. After all, Khatami cannot be expected to embrace Ebadi and all she stands for. The ruling conservatives are fuming from the fact that the world’s most prestigious award has been given to a lawyer — and a woman, astaghforellah — who has been defending victims of some of the worst crimes committed by the regime. Khatami’s outright support for Ebadi would have added fuel to the fire.

But although Khatami may have saved himself from the wrath of his conservative foes, his double-talk could still cost him dearly. He may now have lost the support of those who still had some hope left in his ability to bring about change. Worse still, by discrediting the just recognition of the great work of a spotless human rights activist, he has badly damaged his credibility. There were those who thought despite his political impotence, at least he was a ‘nice guy’. No more.”

But for Ebadi the forces lining up against her are nothing new; in fact, she’s been battling them for most of her 56 years, and her newfound clout gives her an edge. As Beirut’s Daily Star notes, support for Iran’s reformists could not have come “at a more opportune time.” Amir Teheri writes in the New York Post on Thursday, Ebadi’s very existence threatens the conservative vision of Iran’s hardliners. He writes:

“The significance of a woman serving as a judge may be hard to grasp for non-Muslims. But the advent of woman judges in Iran under the Shah was a truly revolutionary event, unprecedented in the 1,500 year history of Islam.

Women, whose testimony is regarded as only half as valid as a man’s in the Islamic shariah, were not allowed even to act as ordinary lawyers, let alone to judge their ‘superiors,’ men.

For the Islamist fascist, a woman must not leave home without a chaperon nor travel without the written permission of her husband, brother, father or another male relative. A man could take up to four permanent wives and as many temporary ones as he likes, and can repudiate any at any time without informing her.

In that context, Ebadi’s generation — which gave Iran its first women members of parliament, Cabinet ministers, provincial governors, ambassadors, army and police commanders, aircraft pilots, high-skill surgeons, bus and taxi drivers, etc. — was a truly heroic one in the history of Islam.

The mullahs tried to kill that generation and push women back to the margins of society.”

For Teheri, a Iranian journalist working in New York, and clearly no friend to the hardliners, Ebadi’s Nobel hints that the conservative forces in Iran will collapse. Ebadi certainly has her fans. Five thousand cheering supporters welcomed her home at Tehran’s airport, including one Iranian writer who threw flowers at Ebadi’s feet as she walked down the tarmac.

But whether Ebadi is a hero or foe to those in Iran, the Times of India notes that the political uproar is to be expected. Ebadi, a Muslim feminist, was chosen to send Iran, and others, the message that human rights and Islam are perfectly compatible.

“There are two long-term implications of the Ebadi award. First is the manner that this will impact developments within Iran and the initial response of Ms Ebadi is instructive.

Appearing in Paris sans scarf, she was measured in her responses and reiterated that there is no difference between Islam and human rights. She added that religious people (in Iran) should also welcome this award for it means that you can be a Muslim and at the same time adhere to human rights. This is an assertion that is laden with socio-political import for autocratic and authoritarian regimes in many Islamic states.

But at the same time, Ms Ebadi sent a clear message to Washington that she was opposed to any kind of interference or imposition from the outside. She observed that the fight for human rights is conducted in Iran by the Iranian people. This caution is significant for it draws attention to the negative manner in which Islamic states and societies are currently perceived. ”

While Ebadi’s work clearly merits such a prestigious and generous award, 1.3 million dollars, her future work holds a lot of promise. With analysts predicting that her fame will deter authorities from further imprisoning her. Thus, Ebadi is in position to inspire women across Iran, and perhaps the wider region. But while Ebadi is surely a hero, the Economist doubts she’ll be able to become a national role model.

“Iranian women, even many who are indifferent to her causes, are intensely proud of Ms Ebadi’s achievement. But do not expect her to become a role model. Despite a dash of radicalism — she goes bare-headed outside Iran — she remains wedded to the cautious reformism that is espoused by Mr Khatami and his supporters. And that, many believe, has failed. A small but growing number of women are coming to reject the legal superstructure to which Ms Ebadi is committed.

Take the increasing interest being shown in the poetry of Forogh Farokhzad. In the 1960s, Ms Farokhzad was a beautiful hell-raiser who had an affair with Iran’s hippest film director. Shortly before her legend-sealing death in a car crash in 1966, she observed that social change had endowed concepts like religion, morals and love with new meanings. Forty years on, expressing such revisionism can get you jailed, but the judges are powerless to stop lots of young women from agreeing.”

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