In a restless Iran, Shirin Ebadi is a problem for conservatives
October 15, 2003
President Khatami finally reacted to Shirin
Ebadi's Nobel Peace Prize, five days after the fact, and on the
day of her triumphant return to Iran. He congratulated her but
his praise was mixed with comments that showed discomfort,
if not fear -- fear of what it could all mean to the future of
the Islamic Republic.
"This award has been given to her totally on
the basis of political considerations," Khatami was quoted
as saying to reporters. He called the Peace Prize "not
very important" compared
with other Nobel awards, such as science and literature.
His comments are understandable. After all, Khatami
cannot be expected to embrace Ebadi and all she stands for. The
ruling conservatives are fuming
from the fact that the world's most prestigious award has been
given to a lawyer -- and a woman, astaghforellah -- who has been
defending victims of some of the worst crimes committed by the
regime. Khatami's outright
support for Ebadi would have added fuel to the fire.
But although Khatami may have saved himself from
the wrath of his conservative foes, his
could still cost
dearly. He may now have lost the support of those who still had
some hope left in his ability to bring about change. Worse still,
by discrediting the just recognition of the great work of a
spotless human rights activist, he has badly damaged his credibility.
There were those who thought despite his political impotence,
at least he was a "nice guy". No more.
There's no doubt that the Nobel
Committee's statement on Ebadi took a stab
-- several stabs -- at Islamic hardliners everywhere, especially
Iran. It called her a "conscious Moslem" who "sees
no conflict between Islam and fundamental human rights." And
it concluded with this:
We hope that the people of Iran will feel joyous
that for the first time in history one of their citizens has been
awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and we hope the Prize will be an
inspiration for all those who struggle for human rights and democracy
in her country, in the Moslem world, and in all countries where
the fight for human rights needs inspiration and support.
Political? You bet it is. And for all the right reasons.
The award could not have been given to a more deserving
Iranian. Ebadi represents the women of Iran who have lost more
in terms of social standing and dignity than any other sector.
If Iranian women have excelled here and there, which they have,
no thanks to the Islamic Republic.
For every woman who has achieved
success inside and outside the home, there are hundreds
who have suffered. Women have serious doubts about their self
worth in a society that was
overly male-dominated even before the Islamic Republic
officially relegated them to lesser citizens, thus lesser human
in many respects.
And of course there's no need to explain the
adverse effects of mandatory hijab which has so symbolized this
Ebadi has defended the rights of children in a very
real sense, in her legal writings, in the courts and as one of
the founders of the Society for Protecting the Rights of the Child.
She is undoubtedly
a pioneer in this field.
But what makes Ebadi even more remarkable is that
she has used her legal skills as a former judge (the Islamic Republic
that right from women as well) to defend victims of highly sensitive
political crimes. She took on cases that other lawyers would not
livelihood by exposing the brutality of the regime's henchmen.
So although the great majority of Iranians were unaware
of her quiet but courageous work, she had earned great respect
in women's and human rights circles. But now the Nobel Prize has
suddenly made her an international celebrity and a
hero back home. And that's a big problem for Iran's conservatives,
as well as reformists.
The problem for the conservatives is obvious. The
Nobel Committee has simply spat on the face of the ruling clergy
by calling them uncivilized, undemocratic and violators of
The problem for the reformists is more complicated.
Some members of parliament, junior politicians
and journalists in the Khatami camp, are happy that conservatives
from Supreme Leader Khamenei to radical thugs in the streets
embarrassed. On the other hand, within the context of Iran's political
terminology, Ebadi is not a
reformist. That's why her prestigious award annoys Khatami and
his closest followers. She is not one of them.
Ebadi can best be described as a secular Muslim
-- with emphasis on secular. She has not relied
on religious texts to seek justice, rather she has taken the rational
approach, emphasizing that human rights are not against the spirit
of religion. And
by choosing not to wear the scarf at a high-profile press conference
declared the winner of the Nobel prize, she sent a clear message
she belongs to neither of the ruling factions.
She appeals to Iranians who are tired of both Khamenei and Khatami.
And God knows they are everywhere and from all walks of life.
Ebadi has become an instant celebrity, and by
all standards a loveable one. The Ebadi buzz on the internet has
the cheerful welcome she received from thousands of people at
Tehran airport after her return from Paris
could just be the beginning. Remember the last time a popular figure
returned to his country from Paris? He swept away a monarchy in
ten days. Ebadi is no Khomeini -- and thank
God for that. But just like 1979, the masses are restless and they
are desperate for a
Six years ago they weren't so desperate. Most had
hoped that the huge votes for Khatami,
and later his reformist allies in parliament, would bring change
for the better through the ballot box, that authoritarian rule
would gradually come to
an end, that the government would become more rational, that personal
freedoms would expand, political prisoners would be freed, restrictions
on the press would become less and less, and women's rights would
be restored over time.
But what do we have now? We have a president who
is presiding over his own demise and that of a harsh theocracy
he wanted (or said he wanted) to reform. We have a parliament that
is a graveyard for laws killed one by one by a panel
of clerics who couldn't give a damn about reform. We have fewer
newspapers that speak the truth and more journalists in jail, not
to mention scores of student protesters and political activists
of all colors. On the other hand, women are wearing less and less
in public. But
I don't think Khatami would take credit for that.
rampant and deep. Iranians are angry
to the point that they despise fundamentalism,
all mullahs and the Islamic Republic. They have not only lost hope
in reform but are becoming more and more radical and fearless
in standing up to the religious establishment. It is in this environment
that Ebadi's message
and democracy has so electrified Iranian society. Where will
it all lead? Hard to tell, but the Islamic Republic is no longer
at the controls.
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