AN AWAKENING: SHIRIN EBADI
AND THE IRANIAN WOMEN’S MOVEMENT
In the 1920’s and 1930’s, women were first allowed to attend universities and to study abroad. Education for all women became compulsory in 1944. By mid-century, women’s rights organizations were permitted to organize. Several focused on working to give women the vote. In 1963 their efforts were rewarded when a national referendum conferred voting rights to women as well as the right to run for public office, even though conservative clerics were opposed.
Almost all the progress seen during the previous twenty years washed away. The leaders of the women’s rights movement were discredited. The Family Protection Law of 1975 was annulled as it was counter to Islam. Veiling was made obligatory. Stoning and polygamy returned. Farrokhrou Parsa was executed. The women’s movement in Iran could no longer campaign for yet unrealized rights but had to work just to keep what it had - with little success. Its organization went underground.
Shirin Ebadi, the young, brilliant, progressive judge, was removed from her position and
given secretarial duties in the court where she had been presiding.
Conservative clerics insisted that Islam prohibited women from being judges.
Her law license was also revoked. She was unable to practice law for the next
14 years. She wrote books on the rights and struggles of Iranian women and
children and lectured around the world.
She was first of all a loyal Iranian and a dedicated Muslim. But her philosophy did not preclude questioning the status quo. In her book “Iran Awakening” Shirin says, “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.” By 1994, she was again permitted to practice law. Since then she has been a staunch defender in court of the rights of the oppressed in a society that shows little judicial empathy for the accused.
Shirin continues to travel and lecture, to write books, and to defend the defenseless in Iranian courts. She is frequently at odds with the government, and threats on her life have intensified over the last few years. Even though a courageous fighter, she has been a voice for peaceful regime change in Iran.
But there is good news for the women’s rights movement in Iran today. Female legal consultants have been reintroduced into the court system, Parliament has been petitioned to reform the laws that discriminate against women, court decreed punishments are being reviewed, and universities have initiated women’s studies courses. The movement is finally showing a remarkable and well organized resurgence.