A Bearer of Hope for Democratic Change

Shirin Ebadi is widely respected as a fighter for political dissidents - such as Faraj Sarkohi, whom she succeeded in having released after he had spent two years in jail. Here, Sarkohi describes the life and work of his former lawyer.

Shirin Ebadi is widely respected as a courageous fighter for the rights of women and political dissidents - such as the Iranian writer Faraj Sarkohi, whom she succeeded in having released after he had spent two years in jail. Here, Sarkohi describes the life and work of his former lawyer, who has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace – a move that sends strong political signals to Iran.

Shirin Ebadi, Foto: AP

​​In Paris, the human rights activist Shirin Ebadi was informed that she had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace; as she absorbed the news, the media were busy discussing the statement by EU Foreign Ministers on ongoing human rights violations in Iran. Shirin Ebadi, now 56, is a lawyer. From 1975-79, she worked as a judge in Teheran. After the Islamic Revolution, the ruling mullahs were determined to put an end to the disregard for Islamic teachings that had characterised the Shah’s regime: all judges, including Ebadi, were suspended from office. Ebadi then went to work as a lawyer, specialising in the defence of women, who were also legally disadvantaged in the Islamic Republic. In one of her books, Ebadi records her experiences, contrasting the laws of the Islamic Republic with the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She also founded a children’s relief organisation, one of the few NGOs in Iran. In 1994, Ebadi signed “The Declaration of 134 Writers”, in which she and 133 colleagues called for the abolition of censorship. Though the Declaration was banned in Iran, it was published in the European press, drawing public attention to the difficult situation within the Islamic Republic. Subsequently, censorship was tightened up even further, and the Iranian government stepped up the psychological pressure (and the physical attacks) on dissident intellectuals and writers. In 1997, having signed - and indeed co-initiated - “The Declaration of 134 Writers”, I was given three separate death sentences. At that time, it was dangerous for anyone even to mention my name; nonetheless, Shirin Ebadi did not hesitate to take on the task of defending me.

Sustained commitment, despite a ban on exercising her profession

Shirin Ebadi, Foto: AP

​​Although the Islamic reformers won the Presidential elections, the fundamentalists kept up their pressure on dissidents. In 1998, two members of the Iranian Writer’s Union, Mohammad Mohtari and Mohammad Puyandeh, and two liberal opposition leaders, Dariush and Parwaneh Foruhar, were brutally murdered by Iranian intelligence agents. Despite the resistance of the law courts, Ebadi agreed to represent the victims’ families. In 2000, after meeting Amir-Farshad Ebrahimi, Ebadi came under even more pressure. Ebrahimi was the former leader of Ansar-e Hezbollah, whose gangs of thugs had been responsible for murdering dissidents and carrying out violent attacks on demonstrators. In Ebadi’s office, Ebrahimi informed her of the financial and political links between Ansar-e Hezbollah and conservative circles at the top levels of the Iranian administration. Ebadi recorded their conversations on video - and when the tape was made public, a scandal ensued. But instead of apprehending the actual criminals, the authorities arrested Ebrahimi and his lawyer Ebadi. After 25 days in custody, Ebadi was released, but her right to practise as a lawyer was rescinded. Despite this ban, she continued to work.

An award that sends strong signals

Shirin Ebadi’s life and work are astonishing achievements for a woman from the Islamic Republic. In discussing the Nobel Committee’s decision, the media have been looking back on former winners of the prize, and have come to a number of conclusions. It has been noted, for example, that Iran’s repressive regime makes it impossible for political parties or trade unions to exist, while NGOs are few and far between. Dissidents and intellectuals have been forced into exile or killed. A Nobel Peace Prize for an Iranian woman is interpreted as a sign that Europe intends to build up an alternative for Iran, in order to facilitate the country’s peaceful transition to democracy. It’s been noted that people who are awarded a Nobel Prize tend to enjoy a higher level of personal safety afterwards. Moreover, as a woman, Ebadi can count on broad-based support from Iran’s very strong women’s movement. It remains to be seen, though, to what extent Shirin Ebadi will be prepared to accept this role (and indeed, whether she will actually be able to do so). Nor is it yet clear whether she can attract support from the population as a whole, rather than just from intellectuals.The Nobel Committee stated: “Ebadi is a conscious Muslim. She sees no conflict between Islam and fundamental human rights.” Ebadi herself made the same points in her own initial statement from Paris. It was not surprising, then, that some of the media saw Ebadi’s award as a message from Europe to those elements in the American government who would like to institute regime change in Iran. With the collapse of Saddam Hussein, Iran is the last remaining oil-producing country in the Gulf that provides oils and gas resources only to European countries (while refusing to trade with the US). Any change of regime in Iran would reduce the EU’s influence in the Gulf, a region that is also of great strategic importance. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Shirin Ebadi may be seen as part of the Iran policy currently being pursued by the European states, which focuses on supporting the country’s Islamic reformers.

Above and beyond this, the award has also been construed as part of Europe’s efforts to support and consolidate a liberal and reform-oriented version of Islam. Though Muslims now form the second-strongest religious community in Europe, integration policies have had little success so far, even after several generations; and in a society that continues to exclude them, some European Muslims - including people from the second and third generations - are now turning to Islam in search of their identity. On top of all this, European countries are having to deal with international Islamic fundamentalism - whereby they are always at pains to emphasise that they are fighting terrorism rather than Islam. Some feel that support for a reformist version of Islam compatible with Western culture, human rights and modernity, could strengthen Europe’s resistance against Islamic terrorism and help stem the influence of fundamentalist tendencies amongst European Muslims. Yet there is little prospect of these hopes being fulfilled. After 24 years of the Islamic Republic and the failure of the reformers in Iran, the separation of state and religion is one of the main demands expressed by a large proportion of the Iranian population.

Disappointed by Islamic reformers

Foto: AP
Iranian women hold flowers and photo of Ebadi at Mehrabad airport in Tehran

​​On October 14th, Shirin Ebadi was greeted at Teheran Airport by more than 10,000 people. Their slogans: “Khatami - step down!”, and “Freedom of speech means no beards and no wool!” (the latter being a reference to the mullahs’ beards and woollen cloaks). These slogans were a measure of the disappointment in Iran’s reformers felt by most Iranians. In other Islamic countries, and amongst Muslims in Europe, there is a certain amount of interest in a new, reform-oriented interpretation of Islam; but this interest is restricted mainly to intellectuals. When Muslims turn to Islam in search of solutions for their economic, social and political problems, the clerics tell them that the reformers’ interpretation of Islam is a capitulation to Western culture. Certainly, a small number of Muslims do welcome the efforts made by liberal circles in Europe to promulgate a reformist reading of Islam; but these efforts also meet with resistance from many clerics and from a large proportion of the population. They themselves have ready access to the Koran, and they do not expect Europe to tell them how to interpret their religion.

Quite apart from these issues, almost all Iranians saw Shirin Ebadi’s Nobel Prize for Peace as a reason to celebrate. Only the religious reformers really paid attention to the exact wording of the Nobel Committee’s announcement and the aforementioned statement by Ebadi. Most of the Iranian people saw the award as a gesture of support from the world community for their struggle to achieve human rights and democracy. The ultimate meaning of the prize for Iran will depend on the words and deeds of Shirin Ebadi in the months and years to come.

Faraj Sarkohi, © 2003 Qantara.de

Translated from Farsi by Sabine Kalinock

In 1985, Faraj Sarkuhi founded the literary magazine “Adineh” (Friday), which he edited for 11 years. As one of the chief spokesmen for the initiative “The Declaration of 134 Writers", he was arrested in 1996. A year later, he was sentenced to death after being tried in secret; following international protests, his sentence was commuted. Two years after this, he was allowed to leave Iran for Frankfurt am Main in Germany, where he now lives. In 1998, Sarkuhi was awarded the Kurt Tucholsky Prize for writers subjected to political persecution. He is an honorary member of the German PEN Centre.