Silencing a modern Scheherazade
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. — In the old and turbulent history of Iran, women have relied on words as their weapon of choice to struggle for peace and justice. Their foremother, Scheherazade, knew the futility of fighting injustice through violent means. For one thousand and one nights, under the looming threat of having her head chopped off, she resorted to storytelling to cure a serial killer, her husband King Shahriyar.
Recognizing the formidable power of words, Shirin Ebadi, the modern-day Scheherazade, has also resorted to words to fight for human rights and human dignity. Ms. Ebadi - a human rights lawyer and one of Iran's first women judges - is however, forbidden to publish her memoirs in the United States because of a trade embargo against three countries: Sudan, Cuba, and Iran. Coming from a land that has no exact equivalent for the term "to sue," the 2003 Nobel Peace Laureate is suing the American government. Challenging the regulations imposed by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, Ebadi calls the ban "a critical missed opportunity both for Americans to learn more about my country and its people from a variety of Iranian voices and for a better understanding to be achieved between our two countries."
Ebadi has a point. Only a tiny percentage of the tens of thousands of new titles made available to the American reading public every year are translated works.
Furthermore, with no official relations with the Iranian government, with new prohibitions on direct access to the people, with travel and tourism virtually stopped, it is hard for Americans to see Iran beyond the headlines. Misunderstandings and misperceptions are rampant.
In spite of its long history of cooperation and friendship with the US, which was interrupted by the 1979 revolution, especially the hostage crisis, Iran is represented as an intractable enemy. Its dominant image now is that of a country-turned-jailer; a country taking Americans, no less diplomats and emissaries, hostage.
Twenty-five years after the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979, Iranians are held hostage by the image of their own hostage-taking. This image is deeply etched in the collective memory of Americans. And it is the basis of the most popular movies and books on Iran. Consider the New York Times bestseller list, which was started in 1931: Not a single book about Iran appeared on it in the first 50 years. But the hostage crisis quickly changed that. A slew of new books, responding to the concerns of the time, revolving around the theme of captivity were published - eight of them scaled the Times bestseller list, attracting unprecedented attention from mainstream newspapers, radio, and television.
While scholarly works on Iran reach the hearts and minds of barely a few thousand Americans, "Not Without My Daughter," for instance, sold more than 12 million copies, to become the most popular book ever written about Iran in the US. The "true" story of Betty Mahmoody and her daughter imprisoned in Iran by her husband, it fully sensationalized the theme of hostage-taking. Bookjacket notes state:"Imagine yourself alone and vulnerable, trapped by a husband you thought you trusted, and held prisoner in his native Iran; a land where women have no rights and Americans are despised."
Fanning the flames of antagonism between the two peoples, the majority of these books are claustrophobic nightmares. They evoke images of Iranian women drifting zombie-like in their all-enveloping veils portrayed as prisons shrunk to the size of a woman's body. They depict countless chest-pounding men who burn effigies of American presidents, desecrate the American flag, scream "Death to America" in unison.
These politicized and polarizing accounts disregard the variety and complexity of perspectives inside the country and do not promote a better understanding between the two nations.
The time is ripe for a less homogenized, more diversified representation of the Iranian people. Ebadi - praised by President Bush for her efforts to fight for human rights - is no friend of extremism. Her memoirs almost certainly will portray how women are reorganizing the political and cultural landscape of Iran.
For well over a century, women have been a moderating, modernizing force in Iran with Shirin Ebadi as one of its most articulate and successful representatives. Her voice, like Scheherazade's, is a beacon of hope and temperance. It should not be silenced. It ought to be heard.
• Farzaneh Milani, a native of Iran, is director of Studies in Women and Gender at the University of Virginia.