Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Iran Awakening by Shirin Ebadi

Iran Awakening by Shirin Ebadi

I have gone off on a little Iran-reading spree recently. It started with Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Iran Awakening was number two and this weekend I started Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi.

Shirin Ebadi is a human rights lawyer and activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. She is a woman I have enormous respect for. Iran Awakening is her memoir. I loved the book. It is well written; journalist and writer Azadeh Moaveni co-wrote the book (the link goes to her blog). The writing is not difficult to read and the book could make for a fast read. Still, I feel it is a book that needs to be read with attention, because every single sentence is packed with information, even if it is only three words long.

About her youth, Ebadi writes:
It was not until I was much older that I realized how gender equality was impressed on me first and foremost at home, by example. It was only when I surveyed my own sense of place in the world from an adult perspective that I saw how my upbringing spared me from the low self-esteem and learned dependence that I observed in women reared in more traditional homes. My father's championing of my independence, from the play yard to my later decision to become a judge, instilled a confidence in me that I never felt consciously, but later came to regard as my most valued inheritance.(p. 12)
I think this was my favorite passage from the entire book. The part about learned dependence and low self-esteem struck me, but also what it says about how children learn by example.

Ebadi studies law and starts out as a judge in 1970, at the age of twenty-three. Initially, she supports the Islamic Revolution in 1979, not really grasping yet what this will mean for her as a woman. This changes however, when first she is forced to wear a veil covering her hair and later when she is demoted to some clerical position, because a female judge on the bench is not exactly the image the new regime wants to display.

The following, rather long passage is about the changes in the status and the rights of women in Iran after the Islamic Revolution and about how far-reaching the effect of that is:
I prepared myself for all the possible ways the imposition of Islamic law could affect my life. I thought of all the ways it would make a difference: the courtrooms in which I could no longer preside, the ministry it would fill with clerics, the religious books I would now use as legal references. But in all my anxious speculation, I never imagined that fear of a new legal regime, albeit a catastrophic one, would follow me into my living room, into my marriage. Yet there was no use denying it. Ever since I'd read about the new penal code in the newspaper, I'd been behaving differently with Javad [Ebadi's husband]. It was as though I was wearing my skin inside out. The smallest perceived slight or off-tone remark set me on the war path or, as the Persian expression goes, guarding my front. I couldn't help it.

The day Javad and I married each other, we joined our lives together as two equal individuals. But under these laws, he stayed a person and I became a chattel. They permitted him to divorce me at whim, take custody of our future children, acquire three wives and stick them in the house with me. Although I knew rationally that inside Javad lurked no such potential monster, just waiting to break out and steal our hypothetical children and marry up a storm, I still felt oppressed. A couple of weeks into the new sullen, defensive person I had become, I decided that Javad and I should have a talk.

"Listen, I just can't deal with this anymore," I told him.

"We don't have any problems," he said. And he was right. Before all of this, our biggest disagreement had been over household chores.

"I know," I responded, "but the law has made problems for us. We used to be equals, and now you've been promoted above me, and I just can;t stand it. I really, really can't."

"So what do you want me to do?" he asked, throwing his hands up.

And then inspiration struck. I knew what he could do! He could sign a postnuptial agreement, granting me the right to divorce him, as well as primary custody of our future children, in the event of separation.(p52-53)
Eventually, in the mid-eighties Ebadi resigns from her work at the Ministry of Justice. She resumes her career in 1992 when the Iranian regime allows women to practice law again. This time, though, Ebadi stands on the other side of the bench: She starts working as a lawyer taking on mostly pro bono cases and cases that show how the Islamic Regime's discrimination against women is enshrined in the country's laws. In this way, she starts making a name for herself, both inside the country and abroad, and that name keeps growing and growing.
When I watched that broadcast [an interview Ebadi gave on CNN], aware that it was being beamed around the world, I also realized for the first time that I had become what you might call famous. Prominence is something that accrues gradually. You work and speak, write articles and lecture, meet with clients and defended them, day after day, night after night, and then you wake up one day and notice that there is a long trail behind you that constitutes a reputation. That's how it happened for me, anyway. How unimportant it was to me as a person, but how useful it became to my work. It meant journalists would listen if I approached them with a case and would help publicize it both inside the country and abroad. It meant that human rights observers around the world knew and trusted me, and launched swift appeals for urgent cases I brought to their attention, It meant there was now a face and a name attached to the abstract term "human rights" in Iran, and that finally millions of women who could not articulate their frustrations and desires had someone to speak on their behalf. I would never assume such a role for myself, but in the Islamic Republic, we have a problem with representation. Our diplomats around the world are, naturally, loyal to the regime, and the regime's credibility is not such that it reflects the true opinions of the people. The responsibility falls, then, on unofficial ambassadors to relate Iranians' perceptions and hopes to the world.(p.126-127)
The final chapter relates how Ebadi found out she had won the Nobel Peace Prize while she was in Paris and how she was received by tens of thousands of people, mostly women, at the airport upon her arrival in Iran. This chapter is very moving.

The chapters about Ebadi's human rights work were among the most interesting for me, but also among the most disappointing parts of the book. She mainly covers her human rights work by picking out a few notable cases she was involved in, but other than that, she doesn't write much about her work and her life during that period. The cases she uses are worth recounting. I also understand that there are probably large parts of her work that she probably cannot talk about because it would be too sensitive or possibly endanger people's lives inside Iran one way or another. I can also understand that she might not want to share a lot of her private life. But still, I would be interested in how her human rights work developed over time, how that influenced her position in Iran, how she goes around setting up her cases, getting information, things like that.

Despite this minor flaw (which is more my personal opinion, than really a flaw I would say), I enjoyed Iran Awakening very much and my respect for Shirin Ebadi has only increased. Together with Persepolis and Reading Lolita in Tehran, Iran Awakening is one of the books I recommend to anyone who wants to read and learn about Iran and about the position of women in that country.

A common theme in all three books is that they are all about women trying to cope with the restrictive regime after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The three women all come from families that were well-connected, well-educated and (reasonably) well-off before the Islamic Revolution: Ebadi's father was at one point a deputy minister, Nafisi's father was mayor of Tehran at one point and one of Satrapi's family members (I think her grandfather or great-grandfather) was prime-minister under the Shah or the Shah's father (I couldn't find the passage back to check). Also, they are all ethnic Iranian, none of them belongs to any of the many minorities in Iran and are all from the capital Tehran. So in a way, all three books do present a picture of Iran that to a certain extent is limited, because all three women write from the same background. On the other hand, I am not sure in how much this really distorts the general picture they give of life in contemporary Iran or to what extent their stories are only representative for a certain section of Iranian society. All three books, especially Reading Lolita in Tehran and Iran Awakening, do give glimpses of life in other segments of Iranian society as well.

This post is crossposted at my own blog The Armenian Odar Reads.


Heather Johnson said...

Great review - thanks! I look forward to hearing your thoughts on Reading Lolita in Tehran. My book club read it a few months ago and it led to some great discussions.

N.Vasillis said...

This book sounds so good! I'm putting it on hold at my library today. Thanks for the great review!

Anonymous said...

Heather, I can already tell you, that I am not going to be one of those people raving about Reading Lolita in Tehran. I think the book is good and I still think it is one of the better books out there about women in Iran (at least of the books that I know of), but it just isn't doing it for me.

N.vasilis, you are welcome! I am looking forward to read your thoughts on the book!