Source / Courtesy: 50-50 Inclusive Democracy
Egyptian women are lucky in one way. They have witnessed the predicament of Iranian women and seen how the Islamic state has hijacked the Iranian revolution, changed the laws and reversed women’s gains. My advice to Egyptian women is “do not give way to a government that would force you to choose between your rights and Islam”. I believe that Iran was a lesson for the women in the entire region”. Shirin Ebadi in conversation with Deniz Kandiyoti
About the author
Shirin Ebadi is an Iranian human rights lawyer who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. In 1975–79 she served as president of Tehran’s city court, but was forced to resign after the 1979 revolution. In the 1980s, she founded the Association for Children’s Rights, and was briefly jailed for her exposure of plans to assassinate dissidents. Among her books are The Rights of the Child: a study of legal aspects of children’s rights in Iran (1994), and The History and Documentation of Human Rights in Iran (2000).
Deniz Kandiyoti: The wave of protests in the Arab world present new openings as well as uncertainty and danger. As a defender of women’s rights who has been through revolutionary upheaval in Iran, how do you assess the possibilities and dangers?
Shirin Ebadi: I would like to concentrate on Tunisia and Egypt. There are important differences between these cases. The representation of women in civil society is stronger in Tunisia. The Habib Bourgiba government, although non-democratic, helped to promote secularism and changed the laws in favour of women. As a result, the situation of women in Tunisia is more favourable than that of other Arab countries. There are high powered women active in the public sphere. For instance, Sohair Ben Hassan, an extremely progressive and committed woman and one of the leaders of one of the largest Human Rights organisations in Tunisia is also the head of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH). It is no accident that when the leader of the Islamic movement in Tunisia returned after twenty years of exile the first thing he said was that he was neither Khomeini nor the Taliban.
Deniz Kandiyoti: What about Egypt?
Shirin Ebadi : When I was in Egypt three years ago I was astonished by the number of young women wearing the hijab., They were saying that their parents were not respecting their national identity, that they had found their national identity. They were against the Mubarak regime. There were also communist and secular movements in opposition but they were easily harassed and couldn’t carry on with their activities. But they couldn’t prevent the Islamists from organizing- you can’t close down the mosques. As a result the non-Islamist opposition grew weaker, and the Muslim Brotherhood is now the most powerful opposition group in Egypt. But the example of Iran is frightening to the women of Egypt and they do not want to share the same fate. To alleviate such fears the Muslim Brotherhood said that the Egyptian uprising was not an Islamic uprising, but one in which Muslims and Christians have fought alongside one another. It promised to support and to participate in a non-Islamist government. Are they going to stand by their promises? Or will they change their stance if they consolidate their power? It is too early to judge. Egyptian women are lucky in one way – they have witnessed the predicament of Iranian women and seen how the Islamic state has hijacked the Iranian revolution, changed the laws and reversed women’s gains. Therefore they will stand up and fight for their rights. I believe that Iran was a lesson for the women in the entire region.
Deniz Kandiyoti: If you were to give a piece of advice to the women’s movement in Egypt, what would this advice be?
Shirin Ebadi: My most important piece of advice to Egyptian women is “do not give way to a government that would force you to choose between your rights and Islam”. Do not let them put you in that bind. Governments that invoke the name of ‘Islam’ in their self-definition will face people with this dilemma and this false choice. They will say “either you are Muslim and accept our laws or you are not Muslim”. That is exactly the way the government has operated in Iran. When you face someone who comes from a very religious family with this question, she gets a bit hesitant. Therefore, we must not reach a point when a government can accord itself the right to pose this question. Getting to understand Islam well and encouraging women to learn different interpretations of Islam is important. So when governments tell women “this is Islam’, they will be well-equipped to counter their arguments.
Deniz Kandiyoti : Yes, but surely there are authorities who speak in the name of Islam such as the ulama. Women can get educated but will they have any authority?
Shirin Ebadi: It is quite natural that the discourse of the ulama is a paternalistic discourse, but we have to be equipped with the same weapons to be able to prove that Islam can be something different. They may have political power and reject women’s interpretations, but bear that in mind that we are addressing the Muslim people. It is the Muslim population that has to be convinced that they can remain Muslim and have different laws and ambitions. This is the only true way to challenge the legitimacy of the conservative ulama since they get all their power from the people’s obedience. There is also the fact that part of the ulama will take the people’s side, and they will provide interpretations that the people accept. That is exactly what happened in Iran when very high ranking ulama offered interpretations that were totally against the official government line. People have understood that the government does not have a monopoly over Islam, and that is the beginning of people’s awakening.
Deniz Kandiyoti: Do you think that the women’s movement in Egypt and platforms for women’s rights will be able to form broad alliances?
Shirin Ebadi : If Egyptian women see their legal rights endangered, they will definitely get together, they will unite. It was the same in Iran. At the beginning of the revolution there were some people who were not even happy to talk to me. But now these same women speak articulately and with an even more radical voice than mine! Experience shows that when women face tyranny and injustice, they will become united.
Deniz Kandiyoti: Let me act as the devil’s advocate here. There are modern constitutions in many Arab countries that accord men and women equal citizenship rights, but when you look at personal status laws, you see that women do not enjoy equal rights in matters of inheritance, divorce or child custody, not to mention the issue of polygamy. It is therefore possible to argue that women are already deprived of equal rights, and yet this has not galvanized a momentum for unity.
Shirin Ebadi: Let me correct you on this point. None of the constitutions of Islamic countries accord women equal rights. Because there is always a clause that states the laws are conditional upon conformity with Islam. So the constitution may have the appearance of equality in terms of citizenship rights but in reality the laws remain dependent upon the shar’ia and the shar’ia gets interpreted by those in power. The main question that has always been unanswered in the constitutions of these countries is” who defines Islam”?.