At a recent panel discussion, ‘Human rights, gender and sexuality in the Islamic world’, held at the University of Michigan, Juan Cole, professor of history, opened the talks with a disarming confession: he acknowledged that the guest of honour, Iranian Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi was someone “who has been to the trenches and suffered for what she has said,” as opposed to an academic like himself whose perspective was purely intellectual and lacked the endured history of witnessing the trenches first-hand. Ebadi’s new memoir, Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran, provides a vivid and moving glimpse of those trenches where she fought for the rights of the Iranian people and paid dearly, in fact, almost with her life, for her political beliefs and legal activism.
Ebadi is an iconic jurist and human rights advocate who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her struggle to provide justice to the most vulnerable Iranians at the mercy of the country’s clerical regime. For most of her life — after she was stripped of her pre-revolution position as a judge, owing to the regime’s discriminatory attitude towards women — Ebadi has represented people mostly pro-bono. With the Nobel Peace Prize money she founded the Defenders of Human Rights Centre in Tehran that continues to provide legal representation to dissidents, women, refugees and political prisoners among many other vulnerable people. The centre also provided medical and financial help to victims’ families.
In her memoir, it is clear that Ebadi — unlike the many Iranians who fled the country during the Iran-Iraq war — deliberately stayed to help people resist an autocracy that she herself, like many Iranians, had supported to come into power during the 1979 revolution. It is no secret, however, that the revolution turned out to mark perhaps the darkest era of people’s suppression by the state in modern Iranian history. While millions of Iranians migrated to other countries, others such as Ebadi stayed on because they thought of themselves as the heirs to an Iran that was defined by its mystical traditions, Persian poetry and civilisation’s first human rights charter engraved on a clay cylinder by Cyrus the Great.
An eye-opening memoir of a woman who took on the patriarchy to secure the rights of her country’s people
Until We Are Free opens with the case of an 11-year-old girl, Leila, who was brutally raped by three men. Ebadi recounts the twisted logic of the Ayatollah’s laws in which, although the culprits were convicted, the religious court demanded the victim’s impoverished family pay blood money for the execution — money the family lacked — and then eventually released the convicts. While it made no sense for the victim’s family to pay for the execution of the men who raped their daughter, it was nonetheless a legal tool to secure the law’s patriarchal stance that provided a safe exit to the culprits, the verdict having been based on seventh century readings on the concept of blood money. Ebadi clearly recognised that the Ayatollah’s regime was twisting Islam to suit their vested patriarchal interests and Leila’s case was no exception. She
writes: “Though the judge in Leila’s case accused me of contravening Islam in my arguments, I drew on Islamic law and principles to challenge him. I discovered that many judges in the Islamic Republic had little or no understanding of Islamic legal tenets, and also that many Iranian women had no idea of how egregiously the law discriminated against them. It was only when life dragged them to some dark crossroads — divorce, the death of a child, a fight over inheritance — that they realised how little status they had before the law.”
Ebadi recounts many similar experiences where she stood up and challenged the clerics’ interpretations of the law. While the regime’s media accused her of being a heretic, the regime itself couldn’t prove her heresy to Islam or counter her extraordinary knowledge of Islamic legal discourse. Consequently when she was accused of being anti-Islam and an American agent, Ebadi came out with a crisp public declaration: “I am not against Islam, I am against patriarchy.”
To be sure, Ebadi’s statement signifies perhaps the crux of all that is wrong in the legal discourse in the Muslim world, including the seemingly democratic judicial system of Pakistan. This makes it all the more important that Ebadi and her story should be made an integral part of our education system and our efforts to promote women role models — those women of substance who not only challenge the masculine interpretation of Islam that uses religion to stifle women’s personalities and potential, but who also contribute to society’s healing by creating counter-narratives of truth from within the Islamic discourse.
In her activism following Leila’s case, Ebadi continued to write critically about the issue of blood money. The issue blended into her long struggle for justice and she notes: “... I described how the criminal code around … blood money holds that if a man suffers an injury that damages his testicles, he receives compensation equal to a woman’s life. I posed the question this way: if a woman with a PhD is run over by a car and dies, and an illiterate thug gets his testicles hurt in a fight, the value of that woman’s life and that thug’s testicles are equal? Is this how the Islamic Republic regards its women?” Her question created national outrage and forced the issue of women’s equality before the law into the spotlight; “... more than anything else, it made the authorities pay attention” to the injustice that existed in the name of Islamic law. “It was then that I started on the course that I follow to this day, seeking justice in the law through upholding the rights of those most vulnerable — women, children, dissidents and minorities — and pushing for legal change on the battlefield of public sentiment.
However, the rustle of change on the “battlefield of public sentiment” was not welcomed by Iranian authorities as they kept intimidating Ebadi in her efforts to seek justice. Through her daring take on the Ayatollahs she exposed the inherent patriarchy of the Iranian judicial system which in turn resulted in a fatwa of one kind or another against her. Since Ebadi was the one lawyer representing people to whom nobody provided representation, the issue of Iranian religious minorities of the Baha’i faith became another of the battles she waged within the paradigm of Islamic law, and gave back the Baha’is the dignity of being human. However, a backlash against Ebadi soon followed. Several websites reported wrongfully that her daughter had converted to Baha’ism and that was the reason Ebadi had taken up the cause of this forsaken minority of Iran.
Parallel to her groundbreaking legal career, Ebadi has been a devoted mother to her two daughters, Negar and Narges, and a loving companion to her husband, Javad. There are moments in her memoir that move one to tears, especially when she gives an account of what became of her family life when the regime played its deadliest card against her. Unable to stop her judicial activism that exposed the inhumane face of the Ayatollahs’ judicial system, the regime launched a sting operation and hit her where it hurt the most.
Ebadi writes of an Iranian intelligence agent named Mahmudi, who “had dedicated his career to the ruining of a single individual.” Mahmudi’s advent in Ebadi’s life appears nothing less than a mythical struggle between good and evil, that her vivid recollection reveals in the minutest detail. Besides coercive surveillance over her personal and professional communications, Mahmudi targeted her husband of 34 years and tricked him into an orchestrated crime of adultery recorded on video while Ebadi was visiting her daughter abroad. Ebadi’s husband was jailed, tortured and threatened with death by stoning (Article 225 of Iran’s penal code) unless he testified against his wife. Finally Mahmudi had Javad on camera reading a script accusing his wife of being a foreign agent: “Shirin Ebadi did not deserve to receive the Nobel Prize. She was awarded the prize so that she could help topple the Islamic Republic. She is a supporter of the West, particularly America. Her work is not in service of Iranians, but serves the interests of foreign imperialists who seek to weaken Iran.”
As footage of Javad saying these lines appeared on state television, it was clear that he had been pressurised into saying these things. However, the statement earned Javad a reprieve, after a cleric of the regime “issued a temporary marriage certificate backdated by five years to him” with the woman he was filmed with.
Ebadi confesses she is still bewildered by the cunning and evil the Islamic Republic employed to ruin her life. It destroyed her marriage, confiscated her property, shut down her office and made her persona non grata in her homeland, as a result of which she now lives in exile, but continues her struggle for human rights all over the world. Until we Are Free is a highly recommended book, especially for those who seek truth beyond tradition, and upholds the virtues of intellectual struggle within the diverse universe of Islamic thought.
The reviewer teaches literary studies at Kinnaird College, Lahore
Until We Are Free: My Fight for
Human Rights in Iran
By Shirin Ebadi
Random House, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 16th, 2017