October 29, 2003

A Real Live Heroine

I was so impressed by the responses of Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi in the interview conducted by Amir Taheri this past week. What an courageous and optimistic person she seems to be.

Two things jumped out at me from the conversation. First of all, she takes pains to avoid laying the blame for the societal dysfunction in Iran on anything inherent in Islam. She is consistent and usually persuasive in making that case. When asked if the Islamic Republic should be replaced with a secular regime, her answer was:

What we have in Iran is not a religious regime, but a regime in which those in power use religion as a means of staying in power. If the present regime does not reform and evolve into one that reflects the will of the people, it is going to fail, even if it adopts a secularist posture. I support the separation of state and religion because the political space is open to countless views and interests.

When asked what she would say to those who say Islam is incompatible with human rights?

That they are wrong. It is true that human rights are violated in most Muslim countries. But this is a political, not a religious, reality. We have had all sorts of regimes in Muslim countries, including secularists, Marxists, and nationalists. They, too, violated human rights. If corrupt and brutal regimes oppress their people, in what way is this a sign of Islam's incompatibility with human rights? The Baathist regime in Iraq was supposedly secular. And in North Korea we do not have an Islamic regime.

The other theme for Ebadi is her role as a champion of equality for women, or what she calls "half of humankind". Again though, she doesn't fault Islam per se:

The problem that women face in Muslim societies is not because of religion. It is a result of the patriarchal culture. What we need is a gender-neutral reading of Islamic texts. The humiliation inflicted on women is the result of a diseased gene that is passed to every generation of men, not only by society as a whole but also by their mothers. It is mothers who raise boys who become men. It is up to mothers not to pass on that diseased cultural gene. I am not against men. I am against a patriarchal culture that denies equal rights for half of humankind.

She's not trying to portray women as strictly victims, or absolve them from all responsibility for their situation. Quite the contrary, "it's up to mothers...", to help solve the problem. Beautiful.

On why she doesn't wear the hijab outside Iran:

I wear it in Iran because it is imposed by law. If I don't wear it, I will be violating the law. I want that law changed, because I think the state has no business telling women whether or not they should cover their heads. I don't wear the hijab outside Iran because there is no such law. This is the case with many Iranian women. Instead of telling girls to cover their hair, we should teach them to use their heads.

Any message for Muslim women?

Yes. Keep fighting. Don't believe that you are decreed to have an inferior position. Study the Koran carefully, so that oppressors cannot impress you with citations and interpretations. Don't let individuals masquerading as theologians claim they have a monopoly on understanding Islam. Educate yourselves. Do your best and compete in all walks of life. God created us all equals. In fighting for equality we are doing what God wants us to do.

A focus on equality as individuals, self reliance, personal responsibility, a message to compete, to "fight", in the positive sense of the word. Wow. I'm sold. What a lady. Read it all.

Posted by dan at October 29, 2003 9:56 PM