The Nation - Sunday, April 24, 2005
Shirin Ebadi was fighting for gender equality in Iran more than two decades before she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. Global acclaim, however, hasn’t meant her struggle is over. “If there’s an accident on the street involving a man and woman, the compensation paid to the woman is half that paid to the man, and in court, the testimony of two women is equal to the testimony of one man,” Ebadi said during her recent visit to Bangkok.
Speaking in Pharsi, and not wearing a veil, Ebadi said the subjugation of women has differed according to the location’s history and culture. “Women in Muslim countries face different misfortune than those in Western countries,” she said, adding that while equality for women is institutionalized and legalized in most of the West, their rights are ignored by the legal system in Iran and in many other Muslim countries. “I couldn’t tolerate the system.”
Ebadi was the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and one can sense that she feels it’s her duty to speak out against gender inequality in her world. Her worst experience came in 1979, when Ebadi – one of Iran’s first women judges – was dismissed from the bench in the wake of the Islamic revolution. She and the other female magistrates were assigned to other duties. “I became the clerk of the same court in which I was the judge before the revolution.” Ebadi, 32 at the time, quit in protest, but faced other forms of discrimination for the next 13 years as her application to practice law was repeatedly rejected. Only in 1992, when the political climate eased – and “the government accepted that it had made in incorrect interpretation of Islamic Law” – did she secure a lawyer’s license.
She has been a human-rights lawyer ever since, often grappling with the fact that “one day a judgment [given] by women judges is in accordance with Islamic Law, while the next day it isn’t. Therefore the real question is, what does Islamic Law say?” It’s a question about which she herself isn’t confused. She insists that Islam allows for gender equality. “I believe in the kink of Islam where there’s equality between men and women… Islam is the religion of equality. Islam in not compatible with dictatorship and is against it. Muslims should not allow the deceitful oppressors to use the name of Islam.”
Her belief is not shared widely among men, however. That’s why in countries like Saudi Arabia, women cannot vote or even drive a car. Afghan women are virtually the property of their husbands.
Subhatra Bhumiprabhas, Pravit Rojanaphruk, reporters