Commentary Magazine

Iran Awakening by Shirin Ebadi and Azadeh Moaveni

Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope
by Shirin Ebadi and Azadeh Moaveni
Random House. 256 pp. $24.95

Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer, swam into Western public consciousness in 2003, when she was given the Nobel Peace Prize—the first Iranian to garner a Nobel award and only the fifth Muslim to do so. (The last had been Yasir Arafat.) Although the prize is ostensibly intended for a person who has worked for peace among nations, in this case it was given to celebrate Ebadi’s efforts on behalf of human rights. “She has focused especially,” the citation noted, “on the struggle for the rights of women and children.”

Iran Awakening is Ebadi’s memoir of that struggle, and of others in which she has been engaged. It is co-written by the California-raised Azadeh Moaveni, whose experience as Time magazine’s Tehran correspondent was transformed last year into her own book of reminiscences, Lipstick Jihad. Moaveni’s hand is apparent in the style of this memoir, in its journalistic pacing, and in the facility with which colorful historical sidebars are woven into the narrative. The book is very easy to read. It is also quite troubling.



It is troubling—and eye-opening—in the stories it tells. In March 1970, under the Shah, Ebadi had been appointed a judge at the very young age of twenty-three. Nine years later she was deprived of her position after the revolution of the ayatollahs. Later, a member of her extended family was executed, and she herself was entrapped and arrested when she taped the testimony of a man who presented himself to her as “lebas-shaksi” (a member of the plainclothes paramilitary) come to blow the whistle on his colleagues. In the prologue, Ebadi recalls reading through evidence for a case involving political assassinations ordered by the Ministry of Intelligence and finding her own name on an Iranian-government hit list.

Over the last 25 years, Ebadi has suffered not only gross injuries of this kind but her own share of the myriad petty humiliations visited on ordinary women and minors by the foot-soldiers of the Islamic regime. These we largely learn about not only through the story of her life but also through the cases she has handled as a lawyer.

In one such case, involving two convicted rapist-murderers of a nine-year-old Kurdish girl, the presiding judge became persuaded that the men could not be executed because, by Islamic calculation, the life of each was worth double that of a female or, together, four times that of their victim. So the bereaved parents, in addition to having to leave their village from shame over their late daughter’s lost honor, now had to raise a great deal of money in the judicial effort to get the men hanged. Ruined in the attempt, they were finally driven to madness as one of the prisoners escaped, the case was reopened, the convictions were overturned, the overturning was overturned, the mother was prosecuted for making a scene in court—and so on. Ebadi herself narrowly avoided a ruling of contempt of court when the judge suspected her of not being entirely happy with the Islamic view of law.

The most famous case she mentions is that of Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian photojournalist with Canadian citizenship who was arrested in June 2003 for trying to take pictures outside the notorious Evin prison, jailed, held incommunicado, and then evidently bludgeoned to death. Ebadi took this case on behalf of Zahra Kazemi’s distraught mother, but nothing was achieved in court. “By representing her family,” she writes here rather apologetically, “I wanted to show the world what transpired in Iran’s prisons, and hopefully prevent such careless brutality from repeating itself.” However noble her aim, in practice she was able to generate little or no further publicity in a case already before the world media. The victim, after all, was a prominent person over whom the Canadian government was prepared to make an international incident, yet Iranian “justice” prevailed notwithstanding.



But that brings us to the other ways in which this book is troubling. For one thing, its tone—thanks no doubt to the ghost-writing talents of Azadeh Moaveni—suggests a setting more typical of California than of Iran. Thus, Ebadi’s presentation of her own family history and upbringing is phrased in such a way as to suggest a gauzed exotic charm, diffusing the hard contrast between Persian and American social norms. She emerges as a modern career woman and supermom, packing lunches for her daughters, driving them to school, then banking away meals for the family in the freezer to tide them over while she is in jail. Her husband, among the least-developed characters in the book, is acknowledged for vague moral support.

That is not the least of it. As Iranian commentators have observed in Internet discussions, it is odd that this book, which has appeared only abroad and in English, should have been accepted at face value by so many Western critics and readers, and odder still that its author should be lionized in the West as a feminist mold-breaker. The reason for the oddity is that Shirin Ebadi, modern career woman or no, vehemently insists on strict obedience to the Iranian authorities, and opposes civil disobedience in principle.

As she herself admits, Ebadi is provided with bodyguards by the state. This is done, she explains, as much to keep track of her as to guarantee her safety. But the fact is key to understanding her special relationship with authority in Iran. As the stories in her book make only too clear, most Iranians who entertain anything like the views Ebadi expounds for Western consumption have a tendency to disappear into jails, or to become dead. The natural question, so obvious that even her admirers sometimes ask it, is: “Why are you still alive?”

Her book answers this question only indirectly. Ebadi was, to repeat, a female judge in the days of the bad old Shah. In 1978-79, as push came to shove, she provided an important service to the Iranian revolution by publicly taking the side of Ayatollah Khomeini. The fact that such a prominent woman jurist was comfortable with Khomeini’s Islamist proposals made a difference. It helped win over many Iranian women who might otherwise have feared that, if Khomeini came to power, they would be made into chattel.

So the revolution owed Ebadi, big. It repaid her in its own way by stripping her of her judgeship—since she was, after all, only a woman—and offering her instead a junior clerkship in the court over which she had formerly presided. Declining the crumb, she disappeared from public life and then resurfaced years later as a human-rights advocate, seeking relief for her clients mainly by proposing less stringent interpretations of Islamic law in court. The book is vague about the results of her interventions in the courts, but we are left to assume that she lost most of her cases, and nowhere does she claim that she has made a difference in the way the regime functions.

After 1997, Ebadi became associated with the mild reformist faction of President Khatami, whom we now tend to see as a kind of Iranian version of the late-1960’s Czech leader Alexander Dubcek—a man the ayatollahs installed to give Islamism a “human face.” But whatever influence she had seems to have disappeared with his; in the book she mentions almost nothing she did in President Khatami’s second term or has done in President Ahmadinejad’s first—since, that is, Islamism has been restored without the human face.

And yet she survives and is allowed to write. Why? It helps to attend to her equivocations. She is forthright, for example, in admitting the limitations of the judicial system from a woman’s point of view—her court testimony is worth half the value of a man’s, just as her very life is worth half that of a man. But by consistently attributing the laws that discriminate against women not to Islam but to what she calls “patriarchy,” she is able to escape the charge that she opposes the state religion. She further protects herself with frequent declarations of Islamic faith, and timely expostulations of “Allah akbar!

There is more, of a similar nature. In Iran Awakening, Ebadi supplies the ayatollahs with arguments that cleverly insinuate a moral equivalence between them and lesser human evils. Thus, she grants, it is true that they have made their revolution on women’s bodies by forcing them to wear the chador. But, in the 1920’s and 30’s, did not Reza Shah make his modernizing revolution on women’s bodies by telling them their chadors should be discarded? At a deeper level, she seldom mentions the bands of informers and plainclothed thugs who enforce the finer points of Islamic rule without making a cross-reference to Savak—the late Shah’s secret police. It is a comparison that can only flatter the ayatollahs.

Thanks to her reputation as a maverick, Ebadi has made herself useful to the ayatollahs in other ways as well—for instance, by co-signing an op-ed in the New York Times damning the Bush administration’s rhetoric toward Iran and warning that it could be used as a pretext for a crackdown on human rights. She speaks of “friendship between the Iranian and American peoples” while missing no opportunity to recite the standard litanies against American “imperialism.” When, however, it comes to the ayatollahs’ seizure of the U.S. embassy hostages in 1979, suddenly it is time to “forgive and forget.” And so forth.



Admittedly, one can go too far in noting these little public deceits that have made Ebadi’s life possible since 1979. Even reading between the lines, we catch glimpses of the bold and spirited woman she keeps reminding us she is. In this connection it is useful again to recall the twilight years of the Communist regimes in Russia and central Europe and the many interesting and complicated characters who survived them. Anyone who did not live in that time and place is in no position to judge what compromises such people made, or what they hoped to achieve, in trying to “change the system from within.” One can only praise them for having helped to magnify the internal contradictions that finally brought down the Berlin Wall.

What does Ebadi think she is trying to do? The closest I could find to a summary credo is in a passage recalling her thoughts on a plane ride back to Tehran from Paris after learning she had won the Nobel Prize:

In the last 23 years, from the day I was stripped of my judgeship to the years doing battle in the revolutionary courts of Tehran, I had repeated one refrain: an interpretation of Islam that is in harmony with equality and democracy is an authentic expression of faith. It is not religion that binds women, but the selective dictates of those who wish them cloistered. That belief, along with the conviction that change in Iran must come peacefully and from within, has underpinned my work.

It is through this portal that Ebadi’s “testament” must be received. But are her goals the right ones, and are they achievable? Can an expressly Islamic political order be made to deliver equality, or democracy, or women’s most basic rights? And if so, can such an order evolve naturally in Iran? I find each of these aspirations pie-in-the-sky; but I must assume Ebadi sincerely embraces them. She does no harm by ineffectually struggling for justice within Iran. But she can do no lasting good, either. As with those who tried to change Communism from within, her star is hitched to the system, and her work to humanize a fanatical tyranny will be obviated when it falls, brought down by others.


About the Author

David Warren, a columnist and commentator for the Ottawa Citizen, reviewed Iran Awakening by Shirin Ebadi in the October 2006 COMMENTARY.

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