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Q&A: Equality Is Feminism

Sabina Zaccaro interviews Nobel Peace Laureate SHIRIN EBADI* - IPS/TerraViva

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 11 2010 (IPS) - “I think that Islam has been misinterpreted. No Islamic law says violate women’s rights and repress women,” says Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi. “Democracy, human rights and women leadership are absolutely not hostile to the Islamic doctrine.” And women in Iran are well aware of that, she says.

Shirin Ebadi Credit: Arash Ashourinia/IPS

Shirin Ebadi Credit: Arash Ashourinia/IPS

For more than 35 years, Shirin Ebadi, winner of the award in 2003 and co-founder of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, has worked as a lawyer and activist within Iran and around the world in defence of the rights of women, children, refugees, religious minorities and political prisoners in her country.

Since the disputed Iranian presidential election last year, she has been forced to remain abroad. “But despite the use of force and violence to disperse crowds, and the awful images of abuses we have all seen in Tehran, women were present in high numbers on the streets, because they want their voices to be heard,” she says.

Q: Women’s rights activists have been working very hard in recent years to achieve equal status under Iranian law. Is the huge presence of women on the streets a part of this battle? A: Over 63 percent of the university students in Iran are female, and a huge number of the professors in universities in Iran are women. Numerous doctors, lawyers, CEOs, and engineers in Iran are women. Women have had the right to vote over 50 years ago, they have been members of parliament. However, notwithstanding the high level of the status of women in Iran, after the revolution very bad laws were passed, discriminatory laws were passed against women.

I will give a few examples of what happens. It happens that the life of a woman is worth one half of that of a man. This means that if a woman and a man get on the street and they’re injured for whatever reason, the damages paid to a woman are a half of that paid to a man. Testimony of two women in courts equals testimony of one man. A man can marry four wives and divorce four times on the basis of no excuse, but divorce can be very difficult for a woman.

These laws have generated dissatisfaction in women with the government, and that’s why whenever opportunity comes up they protest. And one of the opportunities that came out for the opposition of the people was the election result.

In the videos and the pictures of protests you see how many girls and women are on the streets, and as you know the video of Neda’s assassination (27-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan, who was shot down by a Basij sniper as she exited a car on her way to a protest) became a symbol of these movements. Neda means ‘voice’ in farsi, and this is like the voice of this movement coming out of the throat of this woman.

Q: Is it possible to reconcile the social and political advancement of women with the Islamic doctrine? A: Yes, (Muslim) women can be leaders, and this is not just my word, a number of high-level clergy in Iran have reiterated this, as for example the Ayatollah Sane. And let’s not forget the examples given by other Islamic countries, like Indonesia for example, where 25 years ago the president was a woman, Bangladesh, and Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan.

That’s not the situation in Iran, where according to the law the president and also the supreme leader has to be a man.

Q: Compared to its neighbouring countries, the feminist movement in Iran looks very vibrant. A: The feminist movement is stronger in Iran than in the neighbouring countries, and the reason for this is the historic social activity of women in Iran, and the work of civil society. The feminist movement is in the homes of all Iranians who believe in equality. The high number of women in universities shows that women are better educated than men; do you think that in this society women can accept the fact that their life is considered half of that of a man?

Q: Some women who have come here at the CSW in New York to testify violence and abuses in their countries, like the women from Burma, have put their lives in danger to come. You are basically doing the same thing, what is your strongest motivation? A: You have to pay a cost for everything, freedom and democracy have their own prices. If one only thinks of his own security or the security of his family, then we won’t have democratic societies.

Q: You have been tirelessly calling for international action to stop government crackdown on your country’s opposition, and even recently at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. What expectation do you have? A: That human rights will not be overshadowed by the nuclear issue in Iran.

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