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Human rights, Women and Islam


On May 16, a fundraising event was held in honor of Shirin Ebadi and Her Excellency Sheikha Haya Rashed al-Khalifa in Rutgers University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Shirin Ebadi, the famous lawyer, Nobel laureate, and human rights activist, spoke after dinner. There was nothing new in what she said, nor was anything new needed. However it is time to draw up a balance sheet of Ebadi’s ideas and philosophy just to make sure that every bit of the fruits of her efforts is preserved.

In the aftermath of the announcement of the Nobel Committee that Shirin Ebadi had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, I lost a good night’s sleep over it. No, not because of the excitement due to the honor which as an Iranian woman I felt, and not because I was thinking about how many qualified Iranian women were in fact honored along with her, but because of the difficult situation she was in. Following the announcement, the news broadcasters qualified the decision by singling out her claim that Islam is perfectly compatible with human rights and as a result with equal rights for women. I rolled over all night thinking where she came up with this idea and how this important thought had been overlooked by the keen eyes of many zealous Muslims who cared to portray Islam as such and many other human right activists who did not want to alienate Muslims. I tried to foresee the arguments she would come up with. The day after and the day after, all the way up to the day of the ceremony and her acceptance speech and her book’s publication and beyond, she presented no argument beyond appealing to a moderate interpretation of Islam. The compatibility of human rights and Islam has remained nothing more than a bare claim.

While I respect Shirin’s religious faith and applaud her effort to democratize it, I’m still hesitant to be too optimistic about the fulfillment of all her claims. In her speech at Rutgers, which was in fact a summary of her book, she revisited the issues of women, gender, politics, democracy, Islam, religion, culture, etc. All were backed up with not more than a very few cherry-picked examples. No arguments were given which would stand up to the present audience’s questions, let alone the ruling conservatives of Iran, the zealous clerics in the seminaries in Qom, or, on the other hand, any feminist movement.

Ebadi claimed that the problem of gender discrimination in the Middle East is not Islam’s problem. How? Very simple. One reason she gave was that the non-Islamic countries still have gender discrimination: The United States does not have enough women in its Senate and Congress or as cabinet minister and so on. The second reason was that the discrimination against women is not the same in all Islamic countries. Neither of these arguments was carefully enough examined to be of any use in bolstering her claim. The Islamic countries she mentioned, where the women enjoy some sort of equality, are multi-cultural and multi-religion nations. Of the countries identified as Muslim nations which are not being regressive towards women, Bangladesh and Pakistan still inherited the multi-cultural essence of their original motherland India. Similarly Malaysia and Morocco are all very much affected by the non-Islamic cultures that they were in close contact with.

On the other hand, Ebadi’s examples of non-Islamic nations with gender problemsturn the table around. So if it is not Islam, then it should be the culture! Well, is she ready to accept the challenge? Does she mean a women-loving culture which produces Nizami’s Haft Paykar, Saadi’s ghazals, or Hafez’s Shakheyeh Nabat, or, for that matter, Ferdowsi’s women, has produced all these discriminatory laws towards women? I simply suggest that she read Vis o Ramin, a celebrated medieval love narrative unique in the literature of the world, and judge it for herself. And if medieval Iran is too unrealistic, I refer her to the resumé of thousands of Iranian women from her own generation and even older who have emerged from a wide range of backgrounds and were nurtured by the same culture which she tries to blame.

She then made an analogy between gender discrimination and hemophilia, arguing that women are only the carrier of disease, which is passed on to her son without ever being affected by the disease herself. This analogy was well-received with laughter and applause; however, it remains an analogy and should not lead us to any conclusions. But even if we do draw conclusions from it, does she mean that we, the women, are responsible for the maladies we are facing? I hope not!

Then what? Well, there are still problems. She mentions some: stoning law, divorce law, child custody law, polygamy law, travel permit law, honor killing law, blood money law, and etc. Where are these laws from? Of course these are all shariat, but the conservative version of the shariat. Ebadi believes that there is a milder version of Islam which does not advocate any of this, though she is not very clear on its operative system and how or by whom these mild interpretations should be implemented. Ordinary people? The elite clerics? Those who have a hold on jurisprudence?

There is no use for interpretations if they are not done systematically and are not institutionalized. This includes the permissibility of interpretation by non-authorized clerics or laymen. Any new version of reading and interpreting religious texts needs to be brought under an umbrella of what in other religions is called a reformed version of that religion; and still we should remember that the reform movements won’t eliminate religious orthodoxy, i.e. if the modern version of Islam does not permit certain kinds of punitive acts it does not mean that act would be abolished. Still, a fully-established and well-recognized reformed branch of a religion needs to go through the processes of empowering, legitimization, and entrenchment in order to be of any use; and the political power structure, the majority of legislative and judiciary bodies, should adhere to that branch of religion to make it effective.

A reformed Islam is passed overdue. Like any other religion, Islam has to face such an unavoidable destiny. However, like all its predecessors, the movement needs to come from and within the faith. Post-Vatican II Catholicism and Reform Judaism both developed from within their respective original faiths and texts. The reform within these religions were not just a mere interpretation of texts or the insertion of reformed ideas into these religions, but a close examination of the texts and reading, teaching, and advocating this close examination and, more importantly, challenging dogmas and being prepared to be challenged. It is the third factor which we need to emphasize, though we cannot ignore the importance of the first two, which requires a huge amount of courage and dedication. We, as a Muslim nation ruled by Islamic laws, need to go a few extra miles. Except for one short aborted and native movement, Babism-Bahiism, and an even more fleeting one launched by Kasravi, there has not been any serious major or minor attempt in any established way towards reform in Islam in recent centuries. We all are familiar with their bloody fate which was no better than that of the medieval Sufis or those very few other medieval movements, all labeled as heretics. Conservatives have had quite a tight control over the laws and the parameters of religion, and any digression is suppressed with great severity. The definitions of ertad, blasphemy or heresy, are so broad that they could bring down just about any reformist claim very easily. I’m surprised how Ayatollah Sane’i or President Khatami or Ayatollah Montazeri and the late Hojatoleslam Salehi Najafabadi were not formally charged with this, though each one of them has been pushed into the same dead end corner.

Once a friend of mine, an Iranian physician who had come back from a conference in Beijing, told me that in the conference, a Vietnamese surgeon asked him about the current state of health and medicine in Iran. My friend, caught by surprise, told him that the state of our medicine is like our traveling—we travel by airbus and jumbo jet as well as by donkey. What do you do in Vietnam? The colleague answered that there they only travel by bus. I thought about this anecdote as Ebadi was talking in Rutgers. Women rights, human rights, etc., in Iran move from one extreme to the other. While one woman in one part of the country gets stoned for adultery, the government allegedly provides another place with an official house of prostitution. While one woman is battling in court to divorce or for child custody, another gets millions of votes and becomes the head of city council. While one hundred sixty thousand women are getting arrested in just two days for bad hejabi, our activists in the UN are fighting against the stoning law which had been applied in the rarest of cases. And while clerical reformists are advocating and arguing over the legitimacy of the enforcement of hejab as unsubstantiated law, our feminist activists boycott the election which would have placed them in power. We are truly the land of “broken mirrors” and it is not easy to see our true faces and I have no idea with what certainty Shirin Ebdi points to the sources of our problems in our culture; it is a gross oversimplification indeed.

Ebadi equates human rights with woman rights and considers this equation as the key to the process of democracy in the region. Of course the fate of many issues, at least, in Iran, is tied directly to women: democracy, human rights, reformism, and peace. However, reducing human rights and democracy to women’s rights is another oversimplification; and looking for a shortcut is even more of an underestimation. We have the examples of Communist [pdf] China or Soviet Russia which were far from democratic; and human rights violations were not less than in many other places. Still formal gender equality was maintained, although there is still a wide range of domestic abuses in both countries. To focus on “women rights” in accordance with the UN Declaration of Human Rights not only won’t help the women’s movement in Iran, but is a severe distraction, while emphasizing justice as a major tenet of Islam will lead us to unavoidable means of equality to maintain that principal. Why not ask for the given? Women have enough in their power to ask for the justice which includes equality. Twenty-five million voting ballots are nothing to be ignored; let us use them for a possible change!

So much emphasis, no matter how well-meaning, on the heartbreaking, suppressive, and misogynistic sharia laws not only won’t do any good, but is counterproductive. For those of us living in the US or Europe, it is a constant battle and a waste of energy just to wipe out the stereotypical image of “the battered, abused and backward Iranian women” which is bestowed upon us by well-meaning activists. Recently, a young Iranian writer told us that a publisher would reject her novel unless she revised it. The problem was with the male character in the book, who was a loving, caring father and did not abuse the heroine of the novel. The publisher bluntly told her she could not sell a book in which the Middle Eastern female character is not abused by a father or brother or husband in the States. A female friend from Pakistan, a very accomplished journalist, was asked to write her memoirs. She finished, but it was rejected. Why? She was too strong, too professional, not abused, and was too successful prior coming to the US. These are just a very few example of what this negative portrayal could do to us.

We as Middle Easterners expected to be particularly grateful for any show of favor from our “betters.” An Iranian women friend in France who received the honorary Légion d'honneur award from the European Parliament in Strasbourg for her services to refugee women in France refused to have any public celebrations, and was harshly criticized for this. The female French activists expected her to be especially grateful for receiving such an honor since she herself is a foreigner, indeed the first foreigner to receive this award. One of the services she had performed was creating a very simple language teaching method suitable for illiterate women who need to speak French to make living in their host country. Ironically enough, Shirin Ebadi’s book fall as a victim in this way as well. Her book was the only book written by a Nobel Laureate which did not received the publicity which it deserved. It never got in the display windows and the desks of the bookstores, Why? It should be clear by now...

Our activists, such as Ebadi and Mehrangiz Kar, could be more valuable to the human rights, women rights, and democratic movements if they could separate the domain of their activities. Lectures in American and European universities and campaigning in the UN against some isolated cases of stoning which is an extremely unusual and rare practice which the Islamic Republic has executed only few times and in remote and backward regions of the country which are largely out of the central government’s control, a practice which the ruling clerics are either against or embarrassed by, is a waste of time and energy. This could very easily be solved within the Iranian judiciary system and by some local advocacy. The conditions set to make the claim, to prove the case, to testify to it, to judge it and to implement it are so difficult, bordering on the impossible, that not even one case of stoning should ever happen. When we get access to a platform in the UN, why waste it on such an isolated case rather than campaigning for something which affects us all in a more vital way, such as the freedom of press, or the condition of prisons, the hejab, or unwarranted searches. In all these cases not only do we have the international community on our side but the people, many progressive clerics, and above all our kind and generous culture. The international community will not and can not help us to defeat the suppressive sharia laws, but our tradition and culture does.

Campaigning on the employment of women, encouraging their activities in various NGO’s, training young Iranian lawyers to work as volunteers in various parts of the country, for example, would be a more positive move and would be welcomed by Iranian women. With some forty million women in Iran, of course there are hundreds of horrifying stories which could be found (as everywhere else in the world). Taking them as a norm or representative and posing them as typical not only won’t eliminate those individual problems, but in many cases hinders our progress.

What worries me the most is the impact such advocacies will have on the Iranian women’s situation. I’m also worried about wasting the limited energy we have and losing momentum. I’m worried about exhausting ourselves by going on wild goose chases. I’m worried about missing opportunities. It had happened to us several times and it might happen again. What I’m worried most about is losing our morale. The outcome of constant confrontations and constant failure is nothing but demoralization; and when it is coupled with the unfair image of “battered Iranian women,” exaggerating the strength of our adversaries and underestimating our own, nothing good will come of it. And above all, making a vicious circle out of our problems and turning them into a cluster of pain is just a prescription for suicide rather than a way out. Instead, a little encouragement and a positive self-image will do wonders. Harping so much upon laws which none of us are likely to confront in our life, such as how if a woman is run over she receives less compensation than a man, or how two women count for one man as witnesses, are good for putting our law books in order but do not meet our immediate and everyday needs.

Being able to have a relationship characterized by mutual respect without being threatened by assault is more our concern. Having self-confidence and self-respect is more essential for obtaining and demanding our rights, and millions of wonderful laws in the court’s library cannot take the place of such things. The young women who run and got elected in even religious cities like Arak or Ardebil as the head of the city council were not worried about how much blood money they might receive if they were run over. What they needed was the vote of the majority of people who would trust them and respect them and believe in them. Fortunately, they received even more than they had asked for. The culture which Ebadi blames as the source of our problems is fortunately on our side and loves us and adores us. Let us hold on to it and be good to it. It has been very good to us.

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