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We need to fight patriarchy, not men

Mar 01, 2007

In an exclusive interview to InfoChange, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi explains why culture should be dissociated from religion, why Islam is not incompatible with human rights, and how women all over the world – not just in Islamic countries – suffer injustice

As the first presiding woman judge in Iran, as a woman who has faced death threats and a professional ban and yet works untiringly for women’s rights and democratic freedoms, Shirin Ebadi – Winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize – is an inspiration for both civil and political rights activists, as well as women’s rights activists around the world.

Ebadi, born in 1947, and educated at the Tehran University, has spearheaded campaigns to challenge Iran’s discriminatory laws against women and to protect the rights of children. She has been detained herself for many of her advocacy interventions, has been suspended from legal practice, but none of this has put a brake on the pace and commitment of her work.

In 1979, after the Islamic revolution, she had to resign as a judge since the country’s laws wouldn’t allow women to be in the position of judges or magistrates.

Since then she has been practising law, and has been active in promoting press freedom, protesting against gender discrimination and child abuse, and defending dissidents against Iran's theocratic regime.

She has several publications to her credit, including the critically acclaimed Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope, which is also her autobiography.

Ebadi visited India for the first time in 2004 to participate in the World Social Forum (WSF), Mumbai, where she spoke strongly against the Gujarat riots and discussed the advantages of setting up the International Criminal Court to counter crimes against humanity. In 2006, she visited India again, this time to speak about the human rights violations faced by trafficked women and children. In an exclusive interview to human rights lawyer Oishik Sircar talks to Ebadi about the politics of women’s human rights, Islam-phobia, and a lifetime of human rights work in Iran.

InfoChange: In spite of several resistances how have you managed to continue doing human rights work in Iran ?

Shirin Ebadi: I think the reality of resistance struck me when following the victory of the Islamic revolution in February 1979, I was made to step down from being a judge, since the belief was that Islam forbids women to serve as judges. I and other female judges were dismissed from our posts and given clerical duties.

They made me a clerk in the very court I once presided over. We all protested. As a result, they promoted all former female judges, including myself, to the position of ‘experts' in the Justice Department. I could not tolerate the situation, and put in a request for early retirement.

My request was accepted. Since the Bar Association had remained closed for some time since the revolution and was being managed by the judiciary, my application for practising law was turned down. I was, in effect, housebound for many years.

Finally, in 1992 I succeeded in obtaining a lawyer's licence and set up my own practice. I used my time of unemployment to write several books and had many articles published in Iranian journals. That was the beginning of the attack on women and a series of laws were passed consequently that were very discriminatory.

So, I decided to focus all my attention on promoting women's rights and issues.

IC: You’ve been active in the international human rights scene as well. Do you think the developments on women’s rights in international human rights law since the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) – especially the world conferences in Nairobi, Vienna and Beijing – is responsible for creating the image of the third world ‘woman-as-victim’, devoid of any agency and potential for resistance?

SB: In my opinion, women throughout the world are suffering from injustice. These injustices vary according to their economic and cultural situation.

A look at the parliaments of European countries and the US, will tell us that even if the laws of a country are equitable, this doesn't necessarily lead to social equality – there’s minimal representation of women there. We do not live in a society based on equality.

In the third world too, women are suffering. International gatherings like those convened in Nairobi, Beijing, and Vienna prove this. What needs to be kept in mind is that in these gatherings women of the industrial nations also brought their problems to the attention of the rest of the world.

However, in a post-September 11 situation, the spotlight of the international community has been on the third world, especially Islamic countries, in an unprecedented fashion.

I cannot say whether this has resulted in the creation of the ‘woman-as-victim’ image, but it has definitely made Southern countries look ‘barbaric’ in comparison to its Northern counterparts – and that is a result of imperialist politics. But, as I mentioned earlier, women’s oppression does not change with geographical location – its forms can change, but its essence remains the same in every culture. In Iran, many women are high-level graduates, but men occupy the decision-making positions. Under criminal law, a woman’s life is worth half of a man’s; the legal value of a woman’s testimony is half of a man’s testimony.

IC: Why do you think this heightened focus on Islam makes it look antithetical to the notion of human rights?

SB: While it is true that the human rights records of most Islamic countries are not good, it is absolutely incorrect to say that Islam is incompatible with human rights. Those who forward such an argument go to the extent of suggesting that Islam is also against democracy. I think such an understanding does not consider the fact that Islamic law can have different interpretations, like any other law can.

There are interpretations of Islam that comply with human rights standards. While on the one hand laws in Saudi Arabia don’t even allow women to drive, at the same time in Pakistan, Bangladesh you have had women heads of states. Similarly, a church in a US state might grant legitimacy to a gay marriage, and a church in another state might call it against Christianity.

Political and religious ideologies have different interpretations, and one cannot totalise them on the basis of few instances. Islam-phobic arguments look at a single, terrible deed carried out by a Muslim and consider it a result of the fact that they are Muslim. Whereas, obviously, anyone can engage in wrongful acts.

As I have argued elsewhere, in Bosnia there were those who did terrible things, but we did not say that those acts were committed in the name of Christianity, or that Christianity was responsible. Or in Palestine for that matter: the Israeli government has not implemented any UN resolution that has been issued so far, but we do not blame Judaism for this inaction.

So it is not clear to us why when one Islamic group is responsible for an act of violence, everyone in the world starts talking about it as Islamic terrorism.

Those who create such a rift between the notion of human rights and Islam are: Westerners, who are advocates of war; and second, some Islamic governments that are also dictatorial regimes that violate the rights of their people, and seek legitimacy for doing so.

IC: Why do you think culture becomes central to the understanding of Islamic societies?

SB:I think there is a need to dissociate culture from religion. Several factors combine to constitute the culture of a society, one of which is religion. As I have said before, like any other ideology, religion is open to interpretation. It is the culture of a society that offers its own interpretation of what religion should constitute. For instance, socialism has been interpreted differently by former Soviet Union in comparison to China, though both followed similar ideologies. Have Cuba and Albania been the same under socialism? Therefore interpretations of an ideology or religion (including Islam) are not specific to any one society.

How do you think the Muslim world should respond to the accusations of ill-treatment of women?

SB:I think such an accusation needs to be countered in the first place. Not because women don’t get ill-treated here, but because nowhere in the world is there a place where women are treated as they should be. Even in America you have not had a female President, and the number of women in the Cabinet is much lower than the number of men. Women are suppressed both in Islamic countries and in the West.

IC: Can the hijab be looked at as liberating and emancipatory for women who choose to wear it?

SB:The Islamic dress code must be optional and not mandatory. As such, should a woman in an Islamic country choose to wear the veil, she must be free to do so, and she shouldn't be chastised for doing so. I wear the veil when I am in Iran , and work as a human rights lawyer. Does that mean I am oppressed?

IC: Why do you think the international women's rights movement has almost singularly focused on violence, and exclusively sexual violence as a women's rights concern? Do you think such a focus has led to de-prioritising women's guarantees to economic, social and cultural rights?

SB:Women's rights form a totality and no single issue should overshadow any other. At the same time, the reason we are focusing on sexual violence is to highlight its central importance in a patriarchal society. Issues such as welfare rights, the right to self-determination, and the right to education are also part of the human rights package.

Women activists do discuss these issues often enough within the movement, but the choice to focus on sexual violence is simply because the victims of violence are by and large women.

At the same time, women are also the first victims of extreme poverty. In addition, they face discrimination in law and in practice in many countries in the world.

With the provision of ‘reservations' in CEDAW – which allows state parties to not hold themselves accountable on certain grounds – do you think it remains a useful instrument to uphold women's rights? I ask this question especially in the light of most Southern countries, like India, declining from meeting the standards of uniform personal laws, on the basis of the ‘reservations' clause.

Within the international legal framework, no single law is etched in stone. CEDAW was a set of agreements designed to provide security and legal rights for women, at the time it was approved. Over time, however, it became clear that CEDAW needed revisions. CEDAW is fine, but must be revisited to respond to the present needs of women's human rights.

However, the recognition of the fundamental rights in CEDAW is essential to establish a gender-just society.

As far as Southern countries using the ‘reservations' clause more frequently on cultural grounds is concerned – I think that is a flawed assumption – the US has not ratified CEDAW, and it hasn't even signed its Optional Protocol.

There are Southern countries which also do not meet the human rights standards for women set out in CEDAW – but that is not exclusively a third world phenomenon.

IC: How much potential do you think women's rights activism has to wage peace in this era of continuous terror?

SB:Women are half the earth's human population; therefore, their opinion and vote matter. The only thing is to bring them together so that their energies can work to their benefit. Anywhere women have joined hands, they have been victors. The experiences of the group Women in Black in Palestine is a great example. In spite of Iran being a country whose laws discriminate against women, they are at the forefront of rights activism – I am not the only Iranian woman who is fighting against the oppressive policies of the state.

IC: Many feminist and women's groups in India have been advocating for death penalty for the offence of rape. Do you think such a stand defeats the fundamental principles of human rights?

SB:The death penalty contradicts human rights. The logic of punishment is to improve the situation of the criminal, not to take vengeance. As such, no one should be executed; otherwise, he/she will loose the chance to improve his/her lot.

IC: Conceptually, is it useful for human rights advocates to use the singular category of ‘gender' to do rights work? Or do you think it is necessary to look at gender through the intersectional lenses of caste, class, religion, sexuality, ethnicity etc?

Human rights have many facets, all of which need attention and emphasis. No feminist would claim that only sexuality or gender should be a priority, but one must keep in mind that women are among the underprivileged class in most countries around the world.

All feminist issues should be seen as part of the general discourse of equality, and not as a face-off between the sexes. Feminists oppose the cultural norms that hamper equality between humans, including gender equality. We need to fight the dominant patriarchal culture, not men.

Oishik Sircar is a human rights lawyer and activist. Special thanks to Sohrab Mehdavi from Tehran Avenue for translating the interview.

Source : InfoChange
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