Friday, April 1, 2016

Until We Are Free by Shirin Ebadi

Hardcover, 304 pages Published March 8th 2016 by Random House

Dr. Shirin Ebadi became Iran’s first female judge in 1975 in Tehran. Following the Iranian revolution in 1979, she was demoted and assigned to a secretarial post. She eventually became a defender of human rights for those persecuted by the government, setting up her own Defenders of Human Rights Center in Tehran. In 2003 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for her efforts on behalf of democracy and human rights. This book, written in exile from Iran, is a personal story recounting how the Iranian government reacted to her Nobel win since 2003.

Ebadi says several times in this narrative that she is not an opponent of the state: she is a defender of human rights. She wonders “how Iran’s history might have unfolded differently had Mossadegh not been tripped up by the United States just as he sought to move the country down the path of true independence.” When Ebadi was a law student in the 1960’s, her classes studied the key principles of Islamic sharia, despite the secular government at that time. Ebadi’s daughter, also a law student many years later, learned less than a third of what Ebadi had studied with regard to sharia law, despite the religious nature of the leadership. Ebadi thinks this might be because “well-trained and erudite students would be equipped to argue for fresher and more modern angles and approaches to Islamic law.”

Constant surveillance and persistent attempts by the government to discredit Ebadi’s reputation and stymie her legal work led finally to the government targeting her daughters, husband, sister, and friends by search and seizure in their homes, abusive interrogation sessions, and jail time. All of these attempts at intimidation failed because Ebadi believed that if she stopped her work due to one or another intrusion by the government, her accusers would recognize her weak spot and would intensify their attacks even as she withdrew from the arena. There was nothing for it but to continue. Eventually the government confiscated the passports of her family members, and while she was out of the country attending a seminar just before the 2009 presidential election, brought a case against her. Facing jail in Iran should she return, Ebadi has been residing in Great Britain while continuing her work, every day hoping to be allowed to return to Tehran.

This simply written account of her years of protest is not a screed, but a quiet and insistently-argued call for reason. In detailing the annoyances and illegal attempts to curtail the rights of citizens in Iran, we get the sense of a very well-educated and politically-astute populace who see the limits of their current leadership. The protests during the 2009 election demonstrated that more than a few people felt their votes were not registering when Amadinejad was elected president. As protest, individuals would get on the roof of their apartment buildings and yell out “Alloaho akbar!” often late at night, every night. When Amadinejad called his oppnents ”khas o khasak”, or dust and dirt, a young musician made a music video called “Khas o Khashak” that quickly went viral.

During the final pages of this memoir Ebadi discusses Iranian involvement in the greater Middle East, showing how Iran is doing as every nation ever has: supporting groups when it is in their interest to do so, not out of solidarity or even religious fervor. “What of the massacre of Muslims in Chechnya or the ruthless killing of Uighur Muslims in China? Iran has said little, if anything about these abuses because Russia and China are firm supporters, willing to defend Iran’s nuclear ambitions…”

Ebadi addresses the nuclear agreement signed between the United States and Iran, saying that she has always thought Iran had the right to use nuclear technology for power. Only lately has she learned that nuclear power has significant downsides, especially in a country with a major earthquake fault lying directly beneath it. Upon learning that nuclear power is protested mightily in the U.S., poses dangers like those exhibited at Fukushima in Japan, and will be phased out entirely in Germany by 2022, Ebadi thinks Iran’s leadership should be more aggressive in pursuing renewables, considering their location in the sun spot of the world.

When it came to the 2013 election of the moderate-sounding Hassan Rouhani, Ebadi says it only took until Rouhani had appointed his cabinet for everyone to see just how (not)moderate he was.
“For me, watching from afar, it was a bittersweet moment: Iranian’s demands for free, democratic elections had been so far reduced, their expectations so diminished, that they were gladdened by vote counting that was not fraudulent, in an election process that had vetted candidates so stringently that it could hardly be called a competition.”

And yet Ebani can see the enormous challenges a purported moderate like Rouhani faces in Tehran today, and suggests he might begin with something he can actually tackle, like human rights abuses: late-night raids, confessions extracted through torture, and unofficial detentions. Keep the outmoded and discriminatory laws if necessary, but allow cases to be argued in court at least. There is always “something that needs to be done first” in every list of priorities, but beginning is the real test of leadership.

Iran can be great again, Ebani suggests, if the government would just get out of the way of the citizenry, and allow sects, minorities, and women to contribute, and let freedom ring. Literacy among women in Iran is ninety-nine percent and sixty percent of university graduates are women. Yet the climate for women in Iran is deteriorating by the day, with musicians unable to perform on stage, women civil servants unable to work alongside men, and no women allowed to work in caf├ęs or restaurants in Tehran. A great deal of damage can be done to a society and a country’s future without the full complement of society members able to have their voices heard. You might think that Iranians and Saudis were closest of friends from their policies, rather than arch rivals. Whoever figures out first that diversity makes for resilience, and acts on it, wins.


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