Review of Shirin Ebadi: The Role of Women in Promoting Peace in the Middle East

This is a review of a lecture given by Iranian lawyer, human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. It took place at the School of Oriental and African Studies on 2 February 2011.

When she came into the room, Shirin got a rapturous welcome from the crowd, packed into the stairwells, in the aisles and on every seat. The international press, students, alumni, her family – all were here. She was introduced by Baroness Kennedy, President of the Board the Governors at SOAS, who called her a personal heroine.

Shirin qualified as a judge but, after the Iranian revolution in 1979, she was demoted to a menial clerical position. She battled for many years for her position and eventually was allowed to practice law in her homeland in 1993. I was reminded of the long battle that Nelson Mandela faced to practice law in South Africa under Apartheid. Thirty years ago she was just an Iranian woman trying to make her way in the world, but her life was taken over by exigencies, by circumstances, and perhaps she had no choice but to become a heroine, in defence of her own life.

And so we listened to this human heroine, in translation.


Who is Responsible?

“The Middle East is in turmoil and the people ask, “Who is responsible?””

There are three reasons for the current turmoil, Shirin says. They are, in increasing level of importance:

  1. The Palestine-Israel conflict.
  2. The intervention of outside powers in the region, the US/UK in Iraq, for example.
  3. The lack of democracy and widespread human rights violations.

1. The Palestine-Israel Conflict

“Until there is peace here, there will be no order in the Middle East.”

The Oslo Agreement is just a document on paper, Shirin says. Radical extremists on both sides prevent the Oslo Agreement from being fairly applied. Violence from one side, leads to worse violence from the other side. In addition to its immediate effects, the Palestine-Israel conflict has been a source of other conflicts, for example between Hamas and Fatah. The crisis has also been exploited by governments.

What role can women play?

Women are opposed to the continuation of war. Palestinian and Israeli mothers have formed the Committee of Mothers for Peace. They negotiate dispute resolution between Jews and Muslims, always with the question: how long must we mourn our children?

However, in political peace negotiations, their voice is not heard. It is the war mongers who “negotiate”, but peace negotiations will bear no fruit without including women. Women may not have political positions in Palestinian politics, but they are the voice of civil society and are very important. The peace negotiations collapse because they exclude feminist movements. 50% of the world is female. You can’t ignore 50% of the world and hope for peace.

2. The Intervention of Outside Powers.

The Middle East is resource-rich and avaricious nations want their resources. The excuse is always to “advance democracy”, but the result is always a rise in Islamic fundamentalism – and the first target of Islamic fundamentalism is always the rights of women.

What role can women play?

Women in Iraq have set up committees to try and create working opportunities and training. Iraqi women are struggling, not only against the Islamists, but also for their national sovereignty.

This intervention by foreign powers stems from the main reason for the current turmoil in the Middle East: a lack of democracy.

3. The Lack of Democracy.

If the Middle East had strong democracies, they would not allow foreign powers to intervene in their domestic politics. It is crazy that Saudi Arabia spend $60bn on purchasing weapons from the US when their own people don’t have welfare. Sadly, for various historical reasons, countries in the Middle East do not have real democracy.

Even supposed “democracies” are not true democracies and their leaders are not fairly elected. For example, in Syria, the presidency is now hereditary, Bashar al-Assad taking over from his father Hafez. In the UAE, there are no elected parliaments; they are appointed by the king. The same is true in Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen and Bahrain. The only exception to this is Turkey, who do have a better level of democracy.

Iran claims it has elections every two years and that this makes it a democracy. But in all the elections, candidates must be approved by the “Guardian Council”. Any criticism of the government will result in the candidate being refused the right to stand for election. The Guardian Council is made up of twelve members: six directly appointed by the Supreme Leader and six others elected from a selection chosen by a man who is, in turn, hand-picked by the Supreme Leader.

For the elections in June 2009, three hundred names were put forward, but only four were approved by the Guardian Council. All four had previously held important posts in government, including one previous prime minister.

Therefore the most important problem in the Middle East is the lack of democracy.

The End of the Age of Dictatorships

There has been a patriarchal culture in the region for years and women suffer. There are also large gaps between the social classes. Many are deprived of their rights. Freedom of expression is also limited.

But for how long can dictators rule by military coercion? Now, in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, the people are asking for their rights. The age of dictatorships is over. Thanks to technology, people are getting closer and are able to organise. Look how quickly the people of Tunisia got rid of Ben Ali and now the same will happen to Mubarak and then in Jordan and Bahrain.

The protests started in Iran many years ago, the latest episode was seen in June 2009. Millions of people protested peacefully, but were met with violence and bullets. You can see all of this on YouTube. Then the government lied about what happened; they said that the bullets were fired by protesters. Many journalists were arrested to clamp down on the real news getting out. Reporters Without Frontiers report that Iran has the highest number of journalists, writers and bloggers in prison.

The economic situation in Iran is dire at the moment. Economic growth in 2009 was 1.6%, lower than Afghanistan and Iraq. So, despite the violence, the people haven’t given up. The government has increased executions: from January this year, there has been an average of two people executed per day. But the voice of protest is heard louder every day.

When the Egyptian people started to protest, the Iranian government said: “Listen to your people!” But what about when the Iranian people protest? The Iranian government says that there must be free elections in Iraq – can we have them too, please?

What role can women play?

“The rights of women and democracy are two sides of a balance.”

You can’t be democratic and deny 50% of people their rights. Women’s rights are the forerunners of democracy.

The feminist movement in Iran is the biggest and oldest in the Middle East. It began a hundred years ago with the constitutional revolution, while Turkey was still under the Ottomans and there was still a Czar in Russia. The strength of the movement is also explained by the fact that there are many highly-educated women in Iran. More than 65% of people at university are women. There are female professors and senior administrators.

But the laws passed after the revolution are discriminatory against women. For example, the value of a woman in law is half that of a man.

“My brother would get twice the compensation that I would if we were involved in the same road accident.”

The testimony of two women is worth the same as that of one man. A man can have four wives and divorce without reason. It is very hard for a woman to get a divorce. A married woman needs the permission of her husband to travel.

These laws are simply not compatible with the level of education in Iran. For example, the current health minister is a woman: does she need her husband’s permission to travel abroad to take Iran’s seat at the World Health Organisation? What if he refuses? The legislation is not compatible with the society, therefore the feminist movement is widespread.

There is no leader of the movement, there are no regional branches, but it is present in every home that believes in equality. And the movement is stronger for this: there is no one person to imprison or assassinate. That a woman can be arrested for “seeking equality” only makes the movement stronger. Results do come, too: for example, in 2004, the custody law was amended in the woman’s favour.

In my opinion, the Green Movement used the feminist movement as a role model. There are no leaders to depend on, it is also a horizontal movement. Women have also been at the forefront of the Green protests.

Democracy can only be achieved through peaceful means, not through guerilla warfare. The Committee of Mothers in Mourning meet every Saturday and carry photos of their children and simply look at each other in silence. They throw birthday parties for people in prison so that no one will forget them, held in their homes in order to evade street protest clampdowns.

Iranian women’s groups sent messages to Egypt and Tunisia, urging women to make sure they protect their rights. Just getting rid of a dictator won’t make everything fine. Another could take his place, perhaps he might have a different ideology, but it is the same dictatorship.

In Tunisia, the secular society is relatively strong. Women are now saying that they want equality. Rashid al-Ghannushi says he is not another Khomeini, but still Iranian women must warn them of the possible dangers of revolution.

“I am confident that democracy and peace will come to the Middle East.”

What do you think?