A tough place to be a woman with a cause

She is accused by some hard-line ayatollahs of trying single-handedly to undermine Iran's Islamic revolution. Petite and soft-spoken, she looks no match for her bearded detractors. But Shirin Ebadi is made of steel.

"Any person who pursues human rights in Iran must live with fear from birth to death, but I have learned to overcome my fear," she says.

Ms. Ebadi was Iran's first woman judge before the revolution, after which the ayatollahs decided women were too emotional and irrational to hold such posts. She now lectures in law at Tehran University, is a vocal campaigner for women's and children's rights, and takes on cases other lawyers would never dare touch.

And she is an unofficial spokeswoman for Iranian women, who played a key role in the May 1997 landslide presidential election of the reformist Mohamad Khatami and have since been striving for a more active role in public life.

Iranian women, in fact, already have some impressive accomplishments to their credit. With 14 women in Iran's 270-seat parliament, they enjoy better representation than their sisters in the US Senate. More Iranian women than men have passed university entrance exams in recent years. They are snapping up jobs that were once exclusively male, such as bus driving.

And earlier this month, Iran announced plans to revise the way women are portrayed in primary-school textbooks. The education minister, Hussein Mozafar, regretted the "lack of enough knowledge of women's capabilities."

Where women still see inequities

Although Iranian women can enter most professions, they say a glass ceiling makes it difficult to reach senior positions. But their greatest complaint is the legal system, which remains heavily loaded against them. A blatant inequality, for instance, is the law of "blood money" paid by a murderer to the victim's family in return for the family waiving its right to insist on the death penalty. Blood money for a woman is set at only half that for a man.

Family law is another area where activists have called for reform. Because of campaigners like Ebadi, however, a husband can no longer automatically obtain a divorce without paying hefty alimony. But women often waive their right to alimony solely to keep their children. Even so, women are allowed to keep boys only until the age of 2 and girls until 7.

On Ebadi's wall in her office in central Tehran is a certificate of congratulations from the Washington-based Human Rights Watch, "proudly honoring Shirin Ebadi for her courageous dedication to the preservation of fundamental freedoms through her service as a human rights monitor." In addition, a small Statue of Liberty stands on her desk.

But she bristles at claims by hard-liners that her work is providing ammunition for the "Global Arrogance," America. "I'm an Iranian, I'm proud to be Iranian, and I'll live in my country as long as I can."

Still, Ayatollah Mohammed Yazdi, until recently the head of the judiciary, indirectly blamed her for instigating July's unrest - five days of student demonstrations provoked by a dormitory raid at Tehran University. People like her, he thundered in a Friday prayers sermon that was broadcast on national television, had been filling young people's heads with nonsense.

Undaunted, Ebadi continues to speak out. "We still don't know who the rioters really were," she says. "They are trying to say the whole thing was the responsibility of a few people. What we do know is the police broke into the dormitories, and this was against the law. They beat up students, and this was against the law. All the officials of the country agreed this was wrong."

At least three people were killed in the unrest, but none of the Islamic vigilantes or police who stormed the dormitory have been prosecuted. Instead, four alleged ringleaders in the pro-reform demonstrations have been sentenced to death by a revolutionary court in Tehran.

Ebadi's present work

Ebadi is currently representing the family of Dariush Farouhar, a dissident intellectual who was found stabbed to death at his home late last year. His wife, Parveneh, was also killed at the same time.

The couple was among several dissidents who died in a spate of grisly murders that terrorized Iran's intellectual community. Suspicion fell on extremist hard-liners determined to put a stop to the more liberal climate fostered by President Khatami, who has championed freedom of speech.

The tactics backfired. The president ordered a thorough inquiry into the serial killings, putting immense pressure on the hard-line intelligence ministry, which announced "rogue agents" were responsible. And the intelligence minister, Qorbanli Dorri Najafabadi, resigned.

"This was a great victory for Khatami and the forces of justice," Ebadi says. But much more has to be done, she insists. "Nine months after the killings, the court is saying no more than the newspapers. I haven't even been given a file number for the case yet," she says.

"And the main suspect has committed suicide," she adds. He was Saeed Emami, the deputy intelligence minister who, according to the authorities, killed himself by drinking hair remover while having a bath in Tehran's notorious Evin prison. Immediately, there were suspicions his death covered links to more senior figures.

"Such horrible incidents can happen anywhere, but the people would be informed immediately. Here, they are not. They're told the national security of the country would be undermined," Ebadi says. "We want to know, Who was Saeed Emami? Who appointed him to such a high position? And the July riots: How did they start? Who were the instigators?"

This summer's unrest, Ebadi argues, was an extension of last year's killings. "At least they both had the same objective." Like many Iranians, she believes the student protests, which began over curbs on press freedom, were hijacked by hard-liners determined to foment violence in order to prove Mr. Khatami was incapable of controlling the country.

It is for this reason she says there will be no repeat of the student demonstrations for the time being, despite the fraught political atmosphere on campuses. And tension has remained over press freedoms: For the first time ever, a woman newspaper editor has been jailed, according to a report on Iran's official news agency on Oct. 11. Jaleh Oskui was said to have published "outrageous" stories that offended public morality and decency.

Still, reformists are sensitive to pushing too far. "A continuation of the street unrest will pave the way to impeach the president on the grounds of political incompetency," Ebadi says. "This is why the majority of writers, academics, and so on who are in favor of the president want to keep the situation calm."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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