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BOOK REVIEWS | summer 2006


Defending Iran's Women

Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope
By Shirin Ebadi (with Azadeh Moaveni)
Random House

During a press conference in Paris, her first after winning the 2003 Nobel Prize for Peace, Shirin Ebadi declared, “This prize doesn’t belong to me only—it belongs to all people who work for human rights and democracy in Iran.” For the thousands of jubilant Iranians who later welcomed her home at the Tehran airport, Ebadi’s Nobel Prize was international acknowledgment of Iranian women’s years of struggle for equal rights and citizenship.

Ebadi’s memoir introduces us to a Middle East less known to the Western public, particularly the growing number of highly educated, professional and self-confident Iranian women who constitute the primary agent of change, modernity and democracy in that nation. “I wanted to write a book that would help correct Western stereotypes of Islam,” she writes, “especially the image of Muslim women as docile, forlorn creatures.” Without shying away from the term feminism, Ebadi calls herself a Muslim feminist, an identity that may sound oxymoronic to the ears of some puritanical secularists and anti-feminist Muslim fundamentalists. But Ebadi represents the creativity in women’s ways of fighting patriarchy and the diversity of the women’s movement in societies living under religious laws and traditionalist rules.

As a lawyer, Ebadi has defended women and children whose human rights have been violated, as well as journalists, prisoners of conscience, victims of violence and student activists, many of them on a pro bono basis, “where [she] could at least showcase the injustice of the Islamic Republic’s laws. It was a system whose laws needed to go on trial before they could be changed.” In doing so, she always promoted peaceful, democratic solutions to society’s problems. Yet this did not prevent her from being harassed, demoted, imprisoned and threatened with death. It was while representing families of serial assassination victims, including prominent intellectuals and activists stabbed to death in their homes or on the street, that she accidentally learned her own name was on the list of those soon to be assassinated.

A staunch advocate of the universality of human rights, Ebadi uses her memoir to debunk cultural relativism. She boldly criticizes not only the retrogressive laws and repressive state policies in Iran, but also the patriarchal and chauvinistic foundation of Iran’s culture and traditions. She believes that Islam or “Muslimhood” can be as compatible with democracy as Christianity. It is not religion but rather patriarchal religious authorities and the religious state that are incompatible with human rights and democracy, she writes.

Despite the recent strengthening of the hard-liners in Iran’s state apparatus, Ebadi remains hopeful. Convinced that democracy and change have to come from within, she argues that Iranians—especially Iranian women, who make up more than 65 percent of the university enrollment and are now better educated than men—must be given the chance to fight their own fights. A military intervention by the U.S. may only turn Iran into a second Iraq, with war-torn circumstances under which human rights, especially women’s rights and daily security, are the first victims.