The Long Trail behind You

by Mark Chmiel

Shirin Ebadi, with Azadeh Moaveni, Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope

But a personal story is more powerful than any dry summary of why a given law should be changed. To attract people’s attention, to solicit their sympathies and convince them that these laws were not simply unfair but actively pathological, I had to tell stories. Iranian culture, for all its preoccupation with shame and honor, with all its resulting patriarchal codes, retains an acute sensitivity to injustice. The revolution against the shah, after all, had premised itself on the ethos of fighting zolm, or oppression; it was a revolution conducted in the name of the mustazjin, the dispossessed. People had to see how the dispossessed had now become the dispossessors. [111]

Shirin Ebadi, 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner, is an inspiration of staying in the struggle for the long haul. Unlike 4-5 million other Iranians, she stayed put in the Islamic republic and worked from within to offer humane resistance to the religious fundamentalism that would deprive her of her own career as a judge. She is both a strong feminist, using her lawyer skills to advocate for women in a system that sees them as merely half the value of men, and she is also a faithful Muslim, although one different than those Khomeini wanted to hold up as a role model for women. She is also a dissident, who was willing to take strong stands, oppose the Republic’s interpretations (not defame it), did jail time, was on a death list, raised her daughters, did the proverbial twice as much work as the man, and stayed put. The authorities weren’t going to drive her away.

Many American women (and men) could relate to such passages as the following: “There was not an instant or a corner of their lives that I wasn’t intimately linked to. But there were so many moments of child rearing where he was absent. And this was not particular to Javad. He adored our daughters. In Iran, however, the mother is the pillar that holds up the family, always anticipating the needs and dangers around the bend. I do not think I have encountered in my life more than a handful of Iranian men who do not foist the responsibility of both the house and the children onto their wives. In addition to everything I had to do, I also had to teach my daughters the fine points of politics, how to conduct themselves in an unstable society.” [153] And many American feminist activists, from the 60s on, would appreciate the following as well: “And time would confirm my doubts about the revolutionaries. In their hierarchy of priorities, women’s rights would forever come last, it was simply never the time to defend women’s rights. Twenty-five years later, they would dismiss my same arguments with the same answer. The revolution needs rescue. Gentlemen, I wondered, when, in your opinion, will be an auspicious time to attend to women’s rights? In the afterlife?” [56]

Ebadi shows that religion, in her case, Islam, can be used for oppression or for liberation: “Whether the objective was to instill fear and dissuade dissent or to impose an unpopular and harsh interpretation of Islam, the result was the same: the politics of the regime nosed into our lives, followed us into our living rooms, turned our everyday existence into a cat-and-mouse game of evading the authorities.” [95] “… we had no choice but to advocate for female equality in an Islamic framework. In this, our personal sensibilities were wholly irrelevant. It so happened that I believed in the secular separation of religion and government because, fundamentally, Islam, like any religion, is subject to interpretation. It can be interpreted to oppress women or interpreted to liberate them.” [122]

Over time she realizes she has earned a kind of social capital that can offer certain benefits to her people, for example, when she was interviewed on CNN. She reminds me of El Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero in the following: “I also realized for the first time that I had become what you might call famous. Prominence is something that accrues gradually. You work and speak, write articles and lecture, meet with clients and defend them, day after day, night after night, and then you wake up one day and notice that there is a long trail behind you that constitutes a reputation. That’s how it happened for me, anyway. How unimportant it was to me as a person, but how useful it became to my work. It meant journalists would listen if I approached them with a case and would help publicize it both inside the country and abroad. It meant that human rights observers around the world knew and trusted me, and launched swift appeals for urgent cases I brought to their attention. It meant there was now a face and a name attached to the abstract term ‘human rights’ in Iran, and that finally millions of women who could not articulate their frustrations and desires had someone to speak on their behalf.” [126-127]

Hers is a crucial voice for Americans to listen to, as the Bush Administration has threatened that no options are “off the table” (including, according to veteran journalist Sy Hersh, the nuclear option). She is strongly opposed to such crazed cowboy rhetoric: “The threat of regime change by military force, while reserved as an option by some in the Western world, endangers nearly all of the efforts democracy-minded Iranians have made in these recent years. The threat of military force gives the system a pretext to crack down on its legitimate opposition and undermines the nascent civil society that is slowly taking shape here. It makes Iranians overlook their resentment of the regime and move behind their unpopular leaders out of defensive nationalism. I can think of no scenario more alarming, no internal shift more dangerous than that engendered by the West imagining that it can bring democracy to Iran through either military might or the fomentation of violent rebellion.” [214-215]

—June 2006