Islam, like Christianity, is far from monolithic. While there are radical, violent strains of Islam, there are also Islamic voices that advocate egalitarianism, human rights, and democracy. Even in Iran, that bastion of Islamic fundamentalism, reformers have been working for peaceful change. One of those reformers, Shirin Ebadi, was awarded the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize.
Ebadi has never lost faith in her nation or her Islamic beliefs, despite death threats, multiple arrests, and imprisonment. Summarizing her career, especially in the realm of women's rights, Ebadi says that she has advocated "an interpretation of Islam that is in harmony with equality and democracy.... It is not religion that binds women, but the selective dictates of those who wish them cloistered."
In a particularly revealing moment in her memoir, Iran Awakening, Ebadi goes before the Iranian Parliament in 2003 and argues that Islamic texts in no way sanction the existing Iranian law allowing husbands to divorce their wives with ease (by merely uttering "I divorce you" three times), while requiring wives to obtain the consent of their husbands. When Ebadi attempts to explain this lack of textual support to a hard-line cleric, he has her ushered out of the room, and then votes with the majority to squelch Ebadi's proposed reforms.
Ebadi's well-crafted memoir is notable for such frustrating moments of justice thwarted. In a 2000 judicial case in which Ebadi acted as a lawyer, she investigated a state-sponsored death squad that had murdered opponents of the government. While sifting through the thousands of documents related to this politically charged case, Ebadi discovered a familiar name on the "hit list" of murder targets - her own. While Ebadi's legal efforts led to the conviction of a few members of the assassination squad, the government halted the investigation before it uncovered any further wrongdoing. "No senior official ever faced prosecution," writes an angered Ebadi.
Ebadi's memoir traces her own history and that of Iran, from the US-backed coup that installed the shah in 1953 to the 1979 Iranian revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power. Ebadi became a judge in 1970, but she grew disillusioned with the corruption of the shah, who was widely viewed as a puppet of American oil interests. When the revolution came, Ebadi backed it without quite knowing what it would bring. Soon after Khomeini took power, he eliminated the existing Iranian legal code and introduced sharia, Islamic law.
Sharia profoundly altered the legal status of Iranian woman. "[T]he value of a woman's life was half that of a man," explains Ebadi, "a woman's testimony in court as a witness to a crime counted only half as much as a man's.... The drafters of the penal code had apparently consulted the seventh century for legal advice. The laws, in short, turned the clock back fourteen hundred years...." Ebadi writes of being stripped of her judgeship, and later arrested by the komiteh (morality police) because her dress wasn't in strict accordance with Islamic law.
As if the revolution wasn't tumultuous enough, Iraq's Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, hoping to seize its oil fields. Ebadi vividly describes the horrors of the long Iran-Iraq War, when some 500,000 Iranians died.
Ebadi herself was nearly killed by an Iraqi missile. Soon thereafter, her beloved brother-in-law Fuad was executed as an enemy of the revolution. Ebadi describes Fuad's summary execution as "the moment when my life took a different course."
While Ebadi's friends left Iran in droves, or were arrested on trumped-up charges, she chose to stay and become an advocate, as both a lawyer and a writer, championing an interpretation of Islamic law that would uphold human rights.
The most surprising aspect of Ebadi's career is that she has not "disappeared," as so many of the government's opponents have. Ebadi believes that her international prominence has helped protect her.
Does reform have a chance in today's Iran? Ebadi thinks so, but says it will take time, sacrifice, and international support. She concludes "Iran Awakening" by denouncing the militaristic solutions advanced by some in the West.
"Iran Awakening" offers the chance to understand Iran's tumultuous recent history, seen through the eyes of a supremely courageous Islamic woman.
Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer in Quincy, Mass.