After several dark decades, women in Iran are finally beginning to improve their rights and have a greater say in the country, said Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi on Wednesday at Concordia. Ebadi spoke as part of Women’s Week and the Concordia Student Union speaker series. Ebadi won the Nobel prize in 2003 for her promotion of democracy and human rights.
“The women’s movement has started to open new paths in recent years in Iran for its activity and activism, and along the way it has experienced some sweet victories,” said Ebadi. “Women in Iran have taken a major step forward. The number of women who enter secondary school had increased, and 60 per cent of those who enter university are women.”
But these victories right didn’t come easy. Ebadi highlighted the effects of the 1979 Revolution in Iran, which ushered in a new form of Islamic government, as a low point for Iranian women.
“Sometimes when I look back,” she said, “I feel that the Iranian revolution was a revolution carried out by men against women.” She went on to list some of the discriminatory laws that were passed. “According to one of these laws the value of the life of a woman is regarded half that of a man. In other words that means if a man or a woman were run over by a car, the money paid in compensation to a woman would be half that of a man.”
Ebadi is very familiar with some of the regime’s discriminatory laws. She had been a judge from 1975 to 1979, but was dismissed after the Revolution because the new regime did not believe women should be able to serve as judges. She only managed to regain a lawyer’s license in 1992.
But Ebadi wasn’t above using humour to bring her point across, like when she brought up a law that was passed forcing women to get their husbands permission to leave the country.
“Now imagine if a female minister needed to attend a meeting at a world health organization to discuss important global issues impacting Iran, and to make decisions about the future,” She began. “The night before her departure she needs to beg her husband to leave the country first. God knows if the two of them had a fight the night before – what would become of the Iranian seat at the WHO,” she said, eliciting laughter from the audience.
Still, Ebadi’s tone was hopeful, and she ended the lecture on a positive note. “The women’s movement will succeed, and they will be the carriers of democracy in our society.”
The Concordian caught up with Ebadi to ask a couple questions
By Tyson Lowrie
You have often talked about democracy as being a solution to many of Iran’s problems, including the nuclear stand-off with the West. However, many people have suggested that even had the election been fair, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would probably still had enough support to win. So what can democracy change?
I disagree with the argument that you present that Ahmadenijad would still have been a winner. The elections were not free and fair. The Guardian Council approved only four candidiates. Of these, three were already part of the system. Many people considered the elections not to be free, and yet a number of people still showed up in the streets to send a message. All the polls taken prior to the election showed Mousavi way ahead. And they announced the results before the votes were fully counted. This angered everybody, and they poured out into the street.
How have the recent developments in Iran changed the role of women, and how are women able to participate in the democratic movement going forward?
The Iranian women’s movement is the strongest in the Middle East. Women have had a primordial role in the Iranian democracy movement. You need only look at videos of the protests to see the role women had. In fact, it was a woman who became a symbol of the protests. Her name was Neda [Agha-Soltan], which means voice. [Neda became a symbol after she was shot by pro-government militia during the protests, and several videos capturing her death spread around the world]
Do you think the West’s criticism of Ahmadinejad makes the political situation better or worse? And how is this viewed in Iran?
Is your question implying the world should remain silent vis-a-vis rights violations in Iran? Or should Ahmadinejad be applauded for his good job? Naturally people who believe in human rights should speak up against these violations. I still maintain improving the situation inside Iran should remain the responsibility of the Iranians. But our expectation of the West is sympathy, not military intervention or economic embargo. Because such actions only harm the people. The West has been focussing entirely on the nuclear energy debate in Iran over the past few years. This is what I really always object to. In talks with the Iranian government, human rights issues should be discussed. The stance taken by most of the world, including Canada, is the wrong stance. They’re willing to shake the hand of Iran if they get rid of the nuclear program. They don’t care about what’s happening within the country. Is the West’s security the only thing that matters to the West? And that’s exactly what the Iranian people think must change.