Tehran, Asharq Al-Awsat – It was a sunny Friday morning approaching 10 O’clock, and although most people were relaxing in their homes, a group of Iranian women had chosen to meet at one of the women’s houses to discuss the developments in their campaign. They are working on a campaign to change Iranian laws that discriminate against women.
Inside the elegant Western-style home the smell of tea and coffee filled the air and judging by the amount of fruit on the table, it seemed like it was going to be a long day. At first seven or eight women arrived, some wearing chadors while others were dressed in stylish trousers, shirts and high boots; the colorful silk scarves on their hair falling to their shoulders the minute they entered the house.
Whenever the doorbell rang a lady went to open the door until the house was full of women, some in traditional chadors while others were wearing Westernized clothes and smoking cigarettes. All of the women are highly educated, some with bachelors degrees others with doctorates.
During their discussion some were taking notes, planning the next moves in their campaign. I remembered the words of Gabriel Garcia Marquez when he said, ‘I only feel safe among women. No harm can come to me when I am amongst them’. I also remembered the phrase echoed by many Iranian men and women: “Iranian women are very strong…stronger than the men both in the house and outside of it.”
A few days after this meeting some of the women were arrested while demonstrating in one of Tehran’s squares and when they were released they protested again only to be arrested once more.
Sitting amidst the attendees was Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer and activist whose figure has become a ‘huge asset’ for the women’s rights movement in Iran. Ebadi travels often and lectures worldwide both in workshops and in international conferences.
“I am usually away from Iran for 10 days a month, spending the rest of the month in Iran. Practically, my work continues without cease whether in Iran or abroad. When I travel it is to participate in debates and international conferences,” she told Asharq Al-Awsat. “When I am in Iran I have an incredibly busy schedule and there is a lot of pressure. A lot of the work is left pending until I arrive to make decisions on matters,” she added.
Shirin Ebadi talks about an Iranian campaign to collect a million signatures from Iran and around the world with the intention of changing the Iranian laws that discriminate against women.
Following is the text of the interview:
Q: What is the one million signatures campaign?
A: Over 65 percent of students in Iranian universities are women, which means that Iranian women are more educated than their male counterparts. However, the laws created following the 1979 revolution were discriminatory against women. Some of these include the law that a women’s ‘diya’ [financial compensation paid for accidental killing] is half the sum a man would receive, so for example if a woman has been in a car accident and dies as a result, the driver is obligated to pay half the sum for a woman’s life than he would for a man’s. Also, two women testifying in court is the equivalent of one man’s testimony. Iranian women refuse to accept these laws – this was the starting point of the one million signatures campaign so that the women could make their objections heard.
Q: What’s the next step after collecting the signatures?
A: We will make the decision for the next step after gathering the signatures. The most important thing now is to show Iranians and everyone around the world that Iranian women reject these laws that are prejudiced against them.
Q: Do you have any signatures from outside of Iran that support your campaign?
A: We have strategies for all the signatures; the first is direct contact and face-to-face meetings. Many who are working with us go to see Iranians in their homes and discuss the laws with them before getting their signatures. The second strategy to collect signatures is our website. Unfortunately, thus far, the authorities have blocked our site twice already but that doesn’t mean we’ll stop our work. We have set up another website and are using it presently. International figures that support our campaign include the Dalai Lama and South African civil rights activist, Reverend Desmond Tutu, the Costa Rican president, the prime minister of East Timor and all the women who were awarded the Nobel Prize, in addition to international activists and organizations worldwide. Our website enables you to sign online.
Q: You have become an international figure after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, does that help you in your work or do you face difficulties?
A: For nearly five years now, some lawyer friends and I have established an organization that defends human rights. Of course the Iranian constitution does not obligate us to obtain consent or a license from the government for registration. However, because we did not want to be an underground organization, we approached the authorities and requested licensing so as to resume our activities. We met all the requirements and conditions for registration but they still refused to give us a license. This was during President Mohammad Khatami’s era, and although the authorities did not grant us legal licensing to resume our work, they didn’t prevent us from working either.
Today, under Ahmadinejad’s administration we have been informed that because we lack legal registration we are not allowed to work. Our response was that we had requested registration and met all the conditions and prerequisites and as such our work was legal whereas the authorities’ forbidding us to work was not. Fortunately, because of the significant support we receive locally and internationally the Iranian authorities said they would reconsider our issue – but we still have not been registered to this day although we still persevere with our work. What is striking is the fact that since we started requesting licensing for the first time various organizations and political parties in Iran have obtained licenses to operate – except us. This is why I use the analogy of someone who has passed their driving exam but is still refused a driving license.
Q: Do you think that Ahmadinejad depends on external pressures to secure local support, and uses the need for internal solidarity to confront foreign pressures as an excuse?
A: We need to regard this issue as an interrelated whole, democracy and human rights can grow in a peaceful atmosphere. Governments always use national security as a way to restrict the people’s freedoms. That is why we oppose any attack on Iran. Attacking Iran would obstruct the path to reform because this will give the government an excuse to restrict the public’s freedoms. As for human rights, they are intrinsically part of the same bundle; you cannot select a part of it and say it is more important than another.
Iranians are in need of healthcare, but they need education and security and peace at the same time. We cannot put these rights together and ask which are the priorities. The most important factor to prevent war is the unity of the Iranians. This is the time when the government must respect the demands of the people and strengthen democracy in Iran. After 28 years of the Iranian revolution we still cannot elect our representatives in political institutions; the Guardian Council must first approve of the candidates running for any form of election in Iran.
Q: Do the differences within the reform movement affect its ability to perform?
A: It is completely natural that not everyone thinks in the same way, different points of view exist everywhere. Differences between the reformists are normal. This is the reason we started our campaigning to collect a minimum of one million signatures, which would enable those against the laws that subordinate women to approach us and sign [the petition]. Our campaign is directed at a lot of different classes.
Q: After the Nobel Prize you have expanded the fields in which you work, other than human rights what other new activities are you currently involved in?
A: Essentially, I am a lawyer. For the past 10 years I have only defended political detainees and I do not receive payment for my legal work from the defendants I represent. During my professional career, I have contributed to the establishment of three non-governmental organizations (NGOs); the first one I established 12 years ago under the name ‘the organization for defending children’s rights’ and for many years I was president of the organization. After a few years, the organization had achieved substantial growth which prompted me to found another organization, where I still work as a consultant. Along with five other friends, we founded the human rights organization, which I am the president of. I am also part of another organization, which with the help of friends; we set up to take action against the mines [in Iran]. After approximately 18 years following the Iraqi-Iranian war, Iran still has 4 million hectares containing landmines. These mines are not only on the borders; some are planted inside Iranian cities. On average 2-3 people are injured or killed by landmines every day in Iran. This is not a subject that is discussed in Iran and there are no civil institutions that work for that cause, however three years ago we set up an organization that addresses this issue. Amidst the preoccupation with politics, people forget about the social problems.
The most important activities that we undertake at the center are the exchange of information and we are careful to always announce the number of remaining mines to Iranians and the rest of the world. I am very pleased to say that because of our efforts, the government has decided to increase the budget allocated for removing the mines and took the matter seriously. But that is not enough. Iran must join the Ottawa Treaty which prohibits the use of landmines, whether using or manufacturing them. The Iranian government not only manufactures mines, it also uses them. What is the use of clearing the land of mines if there is a possibility they will be used again in the future? The reason that drove the international community to declare the use of landmines illegal is that during times of war you know that you are using them to kill the enemy but after a truce has been reached you only kill innocent civilians. The cost of making a mine is US $2, while removing it costs US $1,000 per mine, which is why the Ottawa Treaty declared their manufacture and use illegal. The Iranian government should accede to the treaty and ratify their joining.
Q: Today in Iran it seems that the conservatives have the upper hand, are you optimistic for a future of reforms?
A: When I look at the past I feel optimistic for the future of Iran. After the 1979 Iranian revolution if you used the term ‘women’s movement’ it was as though you were cursing or degrading a person. After the revolution there were conservatives who wanted to hurl accusations at me so they used to call me ‘liberal’ and ‘defender of human rights’ and ‘defender of women’s rights’ (laughs). Today I am happy that our voices have an echo in Iranian society. Naturally not all the women support us; there are some women, like men, who are conservative in their outlook. An example is a law that was proposed by a number of female MPs to the parliament requesting that the number of females entering university be reduced because presently, approximately 50 percent of university students are female.
I understand the current situation but when I think back to the past and see how reformist thought is gaining support in Iran, I feel optimistic about the future.