Politics & Policy

Celebrating Shirin Ebadi

An Iranian woman gets Nobel praise.

A new T-shirt is on sale in Tehran, the Iranian capital. It bears the message “Shirin Shirin Est!” (“The Sweet One is Sweet”). This is a play on the name of Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer and human-rights fighter who has just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. (Shirin means “sweet” in Persian.)

The Nobel committee’s decision to name Mrs. Ebadi as the 2003 laureate has turned her into a household name throughout Iran and the Muslim world. Within 48 hours of the announcement of the news, Mrs. Ebadi received over 10,000 cables, e-mails, and phone messages from one end of the Muslim world to another.

The announcement of her win in Oslo was followed by scenes of popular elation in Tehran, where students–male and female–distributed flowers and sweets, the symbol of “Shirin” to passers-by.

The Khomeinist ruling establishment, however, did not know what to do with the news. It ignored the Oslo announcement for a whole day, and then acknowledged it with a twelve-word news brief. The whole of Iran had already heard the news thanks to Persian radio and TV broadcasts from the United States and Europe.

Then began the campaign of vilification against Ebadi. One radical Khomeinist leader described her as an “agent of American Imperialism and Zionism.” A Khomeinist daily in Tehran presented the choice of Ebadi as a move in “a plot by the enemies of Islam” to undermine the Islamic Republic.

Iran’s president, Muhammad Khatami, often presented in the West as a reformist, had his own way of putting things: “This is not worth all the fuss. . . . The Nobel Peace Prize is nothing. Prizes for literature and science matter.” Khatami’s comment is a sign not only of sour grapes–he himself had hoped to get a Nobel when he won his first term in office in 1997 on a reformist platform–but also of the fear which Ebadi strikes in the hearts of the ruling mullahs. She is a symbol of everything they fear and loath.

To begin with, Ebadi is a woman and as such is regarded by Khatami and other mullahs as, at best, half of a human being. To present her as a hero for mankind as a whole is just too much for them to bear. Second, Ebadi makes a point of emphasizing her Iranian-ness, much to the chagrin of the mullahs, who insist that Islam recognizes no national boundaries and that the love of one’s homeland is incompatible with the love of God.

Third, Ebadi says she is proud to be a Muslim–in her own way. She insists that no one, least of all the mullahs, has the right to tell others how to live and practice their faith. “There are no priests and no church in Islam,” she repeats. “As Muslims we are alone responsible for our deeds and shall face Divine Judgment as individuals. Because we are not robots no one could programme us with his version of religion.”

Fourth, Ebadi makes no secret of her dislike of the Hijab, a head covering invented in the 1970s in Lebanon and gradually imposed as a symbol of Islamic radicalism throughout the world. She is forced to wear it in Iran, where refusal to wear the Hijab is punishable by six months in jail and/or a caning in public. But, like all other Iranian women, she casts it aside as soon as she is outside the realm of the Islamic Republic. “Instead of telling Muslim women to cover their heads we should tell them to use their heads,” Ebadi says. “We must not accept anything that is rejected by our reason.” Ebadi’s rejection of the Hijab is one of the themes now used in the propaganda campaign launched against her by the state-owned media in Tehran. This is because Islamism, having failed to develop a serious philosophy, is forced to cling to head-coverings and beards as its only achievements.

Fifth, Ebadi is the product of a society that the Islamist terrorists have been trying to destroy since 1979. She was part of a second generation of Iranian women who were able to attend university. She studied law, a field expressly closed to women by the Islamists, and became a judge in 1974. (She was one of 46 Iranian women to serve as a judge. In 1979 the Iranian supreme court also included one woman among its nine members.)

The significance of a woman serving as a judge may be hard to grasp for non-Muslims. But the advent of female judges in Iran under the Shah was a truly revolutionary event, unprecedented in the 1,500-year history of Islam. Women–whose testimony, according to Islamic sharia, is regarded as only half-valid–were never allowed even to act as ordinary lawyers, let alone to judge their superiors, which is to say men.

Under the fascist worldview of Islamism, a woman cannot leave home without a chaperone and cannot travel without the written permission of her husband, brother, father, or other male relative. A man can take up to four permanent wives and as many temporary ones as he likes, and can repudiate any wife at any time without informing her. In that context, the Ebadi’s generation, which gave Iran its first women members of parliament, cabinet ministers, provincial governors, ambassadors, army and police commanders, aircraft pilots, surgeons, and bus and taxi drivers was a truly heroic one.

The mullahs tried to kill that generation and thrust women again to the margins of society. They failed for two reasons. First, the Iran-Iraq War, which began in 1980 and lasted eight long years, kept almost one million men at the front, making it impossible to run many sectors of the economy without letting women work. And second, because of the existence of heroic women like Shirin Ebadi who were ready to fight and, in many cases, die defending their newly won rights. Mrs. Ebadi, now 56 and the mother of two daughters, has been repeatedly beaten up by Islamist thugs. She has been imprisoned, kept under house arrest, prevented from working, and subjected to the most vicious of media campaigns. And yet she has not wavered. The mullahs hate her because she symbolizes the failure of their criminal enterprise.

“All human beings are of equal worth simply by existing,” she says. That, of course, is in direct opposition to the basic principles of Islamism, which hold that humanity is divided according to a strict hierarchy of worth. At the top of this hierarchy are free Muslim males, the cream of humanity. Below them, in descending order of humanity, are: Muslim male slaves, free Muslim women, Muslim female slaves, the males of the “People of the Book” (Jews and Christians), and, finally, the female of the People of the Book. The rest of humanity–Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and others–are regarded as worthless, and, because they lack a soul, cannot claim to have any rights whatsoever.

Ebadi rejects that “Islamic” hierarchy as “absurd and dangerous.” “There is no future for mankind without human rights,” she said at her first international press conference in Paris on Monday. “Any discrimination on the basis of gender, race, or religion is a challenge to our basic humanity.” Ebadi has gone out of her way to dismiss suggestions that she may be contemplating a political career. “What I do is not political in the accepted sense of the term,” she said. “All I am doing is to fight for the creation of conditions in which Iranians, and other Muslim nations, can have a real political life.”

Giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Ebadi is a strong signal from the democratic world to those Muslims who are fighting fascism disguised as religion, often at great personal risk. The world of Islam is passing through a civil war of ideas of a magnitude not seen since the 12th century. And, just as in the 12th century, the fight is between those who wish to turn religion into a weapon of rule by terror, and those who, like Ebadi, see faith as a personal matter, to be worked out between the individual and God.

In the 12th century, the fascists won. The result was the advent of Islam’s Dark Ages, from which it began to recover only in the 19th century–and even then only slowly. Who will win this time? With people like Shirin Ebadi in the field, the fascists are right to fear for their future.

Amir Taheri, an NRO contributor, is an Iranian author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam. He’s reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.

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