Shirin Ebadi

Iran Awakening: Human Rights, Women, and Islam - February 7, 2008

Shirin Ebadi
February 07, 2008— San Diego, California
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Dear president, distinguished dean of the law school, distinguished board of trustees, dear faculty and students, ladies and gentlemen, it is an honor to have the opportunity to visit your beautiful city, San Diego. At the outset I would like to express my gratitude for all those who have assisted in facilitating my presence here today.

In the beginning of my remarks I would like to express my regret over the recent events in Lebanon and express my condolences to the relatives of all those who lost their lives on both sides in this war. The Lebanese government claims that it was victorious in this war. Hezbollah also claims that it came out victorious. The Israeli government also claims victory. In my opinion, the true winners of this war were all the arms salesmen who, at the expense of the destruction of the beautiful country of Lebanon and the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians on both sides, gained billions of dollars in their bank accounts. I sincerely hope that these events will no longer occur and that peace will return to the Middle East as soon as possible.

I would like to also dedicate my early remarks to the expression of regret over recent developments over prisons in Iran and give my condolences to the relatives of deceased prisoners Akbar Mohammadi and Valiollah Feyz Mahdavi. It is incumbent on the administrative and judicial officials of every prison in the country to protect the lives of every prisoner. The judicial officials in the country must examine cases of neglect about the physical and mental well-being of prisoners and their legitimate demands. I pray that all political prisoners will be released within Iran.

Dear colleagues, unlike the 20th century when peace was defined as the absence of war, in the 21st century, the absence of war alone does not define peace; rather, peace is a collection of conditions that provides for the basic needs of human beings, upholds human dignity and rids human life from any threat. Hence, living on the brink of poverty, facing continuous violations of human rights, lacking the freedom to express belief or religion and having the fear of unfair punishment are all contributors to the lack of peace in the 21st century.

With this new definition of peace, we realize that peace at the national and international level is based on two principles: democracy and social justice. Without those, even if there is silence, it is not peace, but rather, strangulation. The silence of an oppressed society, whether one that goes through religious [oppression] or political oppression, resembles the silence of a cemetery. Soon thereafter there will be changes and violence, and no one will benefit from that. This resembles the kind of silence we see in some countries today. On the surface, the society seems tranquil, peaceful, but before a major storm, for no one can keep a society silent with the threat of a bullet, or at the point of a gun or the punishment of prison.

In addition, the increase in poverty and the widening gap between the rich and the poor, whether in countries or at the international level, represent another threat to peace. How can we possibly expect peace when 80 percent of the wealth of the world lies in the hands of only one percent? According to a report published by UNICEF [United Nations Children’s Fund], in 2005 alone, 1,400,000 children lost their lives due to the lack of safe access to water, drinking water and sanitary disposals. According to a report by the UNDP [United Nations Development Program], over one billion people live either in poverty or below the poverty line. Under such conditions, how can we fight terrorism or fight the financial corruption that goes along and hope to destroy 32 33 its roots and establish peace in the world? Those who have witnessed oppression for many years and whose basic rights have been taken away from them and, at the same time, been neglected by the world, will at some point — out of hopelessness — resort to acts that will destroy themselves and others.

If we seek peace, we must pave the way for what leads to it, that is, social justice. And peace has two manifestations: an internal peace and an outside peace. We live in a world, on a planet, yet are unaware of the depth of existence. Without internal peace, we cannot achieve peace on the outside. That internal peace comes from being able to live a meaningful path. People who live without a certain goal in their lives are wanderers who will never attain that peace and cannot find tranquility in any corner of the world. It is the duty of us as university teachers to serve as a guide for our students, to help them find light to avoid what is bad and go on the path that leads to that internal peace, to teach them that while living happily they can also be useful for others. So, the pillars of internal peace are the ability to live an internally peaceful life and to assist society as well. So, peace begins from inside: it boils from within, spreads through the family, saturates the society, and then covers the international arena.

Dear friends, I would like to seize this opportunity to report on the status of human rights in the past year in Iran. Iranian law is discriminatory against women. I would like to bring a few examples. The value of the life of a woman is considered half that of a man. Therefore, if a man and a woman run into a car accident on the street, the damage paid to the woman would be half that paid to a man. By the same token, it takes two women witnesses to substitute for one male witness before the courts. A man can have up to 34 35 four wives simultaneously and divorce his wife without any prior reason, but it would be very difficult, and at times impossible, for a woman to seek divorce. Interestingly, these discriminatory laws are implemented in a society where over 65 percent of university students are female. In other words, if we look at the situation, there are more educated women in Iran than there are educated men. It is exactly because of this level of education that the feminist movement in Iran is very powerful. This movement does not have a leader; it does not have an office or a branch; rather, it resides in the hearts of every Iranian family that values equal rights for men and women and is against discriminatory laws.

On March 8 of this year, a number of women gathered peacefully in a public park in Iran, but were attacked by the police and some were injured. Those injured came to my office and asked that I represent them. I consequently filed a claim against the police, and the case is undergoing revision right now. Interestingly, despite the attack by the police, the demands of the women for their rights have not stopped. Once again, women gathered a few months later, the 22nd of Khordad (Iranian calendar year), in a very peaceful meeting and, once again, they were attacked, beaten up more heavily and a few injured, again by the police. A few were arrested, but they were all released a few days later. Unfortunately, Ali Akbar Mousavi Khoini, whom I represent, is still in prison. My client has been in prison for three months now. I have not been granted the right to visit him, nor have I been given a file, nor am I aware of his accusations. Once again, the injured parties — the women in the second gathering — have come to me and asked that I represent them, and once again I have filed a case before the court against the police. We do not know what will happen to the case, what the result will be, and that remains a different subject. But the key point here is that this has not hindered the women who have participated in these events to withdraw their demands, their rights. They are not reactive, rather, they are proactive and have taken stronger steps at each point along the way.

As a result of the feminist movement in Iran there has been a recent initiative, a petition requesting a review of discriminatory laws against women in Iran. We are seeking to collect one million signatures from Iranian men and women, and there is a website that has gone up to collect the signatures as well, at Collecting one million signatures will help show that these discriminatory laws are incompatible with the culture of Iranian women. And since we know that there is a chance that the site could be filtered, we have also collected signatures on paper from Iranian men and women.

The reason why I insist on revising discriminatory laws against women is that I believe that the rights of women and democracy present two sides of a scale. History has shown to us that women are the last group that benefits from democracy, as if concepts such as freedom and equality were created for men and if there is any left over, then the women can take them. Rather than throwing democracy on a nation through cluster bombs, we must support women and take stronger initiatives to protect their rights. Do we know of a democratic state where women’s laws are discriminatory? Again, women’s rights and democracy represent two sides of the same scale.

Since I have already touched on some issues regarding the rights of women, I want to touch on some laws pertaining to democracy as well. A first manifestation of democracy is free elections: people should be free to vote for whoever they want. People in Iran are denied this right. In Iran, candidates running for seats in parliament or for the presidency have to be pre-qualified by a council known as the Guardian Council before they can get elected by the people. So, in other 36 37 words, people are not free to vote for whoever they want, but rather, free to vote for whoever the Guardian Council determines. The biggest political demand of the Iranian people is to have the right to elect whomever they want.

I think in speaking of human rights, it is necessary to also speak of the high number of executions in Iran. Some of these executions have actually been carried out even in public areas and on the street. Unfortunately, in the last year capital punishment was also carried out for juveniles. According to the regulations laid down in the penal code, the criminal liability age is designated to be 9 for a girl and 15 for a boy. That is to say that if a 10-year-old girl, or say a 16-year-old boy, commits a crime, she or he will be treated before the law the same way as a 40-year-old person would. It is on this very basis that child executions are considered legal, and in the past year such sentences were carried out.

Another problem facing us is censorship in Iran. Unfortunately, in Iran, whether in the previous regime or in the current one, censorship has always prevailed. But it has gotten worse recently. When we want to publish a book in Iran, we need government permission first. In the past year, many books that were originally given permission and approved for publication actually had the permissions taken back. And worst of all, the most painful, is when a book is allowed to be published, but the permission is not accepted by a court. In a few cases, a book was granted permission for publication, but the publisher, the author and the translator were criminally persecuted. The same holds true for many Internet sites that have been filtered by the government. The government is again becoming more agitated over the sites and is removing them at a faster pace. The action is illegal because the decision to remove these sites was only for a short period of time, legally speaking, and that time has already expired.

The situation of workers in Iran is very sorrowful. A large number of workers lost their jobs this year. What they earn is not sufficient for covering the heavy cost of daily life. In response, there are numerous labor strikes across the country, but regretfully, nobody has followed up with their demands. Mansour Ossanlu, a driver of the bus system’s union, was imprisoned for about seven 38 39 months and was recently released on bail. Mansour Ossanlu and a number of his colleagues were objecting to their low salaries, and they wanted to have their own guild. He was released on bail after seven months, and a large group of the bus drivers who went on strike actually lost their jobs. What this shows is that labor strikes will be rewarded either through the loss of job or through imprisonment.

According to figures released by the Ministry of Welfare and Social Justice, about 12 percent of the people in Iran live under the poverty line. If these figures are in fact accurate and if we should not be expecting even higher ones, this is a disaster for a wealthy nation such as Iran. Iran has rich natural resources: oil and gas, uranium, copper. Lack of economic planning and financial corruption at the administrative level has resulted in the predicaments we face today. According to economic analysts, Iran is the 96th country on the list of 100 countries in terms of highest risks for investment. Last year, Iran was 77th on the list, but this year it is 96th as a result of increased political crises, both within the country and at the regional and international levels.

Illicit drug abuse is also increasing in Iran. According to a report released by the United Nations several months ago, Iran has the highest number of drug addicts. Under such circumstances, according to a report by the unit for fighting illicit drugs, the budget designated for fighting illicit drug use has actually been reduced in the past year. According to researchers at the center, just one rial — the equivalent of, let us say, a cent here — is designated to fight illicit drug abuse in the country per day.

Financial corruption in Iran has led to a clear manifestation of a class gap. During his election, Mr. [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad promised to fight financial corruption. A year has passed and we have still to see any changes.

The increased number of political prisoners in Iran is yet another testament to the political report card on Iran, especially in the area of human rights. Political prisoners actually live under harsher circumstances in prison than ordinary prisoners. At least ordinary prisoners have the right to access a lawyer during inspections and interrogations, but usually political prisoners do not have the right to see their lawyer until a full interrogation of a case has been conducted and a case has been represented before the court, which can obviously take months. The interrogations that happen behind closed doors — especially given the level of mental and physical pressure on prisoners — without the presence of a lawyer, attest to the sad situation of political prisoners in the country. Oftentimes a prisoner is forced to speak against himself and even confess to acts that he never committed. We saw an example recently in the arrest of Dr. Ramin Jahanbegloo, who was released on bail after a few months. But interestingly, after he was released, even before going home to visit his old mother who was very sick, he actually went before the press and attested to acts against himself. Unfortunately, these events do not happen far and in between in Iran. Throughout my experience as a lawyer, I have witnessed even more severe cases, some of which I speak about along with my own history in my recent memoir called “Iran Awakening.” This book portrays Iran after the revolution.

The last point: because of some of the reasons that I have touched upon, people in Iran are unsatisfied with the situation they have and they have criticized the government for that. But the improvement of human rights in Iran and the promotion of democracy is a responsibility that rests on the shoulders of Iranians and it has nothing to do with American soldiers. We are against the military attack on Iran because we believe that human rights can be promoted only under peaceful conditions, away from tensions. A military attack on Iran will lead and convince the government to repress freedom seekers under the guise of national security. We love our country Iran. We want an Iran that is free and developed. We will not allow Iran to turn into another Iraq. Wishing peace for Iran and all the countries of the world, I thank you for your patience tonight.

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS: NEU: Thank you so much for the great talk. You said some things that makes one wonder if you would be able to say these things in Iran.

EBADI: As I explained, there is censorship in Iran. It is quite natural that not everything can be said in Iran. A large number of newspapers were shut down. There are currently people in prison who have committed no offense except to speak and write articles. I was unable to publish my book, “Iran Awakening,” in Farsi in Iran. The book was translated into 16 other languages and became a top 10 bestseller in some countries, but I am very sad that I could not publish it in my own country.

NEU: Thank you. We have some questions from the audience. This is a tragic time for Iran. How do you assess the president’s threats to use force against Israel to wipe it off the face of the planet?

EBADI: The Iranian government has announced on numerous occasions that it does not wish to attack Israel or any other country. We heard the president’s remarks and we decided to let go and forget — you, too, should forget what he said.

NEU: Actually, on this note, I don’t know if you have heard, the former president of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, is in the United States now on his first visit. He apparently made a similar comment, saying it has never been Iran’s policy to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, that Iran has previously always believed in a two-state solution. So, one hopes that will continue.

EBADI: Yes, as I said, Iran, on several occasions, said it has no desire to attack any country, including Israel. I probably told you before, Iranians talk a lot. We just spend a lot of time talking, so we might as well forget what he said.

NEU: We have a question that goes back to the difficulty of having your book published — but not in Iran, in the United States. I wonder if you could address the difficulties of having your book published in the U.S.

EBADI: When I decided to publish my book and sign the contract with Random House, I found out that as a result of the Sanctions Act,2 my book cannot be published in the United States. I was told that because of economic sanctions, if any proceeds are to come to me as a result of the sale of a book, I would fall under the sanction category. It was suggested to me that because I am a Nobel laureate, I can get a certain exemption and maybe get my book published. But I could not accept that. I had the opportunity and the possibility of having the book published outside the United States and bringing it here to get it sold, but I disagreed with that as well. I sought the assistance of one of the best law firms in the United States and they filed a claim at a court in New York against the U.S. Treasury. We argued that by not allowing my book to get published in the United States, the U.S. Treasury is in fact carrying out censorship against its own people and, therefore, the act is unconstitutional. Fortunately, we won. As a result, I was able to publish my book here, and because a law had changed, the sanction was also lifted on books for publishers from any person coming from Iran. Any Iranian, any Sudanese and any people from Cuba are able to publish their books as a result of the lawsuit. There is a tale in Iran that everyone is born with a fate. It seems that it was my fate to fight against governments no matter where in the world I am.

NEU: And we thank you for that. Although the shah made immense changes for women with the White Revolution, many women did not respond at that time to these reformations. Many people said it was because of Islam, because they were not ready. How do you think that women are ready or different today?

EBADI: Well, I have spoken about the feminist movement in Iran with you tonight. After the revolution, the number of educated women increased compared to before the revolution. Before the revolution, many traditional families were against sending their daughters to universities to seek higher education, to work in offices or in factories with men. In the name of Islam, under the pretext of Islam rather, they prevented women from studying and leaving the house. After the revolution, because the government claimed that universities and work environments are now supposedly Islamic, it took away the opportunity from the patriarchal society, the father figures in those families, to prevent their daughters from leaving the house. So, they no longer could use Islam as an excuse to prevent their daughters or sisters from continuing their education. Slowly the number of women who went to universities increased. And today it has reached over 65 percent. During the shah, it was at most 25 percent female students in the higher educational system.

On the other hand, after the revolution, in order to gain more legitimacy, the government realized it needed the votes of the women. So, women who had stayed in their homes until then decided to go to the polls with the encouragement of the government itself. Let us not forget that women often constitute half the society, so their vote is very important in giving legitimacy to a system and a government. In the early years, women who went to vote really were not sure what they were voting for and what results their votes would have. Women coming from traditional families especially were unaware. But, gradually they understood the power of their votes. It gave confidence to the Iranian woman. Before the revolution, during the shah, when we spoke of equality of rights, it did not really resonate with the society. There were very few women intellectuals and they only spoke with each other. But, given the larger number of educated women in society today, these demands for our rights resonate much stronger in society today. As a result, the feminist movement is very powerful and it has also arrived at the doors of those traditional families, too. It is for this reason that I think this movement will succeed.

NEU: I think what you are saying is that the feminist movement has come to the general population in Iran. Is that correct? Are most people aware of this?

EBADI: Very much so. This movement that started at an intellectual level has now embedded in the culture of Iranian people and has also influenced Iranian men. I mentioned in my remarks that one of my clients, Ali Akbar Mousavi Khoini, who is a gentleman, was arrested in a peaceful demonstration held by women for the promotion of their rights. My client was in fact a member of parliament in the previous parliament, the sixth parliament.

NEU: You mentioned that many of the laws are discriminatory against women. The question from a member of the audience is: are these laws regarding women and children based on Islamic law?

EBADI: Like any religion, Islam is open to various interpretations. As you can see in the United States itself, there are churches that endorse the marriage of homosexuals, whereas other churches refute it. But they are both Christian churches. And for this very reason, Islam, too, can have different interpretations. I will give you a few examples. In a country like Saudi Arabia, women cannot even drive their cars, let alone enter the political and social arena. But in many other countries, such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, women have become leaders, presidents and prime ministers, even many years ago. Polygamy in some countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia is legal. But it has been banned in some other Islamic countries, like Tunisia. And there are other punishments, such as stoning, that are still legal in Iranian law. But they have been banned in many other countries, such as Malaysia or Indonesia. The different levels of democratization across the Muslim world reveal to us that Islam is open to different interpretations. Whereas countries such as Malaysia have progressed further on these fronts, there are other countries, such as Saudi Arabia or Iraq, that have actually taken the reverse path and have granted fewer rights. So, we must believe and rest assured that by presenting new interpretations of rights and making demands for the change of those rights, such as women’s rights, we can arrive at better, more meaningful laws under the Islamic legal system to protect such rights. What works against women is a patriarchal culture that is stronger in Islamic countries. I am not referring to men when I speak of a patriarchal culture; rather, I am speaking of a culture that simply does not believe in the equality of men and women. Oftentimes, although women are the victims of this culture, they carry that culture themselves. Let us not forget that any man who likes to give orders around was actually raised by a woman. I compare this patriarchal culture to hemophilia. In this disease, a woman may not be a carrier, but still carries it on to her son. So, this is what we must fight against, this wrongful culture, not Islam.

KEYNOUSH: One of the questions relates to the petition that Dr. Ebadi mentioned, collecting one million signatures. Although this can be a useful act, do you think that it is sufficient? Why should we think that such acts can bring about change and why should we think that the current government in Iran is in fact open to such changes that would lead to, for example, better laws for women?

EBADI: I myself, and women in Iran, are against any act of violence that can lead to bloodshed. Our strife is a civil strife. By collecting a million signatures, we want to show to the government of Iran, as well as to the world, that the laws in Iran are incompatible with Iranian culture. This movement will not by itself and immediately lead to a revision of the law. But, after that, there will be acts that will follow, such as requests for special cases and revisions of law presented by women activists, by the feminist movement, to the proper fora, to the proper government agencies, that will lead to some change. Let us not forget that through these acts the feminist movement has actually succeeded in changing a couple of laws so far, including the custody law and a law on the protection of children and teenagers. So, I am hopeful that this movement will be able to bring about some changes regarding women’s rights and laws. It will take time, it needs time, but eventually Iranian women will prevail.

NEU: Today is the first day of this academic year. We have new students here at the university and we have returning students. Many of them are looking at you as a role model for what this university is all about: respect for human rights, for human dignity and for the eradication of those factors in our society that contribute to violence and to inequity. I wonder if you might give some advice to the students sitting here about what kinds of steps they can take to try to make this a better world.

EBADI: First and foremost, I would like to thank you for the very kind words you have expressed. I remember though when I had started my university education and was in the first and second years, I really did not like getting any suggestions from anyone. So, please do not take what I say as advice, but rather as an opening of hearts and speaking of minds. Our biggest struggle is with our own consciences, and we have to act in ways that we can believe we have lived up to them. Forget about grades, school, university, the police, the laws — you have to, first and foremost, refer to your innermost conscience and believe you have lived up to it. I hope you will succeed.