Free, For All

New Arrival Magazine - Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Universal human rights and freedom of expression are the keystones of peace and democracy says Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, in the second of our features on the world's peacemakers.

Reform Islam. Put western governments on trial. End media censorship. Promote equal rights. These are just some of the actions Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi says are essential in establishing global peace.

Freedom of expression and human dignity are central to her worldview and she has been battling to establish these in her homeland of Iran. However such actions have not been without their consequences.

Ebadi was one of Iran's first female judges and served as President of the Court until she was forced to resign after the 1979 revolution, when women were banned from holding the position. She has been demonized by the state media, imprisoned and survived two assassination attempts. She recently took the US government to court for blocking the publication of her memoirs.

Shirin Ebadi is not someone who can be kept quiet. In 2003 her active role in the struggle for women's and children's rights in Iran, and her ceaseless work as a human rights lawyer were recognized as she became the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

News of her success was given a lukewarm reception by the Iranian administration. While Ebadi says much needs to be done to establish an open society there, day to day life has improved.

"Twenty-four years ago the right wing conservative media used the terms 'feminist', 'liberal' and 'human rights activist' as insults," she laughs. "Today, they are no longer insults."

Tonight she is addressing the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand as part of the International Peace Foundation's series of seminars Bridges: Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace. During it she calls for a reformed Islam "compatible with today's realities", attacks the US-led invasion of Iraq, and singles out freedom of expression as the key stepping stone in the development of democracy.

At just five foot tall, Ebadi's diminutive figure is made more apparent as she sits between her two male interpreters who have bodyguard-type physiques. She has distinctive Arab features, dark brown eyes and brown graying hair. The 57 year old mother of two sports blue trousers, a white polka-dotted blouse and, significantly, no headscarf; an act that would land her in prison in Iran. Despite this Ebadi is keen to dispel the perception of Islam as a fundamentally flawed religion. Inequalities are down to politically minded interpretations of the faith, she says.

"Anyone, including women, must have the freedom to do as they wish and to practice their religion as they whish. We must accept an interpretation of Islam which is compatible to today's realities."

After the 1979 Iranian revolution - which overthrew the despotic regime of the Shah, and ushered in a fundamentalist Islamic government - mothers' custody rights were severely restricted. Maternal child custody lasted until the age of two for boys and seven for girls. Today, after 20 years of struggle against this ruling, boys can now remain with their mothers until seven too. The law banning women from being judges has also been repealed.

"We were told Islamic Sharia law is unchangeable. What we are seeing now is the law has become changeable. For many years Islam has been a scapegoat, whereas the reality is that people in power abuse Islam in order to impose a reactionary system on the people."

The fact that a man's life is still worth the lives of two women in Iran, demonstrates that much work still needs to be done. Nevertheless, Ebadi is confident that reforms will be made and points to the fact that injustices are not the exclusive preserve of the Islamic world. When she picked up the Nobel Prize it was hailed by the Bush administration as a beacon of light for the development of democracy in Iran. Despite this, the US State Department blocked the publication of her memoirs in the US under the arcane 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act.

Not being someone who takes restrictions on her freedom of expression lightly, Ebadi took legal action and won. "I'm very grateful that the court did not compromise justice for politics. Now Iranian, Cuban and Sudani writers can be published in the US." Ebadi is also heavily critical of the US invasion of Iraq. "Saddam Hussein was a dictator, but he should have been overthrown by the Iraqi people, not by American soldiers."

As Ebadi reflects on Saddam's use of chemical weapons and his impending trial, she says it is time to set the record straight. "Who supplied Saddam with the chemical weapons?" she asks. "Now they're putting him on trial, they must also put the western governments on trial for supplying him."

Providing accurate news and information is crucial to the development of freedom and democracy. Ebadi says that censorship and political interference of the media in Iran, Thailand and other countries will stifle chances of sustainable peace.

"All societies need freedom of expression and that freedom of expression is the first stepping stone of democracy. Without the total freedom of the mass media, there will never be real democracy."